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‘A Man Believes What He Wants To Believe’
Dutch Olympic Gold Medal-Winning Swimmer — And Cancer Survivor — Maarten van der Wiejden Will Talk About Diet Variation, Vegetables And A Vision Of Belief At The Amsterdam Produce Show

When the Pundit Poppa was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, we wrote a piece titled, Never Tell Me the Odds: One Man, One Disease, One Battle.

After a brave fight, he was to die, and we wrote about his passing here.

So, we are always personally engaged in the story of cancer survivors. And when they are young people, who go on to have families, we remember Dad, who underwent an experimental immunotherapy and, he told us that he knew it might not work for him, but he hoped that the therapy might develop with time and pave the way for others to live, to work, to find love, to get married, have children and grandchildren – all the things he had been fortunate enough to experience.

So, when we had the opportunity to have Maarten van der Wiejden, winner of the Gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, speak to our industry about his battle with cancer and how he lives his life today, we leapt to have him be part of our event.

We asked Samina Virani, Contributing Editor to Pundit sister publication, to find out more:

Maarten van der Weijden
Olympic Gold Medalist
Cancer Survivor

Q: Olympic gold medalist, cancer survivor, a fighter and achiever… you have such a moving and inspiring story. Let’s talk first about swimming: How did you get into the water the first time and what pushed you to deep dive into professional swimming?

A: Well, my dad thought sport was a good preparation for life. When I was quite young, around 6 or 7 years old, he suggested that I take part in all different types of sports like judo, soccer, and volleyball. The strange thing was that I hated it. I can be a bit lazy as well. The only reason I enjoyed to swim was because I was a better swimmer than my sister. That’s why I started swimming. Of course, that’s not the right motivation to end up at a professional level and to win Olympic gold. I think I was swimming because people around me thought it was the best thing to do, and it was the easiest thing to do.

When I was diagnosed with leukemia at 19 years old, I started to think about my life, my childhood, about setting goals and about trying to achieve those goals. At first, I thought life shouldn’t be about trying to set goals and trying to achieve those goals because that cannot be the essence of life. So I promised myself that if I had the luck to recover, I would live every day as my last day. I did that for 3 days and then it was so boring because if you live your life every day as if it’s the last day, it’s the same. I noticed that, for me, setting goals and trying to achieve those goals is the essence of life. And since I was a good swimmer before getting cancer, I started swimming again.

Q: What were those 3 days like? What were you doing?

A: Well I wasn’t fit at all. I had just had those chemotherapy sessions. If I was able to sit for 5 minutes a day, it was quite a lot. So, I was just being lazy again, and waking up, opening the curtains and trying to see the sunrise. The first day was alright, the second day was the same as the first day, and the third day was really boring.

Q: What in general inspires you and energizes you?

A: What energizes me is thinking about what I want to achieve. Nowadays, I’m doing a lot of volunteer work. I will do a 200 km swim next year — what’s called the 11-city tour. There is a very famous speed skating event in The Netherlands, and it hasn’t been on for 20 years because of global warming, so I decided to swim it. It amounts to 200 km in 3 days, and it is to raise lots of funds for cancer research.

Q: Have you done something like that before?

A: No never. The furthest I swam was for 24 hours, covering 99 kms. So, this 200 km will more than double that. For me, what is really driving me is that I had the luck to recover from cancer. With the voluntary work I’m doing, I meet a lot of patients who tell me that they will not have the luck to recover. That really hurts me. I have had the luck to recover. It feels a little bit unfair. Why did I have the luck, and a lot of other patients do not have that luck?

For me, it’s about bad luck and good luck, so I feel so grateful. It feels very good to use that energy to swim a lot and to raise a lot of funds for cancer research.

Q: After hearing your Ted talk, the phrase that keeps resonating is “a man believes what he wants to believe.”  Tell me how this came to you.

A: I questioned why people always talk about the hospital and talk about fighting and positive thinking and about what a patient should do. No one is talking about being lucky, and no one is talking about having bad luck. Everybody likes to think that we are the masters of our destiny, and, of course, we are not. Of course, it’s a nice way of man believing what he wants to believe. It’s a nicer thought to think that we are in control of our destiny and that we can achieve everything we want. However, for certain people it is not a nice thing to think, especially for those people who know they will not survive cancer. I feel their pain and often meet them, and that made me realize that I didn’t survive cancer because of my own doing. I was just lucky.

Q: Your first-hand experience makes what you are saying so powerful.

A: I really believe in that. In life, we all have goals and wishes. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we do not. Of course, we are taught that if we don’t succeed in our dreams, we look at ourselves and we ask ourselves what we did wrong. However, the reason why we didn’t exceed our dreams can be because we had bad luck. To always think about what we did wrong can cause a lot of frustration and that is not very helpful.

Q: Do you think some foods or the way we eat can evoke positive thinking?

A: Foods and the way we eat can contribute to a happier life. Of course. It can contribute to a nice lifestyle and to live the life we want. However, I have trouble with this too. It’s not fair to say that people who were diagnosed with cancer ate something wrong. There’s no blame thing in there. Of course, healthy food, lots of vegetables, fruits, and lots of variation is very important.

Q: We’d love to get some insights about how to eat well and what has worked for you: What does your daily routine look like?

A: My daily routine is that I start to eat quite a lot in the morning and then in the afternoon. In the evening, I eat less. My swimming practice is always in the morning so I need lots of energy for that. For me, it’s mainly about variation and having lots of fruits and vegetables.

Q: Are there any foods that you like or dislike?

A: No, not really. With the variation concept, there are not really things that I don’t eat. I love to eat a nice pasta with vegetables and blue cheese. Sometimes I enjoy drinking some wine. It should be about enjoyment. For me, that’s the main thing.

Q: Has the formula for you changed over the years?


A: When I won Olympic Gold in 2008, I was eating a lot because I was training for 7 hours a day. I was eating lots of bread and lots of pasta. Nowadays, I eat a lot less. But still, it’s about variation and vegetables.

Q: Yes we are definitely interested in the way that nutrition plays into performance. Would you agree or disagree that the way you eat deeply affects your performance as an athlete?

A: Of course, it does. It plays a huge role in how fit you are and what your physical capabilities are.

When I was a professional swimmer, I was not drinking alcohol nor going to McDonald’s. Nowadays, I have two daughters so there is a bit more ability for that.

Q: Are there any fruits or vegetables that you would say enhance your performance?

A: Oranges, apples, bananas. That kind of stuff.

Q: When you go to the supermarket, what does a weekly shopping basket look like for you?

A: We order online so that’s a lot easier to then have some time left for the family. However, this morning I had been swimming for two hours, so then I went to the grocery store and took some coffee and nuts, and some soft fruits and yoghurts.

Q: Do you think the supermarkets inform you enough about the fruits and vegetables that you buy? About local produce, labeling etc?

A: I’m not sure. I worked for Unilever for 5 years. I’m not sure if the informing part is the retailer’s responsibility. It’s not what they really do. It’s more the fast-moving consumer companies that try to inform. However, I think we do have some retailers that talk about bananas and potatoes coming from local farmers and they try to tell you that story a bit. In a shop, people are just in a hurry, and they just put what they need in a shopping basket and go.

For myself, the time that I do spend is more about preparing a late breakfast and enjoying that, and having some time to enjoy the day. I do not spend lots of times informing myself about food because I really believe in simply having vegetables, fruit, and a varied diet. In foods, you have lots of hypes, and I think, for me, it doesn’t work to go into those hypes too often.

Q: How did your career take you to Unilever?

A: I was working in finance. It was one of the goals I wanted to achieve because I wasn’t enjoying doing sports anymore. I had already won the Olympic Gold and I had nothing to challenge me. At Unilever, I was challenged. I was financially responsible for laundry products and dishwashing liquid. I worked for Unilever in Jakarta for half a year and it was really fun.

For me, I really like being challenged and being in the swimming pool; it’s hard for me to be challenged again. It’s easier to be challenged at a company like Unilever.

However, now I spend more time swimming again because of my challenge to do the 200 km next year.

Q: The next project in the pipeline is this big swim then. How did your charity work start in general?

A: I’ve been doing volunteer work for the Dutch Cancer Foundation since 2004, especially all swimming-related things. In 2004, I swam the Ijsselmeer, which is a 23 km lake in the middle of The Netherlands. I raised 30,000 Euros for that, and after my Olympic Gold, I did lots of swims to raise money for cancer. Recently, I’ve begun my own foundation, The Maarten van der Weijden, and my 200km swim is part of that project.

Q: Can other people get involved with that project?

A: Yes, what we are trying to achieve is that in each of the 11 cities that I swim across, we want 1000 people to join in. They can swim 500m or 2000m. That local swimming event in each city starts when I cross that city. We hope that 11,000 swimmers will join me.

Q: Finally, any favorite restaurants you recommend? What type of food do you eat when you go out?

A: We were just on the beach with the family for a couple of days and I really enjoyed eating fried fish, french fries and salad. Looking at my children enjoy that food too was nice. Well, for a few times a year, eating this food is okay. I’m not promoting my children to eat fries and fried fish, but when on the beach for a holiday, this is okay.

My favorite food is the French cuisine, but I also enjoy eating Middle-Eastern food — last week I went to an Afghan restaurant — and Asian food.


Maarten van der Wiejden’s comment about cancer and his recovery — what’s called the 11-city tour. There is a very famous speed certainly humble of him to say it. But it is not the whole truth.

True enough, there are many people who drastically overstate the impact individuals can act to, say, cure their own cancer. It is a terrible thing to do because it implies that people who fail to cure their cancer were somehow at fault.

First, the amount of misunderstanding or incorrect information out there is enormous, so some people think they are doing something smart and wind up hurting themselves. As brilliant a man as Steve Jobs, when diagnosed with an unusual form of pancreatic cancer, responded by postponing medical treatment to go on a fruitarian diet,and the delay in his treatment might well have contributed to his death.

Second, people have received serious cancer diagnosis are asked to make important decisions at a time when they are emotionally vulnerable and often not thinking straight.

Third, decisions are multi-faceted and, depending on life-stage, financial situations, etc., many people make decisions not solely to help themselves but with the thinking of the impact of their decisions on loved ones.

Still, the interaction between the human will and survival is complex:

On the prevention side, although we can no more say that you will not get cancer if you eat a healthy diet than we can say you will not get cancer if you do not smoke cigarettes, we can say that the evidence is overwhelming that certain behaviors increase or decrease the likelihood of illness.

Deciding to eat well, exercise appropriately, maintain a healthy weight, etc. — what’s called the 11-city tour. There is a very famous speed are not a matter of luck; they are conscious choices. And even when stricken by a disease like cancer, one’s personal choices can impact the likelihood of recovery.

It starts with monitoring and screening.  Is a woman getting the recommended mammograms?  Are people over 50 getting colonoscopies? Again, following these recommendations are choices that can result in early detection, which increases the likelihood of a cure. That is not the same as luck.

And even when being treated, there are lots of decisions people make that impact the likelihood of success. Where to go for treatment, how aggressive to act, on and on.

There also is most certainly the matter of personal will and discipline. When the Pundit Poppa was being treated for leukemia, we did a stem cell transplant with cells from his identical twin brother.

The procedure took an hour, but the recovery took a year. There were countless hours walking laps around the hospital floor, blowing in a spirometer making the ball rise. There were people who didn’t do it – and they didn’t get well.

There was also a willingness to defer gratification and follow instructions. A stem cell transplant involves first destroying the immune system, then building it back, but during that process one is very vulnerable. You have to go a year before you can have immunization, so for that year, you are like a baby without immunizations. With an impaired immune system, one is vulnerable in a way that one would not normally be.

So, patients are advised to avoid many things. No fresh fruits or vegetables, for example, because the pathogens that would give a normal person with a developed immune system a stomach ache could kill a person with such a compromised immune system.

And they should avoid public places. There was a young man who also had a stem cell transplant and, feeling healthy, though with a compromised immune system still, couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the rules. He went out clubbing, caught something and died.

So, our impact on our health and our ability to recover is most decidedly impacted by our own behaviors.

But there may well be more to it than that. We once wrote a piece about Tiger Woods and how the mind impacts performance. You can see that piece here.

And Dr. Robert Stovecik, who at the time was President of PrimusLabs, sent us a letter that referred to the fact that somehow both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Here is his letter:

I love science but sometimes those of us with a Ph.D. and/or an M.D. are just full of ourselves.

I think that Dr. Sloan would benefit from reading some of Viktor Frankl’s accounts of the will to survive in Holocaust victims.

Then again, in part we might measure the level, quality and/or attitude of caregivers toward positively disposed individuals or ones with loving attentive families.

I always thought it a bit beyond chance that Jefferson and Adams both died on July 4th, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Exclusively a statistical anomaly, really!

Humans are the “Ultimate Resource” in even more ways than Julian Simon intended.

—Robert Stovicek
Santa Maria, California

So, come to the Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference and meet one of the more inspiring people of our times, and join the discussion about what motivates performance.

You can register for the event here.

If you need a hotel room, let us know here.

And a few sponsorship and exhibit opportunities remain – so if you are interested, let us know here.

We look forward to seeing you at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference.

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