Over de grens

Across the border with Maartje Theunissen: from intern on Curaçao to Sports Operations Manager at the Olympics in Tokyo

In ‘Over de grens’ (translation: ‘Across the border’) we talk to women who have left the Netherlands to pursue their careers abroad. Today, Emma talks to Maartje Theunissen who decided to move to Australia with her husband. Before embarking on this adventure, she worked for Sportbedrijf Arnhem, went to Costa Rica and on her return to the Netherlands started working for the Dutch Basketball Federation (NBB). Meanwhile, Maartje has been living in Brisbane for about nine years and she recently became project manager performance support at the Queensland Academy of Sport (QAS), the umbrella sports organisation of the state of Queensland where the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held in 2032. An interview about her role during the Tokyo Olympics, cultural differences and an unexpected career as a professional goalkeeper.

What was your study period like?
During my study Sport, Health and Management in Groningen, I did my third year internship at Sportbedrijf Arnhem (part of the municipality of Arnhem that is responsible for sports). Here I got the task to write the subsidy application for VWS for the programme Buurt, Onderwijs en Sport (BOS). An application of half a million euros with the aim of promoting the connection between the three stakeholders. As I was born and raised in Arnhem, it was a unique experience close to my heart. In my fourth year, I moved to the Caribbean to do a six-month internship in Curacao with the Netherlands Antillean Football Union (NAVU). During that period I was selected as goalkeeper for the national team and we played the CONCACAF qualification matches in Aruba for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2007. A fantastic experience to be able to play these international matches. After completing my studies, I was immediately able to start working in the Netherlands at two gymnastics clubs and Sportbedrijf Arnhem to implement the BOS programme.

I have a nice story about that period as goalkeeper of the Antillean national team; during my internship I mentioned that I had been a goalkeeper for years, but nothing was done about it. Until I had to talk to my supervisor, who was also the manager of the team, and who was standing on the field with the selection team. While I was walking towards him, a ball flew in my direction and I neatly grabbed it out of the air. Then they suddenly realised that I was really a goalkeeper. So the next morning a special training was organised and in the afternoon I was on the plane on my way to Aruba! Really bizarre to go from nothing to a top-class sports environment. An unforgettable experience! And as a bonus, a year later I was flown in again for a number of international matches.

So you did your internship at NAVU, worked at two gymnastics clubs and when you came back from Costa Rica you started working at the basketball federation. Where does this passion for different sports come from?
When I was still in primary school, I already loved to try out all kinds of sports. At that time you had the ‘Sport Wijs’ booklet, with which you could attend a number of trial lessons at different sports. I thought that was fantastic! When I was very little, I started with judo, later I played badminton and finally I ended up with football. I remember well that I cycled alone to the first training and ended up in a changing room with only boys. At one point, the coach asked: “Are there still people who want to join the goalkeeping training?’’ I raised my hand, because even then I wanted to try everything out. Before I knew it, I was standing in the goal with some other boys who already had a few years of experience. I kept up with the boys immediately, the goalkeeper coach thought it was fantastic! That is how I started with goalkeeping. When a club in the region started a girls’ team, I became their goalkeeper. Via the talent days of the Dutch Football Federation (KNVB), I ended up in the selection teams of Arnhem, Gelderland and the eastern part of the Netherlands. That stopped when I was about fifteen, then I found a note on the door of the sports centre saying ‘basketball players wanted’, so I started playing basketball. Playing sports gives me an incredible feeling. It keeps me fit, gives me cognitive skills, useful for everyday life, and the social aspect attracts me enormously. I love trying new things and am fascinated by the similarities between different sports.

After your studies, you started working for Sportbedrijf Arnhem, a job in sport that you dreamed of. Why did you then moved to Costa Rica?
That is a good question. During the time that I worked for the municipality of Arnhem, I met my current husband. We both always wanted to go to Australia, but a permanent visa is not easy to obtain. He was from Rotterdam, I from Arnhem, so the question was: where are we going to live? A ski season in America seemed like a good idea to us. After being accepted through a telephone interview, we decided to go to Costa Rica to learn the Spanish language. Nice and tropical and convenient as many Spanish speakers work in the ski resort. Then we would travel on to Canada to see what adventure we could embark on there. When we settled in Costa Rica, we were told that the organisation had made a mistake with the visa and we could not enter the USA. So we stayed in Central America.

Until the moment we received an e-mail that we had a chance to obtain an Australian visa. And to be eligible for that, we had to return to the Netherlands immediately.

At that time, through networking, I came into contact with the sports manager of the Dutch Basketball Federation. They could not offer me a job at that time, but were open to an interview as I wanted to share my knowledge. Not much later, I was told that I had to take on a three-month project. I did not want to be told that twice. Because the programme was so successful, it was extended and the new programme ‘Be a Basketball STAR’ was born. NOC*NSF awarded half a million euros to further develop it and with that I could implement my vision. A vision based on what I already thought was important as a child: the values that sport brings and the skills you learn that you can apply in everyday life. During sports, you are asked to learn skills that you cannot avoid.  You learn to persevere, to deal with difficult situations, and that by joining forces you can achieve unprecedented results. A great way to get to know yourself while having fun together.

Just like during my internship in Curaçao, something special happened during my time at the basketball association. The coach of the national wheelchair basketball team organised a clinic for us on a team-building day. During the clinic, I was asked whether I had an injury that was serious enough to qualify as a wheelchair basketball player. I had accidentally sustained an injury playing football. Before I knew it, I was offered to train with the Dutch team. Two weeks of preparation for the London Games was quite an experience! Training, eating, sleeping, training and on and on. That period had such an impact on me. Not only because of the sport itself, but also because of the way people treated each other. I immediately felt included in the team, even though it was not yet certain whether I would qualify and it was a totally new sport for me. In the end, my injury was not severe enough, but this experience will stay with me all my life. It was very special to see the Dutch women’s team win gold at the last Games in Tokyo.

”When I arrived in Brisbane, it turned out that it was a lot harder to get into the sports world than I had expected”

Despite this great job at the basketball association, you decided to go to Australia.
That’s right, our visa was finally approved after almost three years. But we were both in the places we wanted to be in, so that made the decision very difficult. Still, it remained our dream and I had full confidence in it: what we have been able to build here, we can also build there. This meant that we had to start again from scratch. When I arrived in Brisbane, it turned out that it was a lot harder to get into the sports world than I had expected.

What do you think that is?
There is a big difference between the different states and cities here. Sydney and Melbourne are more European and Brisbane is more laid back, still a ‘town’. Although it is a city of millions, the fact that everybody knows eachother, doesn’t make it easy. It’s a perfect place for holidays, but when it comes to work, you just don’t get around. Also the English language was not my strongest point at that time. But that was one of the reasons why I wanted to live in an English-speaking country.

At some point, the GC2018 Commonwealth Games were awarded to Brisbane. After endless applications, it worked out: I was interviewed for a role as ‘sports admin’. I thought it was about basketball, but the interview turned out to be with basketball and shooting managers. On my CV, I had listed all the sports I had ever done and shooting was one of them. After my job interview they even offered me a higher position. So I started working as a Sport Operations Manager Shooting and found my way back into sports.

So if you have to give someone a tip for getting such a nice job, you have to show that you have done a lot of sports.
(Laughs) I don’t know. But you have to keep going for what makes you happy. Because the moment you do, the right energy is released and you are seen. So keep choosing the things that give you pleasure. It is not always the easiest way, but it is the best way in the long run.

Going on the road, having adventures and discovering other countries, is that something you had experienced from an early age?
Sure, my parents always took us everywhere. We didn’t have a car, so we had to go everywhere by bicycle. And there were four of us at home, so if you wanted something, you had to take care of it yourself. That’s what we were brought up to do. As far as sports were concerned, my parents were not very involved with sports. And then as a little girl, choosing for the then boys’ sport of football didn’t make it any easier. So you get a lot of useful life lessons.

How did you end up at the Olympics?
After the Commonwealth Games, the organisation that manages the shooting range offered me a job. As a programme manager, I initiated new sports programmes, as I had done before at the basketball association. I saw the need of people like me who do not know much about the sport but are interested in it. The programme GIVEITASHOT became a great success. While I was working on this, I heard through my connections that the sports manager in Tokyo, who was the technical delegate at the Commonwealth Games, wanted me on his team. I then applied directly to TOCOG, Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. There I started working as Sports Operations Manager, just like during the Commonwealth Games.

What was it like to be there? Normally you watch it on television and now you were there yourself.
It was very special, of course! And then to realise that at that moment you are the only one with that function in the whole world.

Initially, I was supposed to get on a plane at the beginning of 2020, but because of Covid, things took a different turn. I even had to wait and see if I would be allowed to go at all; TOCOG started to remove all positions for which international people had been appointed. In the end, only a handful of positions remained that they could not eliminate because of the specific knowledge required. And I was among them! I can’t even describe what it’s like to be there a year later as Sports Operations Manager. You are directly among the best athletes in the world, but somehow it made me feel even more to be among all the best organisational people in the world.

Through the different teams like Ceremonies, Press, TV, Doping etc. there were international colleagues present, but our direct sports team was, with the exception of my boss and me, was all Japanese. Just like all the volunteers and the NTOs (National Technical Officials) we coordinated.

So you worked mainly with the Japanese, is that cooperation different because of the different cultures?
Unbelievably so! They work with a hierarchical structure, so when a decision had to be made, it had to be taken through all layers. You can imagine that this is a lengthy process in a rapidly changing environment. Not always easy. It does lead to frustration when things have to be done immediately and then it takes hours or even days of meetings to do so. As the Games progressed, you saw this change in a positive sense.

There was a great atmosphere. The volunteers were fantastic and really did what was asked of them. They are so friendly and the rules are strictly observed, which created a very safe environment. Especially in times of Covid.

The interesting thing about these Games was that there was only a short time to get to know each other before the Games started. Everyone comes from a different culture with different customs. So you have to learn very quickly how to get along with each other and understand each other’s roles and responsibilities. The difference between the first day and the last day was immense. You learn from each other and become a very close team in a very short time.

”Where others step away as soon as it becomes too difficult, I don’t give up. I keep going until it’s solved”

What qualities have brought you to positions like your role at the Olympics?
Certainly my enthusiasm and the insights I bring. I have worked and lived in several countries with different cultures and have worked for several organisations at different levels. This allows you to develop a certain way of looking at things, which enables you to approach situations from different angles. But my go-getter mentality also contributes to this: don’t just talk about it, it has to be done. Where others step away as soon as it becomes too difficult, I don’t give up. I keep going until it’s solved.

”Who would go from safe Queensland to Tokyo in the middle of a pandemic when you don’t know if you can go back home afterwards?”

When you look back on everything you have done, what are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the fact that I always throw myself in the deep end and trust that I will come out of it. This confidence in my own abilities always gets me into great situations. Who would go from safe Queensland to Tokyo in the middle of a pandemic when you don’t know if you can go back home afterwards? Yet I always trust that I will make it back home. These are opportunities that only come along once in a lifetime.

If you had to give a tip to someone who also wants to embark on a foreign adventure, what would it be?
Stick to your strengths and look closely at where your strengths lie. Try to communicate that, because a lot happens through the network you create. So don’t hold back, it’s okay to say what you’re good at. I’ve never had much trouble with that, but I know there are people who don’t feel so confident. There are always things you are confident in, so use that.

Have you thought about your role in the 2032 Games in Brisbane?
I definitely want to be there, but I’m still looking at how. To understand the possibilities, my plan is to have conversations with people already active in this field. I am also interested in what else the world of sport has to offer internationally. During the Games in Tokyo, the conversations I had with highly experienced sports leaders gave me insight into a world that was not yet on my radar. Now that I have had a taste of this experience, I am very curious about what else is out there.

What motto is central to your life?
Live life, take action.

In addition, the two weeks of quarantine led me to a new motto: Plant the seeds to grow the tree you want to climb and feed it with love.

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