E64 - Jan Achterberg, Former Long Track Speed Skater
E64 - Jan Achterberg, Former Long Track Speed Skater

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Jan is a former long track and marathon speed skater, now working for Next Move Sports Ministries in the Netherlands. Jan decided to retire from skating at 22 because he struggled to connect his Christian faith with his passion for sport, yet now he helps top-level athletes to think through how they can combine faith in Christ with competing at the top level of sport.


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Jonny Reid: Great. Well, welcome to the Christian Sport podcast. I've got John Achterberg with me. I think he's our first Dutch athlete on the podcast and yet is with us because it's winter. It's a big cold here in England and Yann knows all about that. He was a former professional long track speed skater, took part in ice skating marathons. Will share more of the story as we go on.Jan Welcome. Great to have you with us.

Jan Achterberg: Yeah, great to be here.

Jonny Reid: And now in the lead, it's an interview I normally drop on a message, drop an email, and just get you to give me your own sporting background. And you replied to me, You said that you skated professionally for two seasons until you're 22. Then you decided to retire because you refound your Christian faith and you are struggling to bring your sport in your face together. Tell me that story.

Jan Achterberg: Well, that's not a short story.

Jonny Reid: We've got time.

Jan Achterberg: Yeah. Yeah. Good. No, it's. It was sort of like that. So I was about 22, 23, and I think a year before. So I've been raised Christian. But as soon as I really got into the skating career sort of sense and traveling or, or growing towards a professional career, in that sense, I, I sort of didn't see the value of my faith in sports.

So I would say I always was a Christian, but I didn't really sort of felt the need to be doing anything with my faith. And through a series of events and an injury that got me some time to to go back to church with my parents and some friends that I had there, I sort of found my faith.

And then I figured, yeah, this is still important to me, my faith and and I want to start living more like a Christian. But then going back to back into sports, it was just like an all consuming thing, taking up all my time, not going, being able to go to church anymore because I was racing on Sundays or Saturday evenings and I was struggling there.

And then I was trying to find people who could help me just like, how does this work? And basically within the circles where I was at, like in the Christian communities, the only advice was, Hey, this is one other speed skater that doesn't do races on Sunday. And I was I was like this this man is is out of his mind because all important races were on Sundays.

And so I was like, that doesn't work for me. But then at one point I, I sort of I, I, I got to the point of like in summer when, when it was like off season. And then there was talks about that they wanted to change the competitions to mostly Saturday evenings to always on Sunday mornings. And I sort of realized like, hey, this will really be a problem if I want to be Christian and an athlete.

And so I was struggling that and there were some other things, you know, it's I was really young and trying to decide what I wanted with my life and still needed to finish a bachelor's degree, which I was already taken too long for. So it was not only but I was like, If I want to be serious with my faith, I think I need to take a break from sports.

So that was always the struggle in my the feeling was that sports and faith was either it was always a choice. It was not it's not something you could bring together, but like you either choose for sports or for, say, it makes sense.

Jonny Reid: Makes yeah, it makes sense whether it would dig into that. Tell me about tell me about your injury then let's go back a little bit. So you said your injury was quite important and you kind of re finding your faith. Yeah. Tell us a bit about that. Yeah.

Jan Achterberg: It wasn't like super serious, but it was, It just over the summer, it took me out a few weeks or like two months. And in that period, some friends of mine were planning a, like a missionary outreach trip to Malawi, Africa. And they said, Well, hang on, why don't you join us? And I was like, okay, sounds like a good adventure.

I'm not able to train as much. So let's go. So then I went there and I remember that the missionary guy there, I had really good conversations with him, so he sort of showed me that there was a relevance to faith and church within society. The way he was doing his ministry was really serving the local community through the church, and it was really an eye opening thing for me, that church and Christianity had a relevance in normal society.

So that's probably where I sort of figured, Hey, that faith thing that I still have is should be more important to me. yeah.

Jonny Reid: Tell me about a bit more about people listening. May not know much about speedskating, ice skating in general. What do you need to be good and what's the things you really love about it?

Okay, yeah. So skating, ice skating, What do you need to be good at? It's a very technical sport, so it's it's it helps if you start at a young age and just learn, learn the techniques. And then you need to be, you know, you need to have like strong legs and depending on your endurance capabilities, you go either go for the short sprinting distances or the longer distances.

So it in my case would be the long distance. So the longest Olympic distances are the five in the ten K for men, and these are all individual races. And so the time is important and not the position you finish and yeah, I think the beauty of it is it's just it's, it's a balance between being physically very fit and then the technique.

But when, when you when you're able to combine them and make them perfect or something then, then you're, you feel like you're gliding over the ice. So to sideways motion that propels you forward. So and then, then the gliding phase is the I've heard a person once say it's the beautiful, the most beautiful way of moving forward. And I totally agree.

Jonny Reid: But is it is it fair to say it's a it seems to be a national obsession. We are just reading literally today. Some people may have seen it in the UK on BBC Sports, there's one of the toughest sporting events in the world which has taken part. It's taken place four times in the last 100 years or so. Tell us about that. And this is your dream, by the way, to take part of this.

Jan Achterberg: Yeah, yeah. It's my dream and my my pain in my heart as well. But yeah, so it's called 11 Cities. It's in the north of the Netherlands. It's a it's a race that goes over natural ice. So you're right, lakes and canals. So it only happens when the winters really are really cold and that, you know, global warming doesn't happen as much as it did before.

And then it's a 200 K race. So you just have a 200 K mastered race. So it's like it's like cycling. But then on ice you have a peloton on and you just race and whoever gets there first is a legend for life. That's basically what this is. Yeah.

Jonny Reid: And you telling me you, you basically because you could get maybe a week's warning weeks when this is taking place and you you pay every year to have the opportunity to take part in a race. You may never get to take part in that right? Yeah.

Jan Achterberg: Yeah, that's true. I mean, even in summers like so this was more like the longer it gets, it's it's better. It suits me better. So I would do marathons also on the the, the ice skating rings. But every summer we would be training like in the in the forest doing speed skating jams and runs and everything. And then, you know, you have these people walking the dogs coming by and they say like, hey guys, what are you doing?

And then we we would be like, you know, winter is coming. We'll be ready. Will be ready. It might come the race might come this winter. So I have to be ready. In a way, it's I always it's as I always say, it's the most and easy comparison to the Christian faith. We don't know when Jesus comes back, but when he comes back, we have to be ready.

It's a mental thing. It's just like a we know that if it comes and if we are ready, you have a shot at becoming a legend, right? So and then you'll be legends for years because it might never come again. So especially for us young guys that would keep us going. And and then next to it, it's just the love of the game or a love of the sport in general.

We love we love the endurance part of it. And this is the most epic thing you, you can think of in sports. So you're sort of always prepared to to training sessions about it. So yeah.

Jonny Reid: I, I've always important to do all that because because obviously if you've been listening in we've got the kind of disjunct so you retired at 20 to saying really my my sport and my faith I don't really go to Cairns I can't compete in the sun has a look like and yet now we're talking about competing. You work for an organization called Next Moves as a strategy leader in in the Netherlands, which looks to equip athletes spiritually sporting past already or working with elite athletes.

And what's changed is probably the obvious question here, which means you now seem to have a different view of kind of sport and faith and how they get together.

Jan Achterberg: Yeah, I think there was this one situation not very long after I sort of retired, which is where if you 22, but I there was this guy, he walked a little bit with me when I, when church was over on a Sunday. And I remember he just came to me and he said, okay, John, I heard you stopped skating.

Jonny Reid: And I said, Yeah, yeah. So and then he said something like, Well, I totally understand because, you know, sports and professional sports and faith, they just don't go together. Right? And I didn't say much to him at that point, but I started thinking about it and I said and I talked to him a little bit later about the same thing.

And I said, Well, the thing you said, actually, if we all believe as Christians that we are made, you know, by God with intention, you know, he made me with a purpose and everything. Then when you say sports and faith don't go together, God in making me as, as as just made a little bit of a joke out of me because I'm clearly made for sports.

I am physically gifted with a lot of sporting abilities. And so if if what you say is true, if within Christianity there's no space for an athlete, then, you know, God is making a little bit of a joke out of my life. And and so he said, so he said to me, I said he said, John, actually, you're right.

And I think I think you should figure this out. You're the athlete. You should figure out how sports and faith go together because what you just said convinced me that I should be able to go together. But we in the Netherlands don't know how. So he put me on that pathway and so I got involved with several sports ministry organizations, started out working for athletes in action here in the Netherlands, and they they really used sports as a tool to connect with communities.

So local communities, churches, going into the neighborhoods, playing sports. And that was fun. So I sort of got a feel about how how sport could go together with faith, but it was still much in a how do you say that evangelistic kind of context. And then at one point I had a conversation with the leader of AA and I said, Hey, my sport still doesn't go together with faith, which was skating.

And then we had a good conversation and he said, we need to figure this out. So he put me on on that job, actually, and, and through various other organizations who have been trying to find answers to these questions, like you guys with Christian in sports. But at least in the U.S., they just helped me find answers.

And now, yeah, no, I'm I'm with another organization called Next Move. And that's is basically my job right now to find these athletes who struggle with the same questions and yeah, teach them.

So what would you do if you met yourself at the age of 22 now? Yeah. What what would you say to you now?

Jan Achterberg: a lot probably. But I think sporting, sporting wise, I would say it's a good question. I would say that if I would say if I would speak to myself, I would say that God is proud of me because I'm doing what he's made me to do.

Jonny Reid: Yeah, talk about talk about church them, because that's that does that is a tension point, isn't it, in the sport. A lot of it takes place on a Sunday. Sunday is generally the day in particularly in the in the West in Europe where where Christians gather to meet to worship God together. Have you kind of how has that conversation moved on in the Netherlands?

What does that look like still to really uphold the real value, We want to say that Christians in sport, that the local church is God's plan for the world. We're all for the local church and we want to work with them, support them, help them in any way we can to but also to to recognize that sport is a is, like I say, a wonderful gift.

And there's probably, at least in the UK, more people playing sport on a Sunday morning than there are in the church schedule. So how have you guys kind of come to think about that a bit more?

Jan Achterberg: That's a good question. So church in general, like you say, it's we believe it's a plan for the world for reaching the world. In that sense, the struggle is that it's always a fixed day and a time. So I always so how has developed for me is like I always say, when when you were in church as a young guy or girl or whatever, and if you have a talent for music, you're so you're good at making music.

Then they will say like, Hey, here's the stage. Go and worship God. And but when you have a talent for sports, they at least in the Netherlands, they will say, Hey, be careful, it might become your idol, right? So there's a there's a tension in how we approach these things. And so I when I look at when I talk to athletes, I always say, hey, worship doesn't only happen inside the church.

So when a person who's good at playing the guitar goes to his bedroom and plays, sings a worship song, that's worship, right? It's not it's not limited to it, to a place. So I believe you can worship God in a sporting environment as well. But then talking about being part of a church, I think especially when you go to sort of the more professional levels, I always talk to them.

So like you need Christian community. So I try to broaden broader, make it a little bit broader definition of church. You know, when when the Bible says where two or three people come together, that's where I am, then that's, you know, where church can start at at least. So I say like, hey, try to find that Christian community that works for you.

And yeah, of course the local church is something I encourage them to go. But you know, if you're here in the city, we have a basketball team they usually play on Sunday. So just attending a church is really struggling, even if they really want to. It's not always possible. So then we try to connect them to either a home group or or whatever place there is Christians meeting.

And so, yeah, just I think it would help from from church perspective if we see church as a little bit more than just a Sunday service. And then then there is a place for athletes to probably to take part in a Christian community.

Jonny Reid: Yeah, no, it's in it's, it's one of those questions where it doesn't feel like there's easy answers. Like, like you say, we weren't always a firm. We were born to play. You've got to made that clear. Your gifts have been given to you by God. And it's an outworking of who we are as people made in the image of that creative God who is giving us talents and and and yet we were made to meet with one another and not just people like us.

The beauty of the church, obviously, is it is young, it's old, it's people like us. People don't like us. Yeah, I'm as a really important surrounds meeting under God's Word together as it's taught together. So the practicing of the sacraments in terms of vouchers and communion and a challenge because particularly in our kind of secular Western culture today, Sunday is just another Saturday.

The rest of the world and that and so there's both a challenge we find for the Christian, too. How do they how do they engage? Well, and it's great, like you say, when churches can have small groups and hug groups and meet 1 to 1 and services at different times, which means people can get there. But there's still a challenge, isn't there, for the the the athlete who's not a Christian yet.

One Sunday is just another day for them. How long have they said it? Well what are some of the other two now is that you work with with a number of professional athletes. What are some of the biggest issues you're finding they're having to deal with today?

Jan Achterberg: Yeah, So I think, church or finding a Christian community is a big challenge for the Christian guys, for the guys who are somewhat outside. I wouldn't call themselves Christians yet it's more like living a thinking about living a holy life. There's a lot of temptations within the world of sports that are considered very normal in the secular context.

And and within Christianity, we say you shouldn't do those things. And then just those things about the like. In general, sports and athletes are very self-focused, self-centered in that sense and making that switched. But then still be competitive in that sense. Those those are the three things I think we talk about. And of course with the Christians, we talk a lot about identity, but that's it's not.

So it is sports related, of course, but it's also for everybody in in any church. Well, it's an important topic probably.

Jonny Reid: And unpack that a little bit for us. When you when you talk about identity, what do you kind of what do you mean and what do you what are you speaking into?

Jan Achterberg: So yeah, just so what where where are you building your identity on so or who do you say you are? And then of course the Bible says says that we are, you know, beloved sons of God. We're loved no matter what. But the sporting world tells us a lot different things. That's mostly focused on how you perform, if you score the goals or not.

And yeah, you're you're only as good as your last performance, basically. So it's always that pressure of performing. And if you believe that you become what you perform, how you perform, then that's a very unstable identity. I mean, it's a very nice identity when everything goes well. But if if you fail or if you get injured or or just have to retire because you're getting old, then that's a potential place where a lot of I know I said that dark thoughts can come up.


Jonny Reid: Yeah. No, it's a it's a real challenge for athletes, isn't it? Particularly They have those moments of, as we often say, sport is kind of 90% failure. Yeah. Particularly, particularly the elite level. And more people walk into the Olympic Games and go home disappointed with a medal, but by like 99%.

Jan Achterberg: And that's even more true in like individual sports. Everybody, you know, you like cyclists or like skaters like me. There's a peloton that always starts. There's like a hundred people and ten out of those 100 people have ever won a race sort of. Right. And you're you're part of some kind of team, but you're serving that one guy that has the potential to win.

And for the most part of your career, you're not that guy. Yeah.

Jonny Reid: How do you deal with that? Because you talk to it's an interesting thing just to unpack a little bit, individual sport team sports that they are similarities but different. Yeah, you've talked a little bit around the pride and competition. How does that play out for for Christian individual sport maybe in a different way than it would in a team sport?

Jan Achterberg: Pride Yeah. So, there's no one else to blame but you in an individual sports. So if you, if you don't get the results, especially in a sports like a time trial time trial sports, skating, if you don't make your times, you're just not good enough. Time is very honest, they say. And so within a team sport, you can sort of say like, Hey, we didn't win the game.

But my defender didn't do his job right. Whatever. Right. Or you can say like, next time, or we as a team have to get together or whatever. With individual sports is, you're the only one to blame. And in most sport. So that can that can build pressure. But also you're the only one that gets the glory if you win.

So it's also it can also build pride. If you're really good, you can feel like I am I am the guy, right? Because I'm beating everybody. And so it's it all comes down more to your own personality and character in an individual sport. So I would say, and yeah, I don't know, it might, you know in large it doesn't it, it doesn't, it doesn't.

It's not that the characters are different within the individuals or team sport, but the, it enlarges a little bit more because it's so much on you I'd say. Yeah.

Jonny Reid: And I it's interesting. Well, as it will come into the lens but you're you're now you've shifted sports in some ways is in related by the sounds that that you're inside ultrarunning. Yeah yeah another endurance sport another long for another individual sports in many ways so now probably what, 1012 years on from when you retired. Yeah. Have you have you found now competing in that as a Christian?

What's been some of the real challenges and some of the real joys of doing that now?

Jan Achterberg: Yeah, Good. So first my first discovery was that sport can be worship. For me personally, that was a big discovery. You know, talking about the the Romans 12 is one that, you know, give your body as a living sacrifice. That really inspired me in a way like, it's it's a physical thing. Worship can be done in sports as well.

And it doesn't it doesn't involve any spiritual feelings or something. I was just doing What God has made you to do is a is a way of worshiping God. And so that was my first discovery. And then the identity things that we just discussed really helped me to build a more of a stable faith as well and a stable character.

And now one of the reasons I really enjoy the ultrarunning is as a strong community's feeling to it. So it's also a place where I can be very open about what I believe. People ask and talk. We have a lot of time to talk during running, so it's like it's a it's a community thing and you and there's a lot of respect amongst each other and a lot of people who are interested in what I do for work here.

Next move, but also just how I balance things with my family or the training sessions. And I know what where I put my priorities and that. And so those three things became helped me to become more of a more social guy in sports and and really be more it. And how do you say that a testimony of my faith within sports I, I really I were in skating I was sort of shy to tell about my faith because I wasn't even know I didn't even know for myself what it was worth.

Now I really enjoy being amongst non-Christians and just being the kind of odd one out. The only Christian saying, Hey, yeah, but there's a there's a way to do life different and and then living that out right in front of their, you know, nose in that sense, that's really.

No. Yeah. So yeah 100 miles. Yeah. We always talk when you run 100 miles.

Jonny Reid: So start off talking by the end of the year, you said.

Jan Achterberg: Yeah. And you're just sort of in this pain cave. You're like, Let's not talk.

Jonny Reid: Yeah, I'm. Thanks so much. That's a really, really interesting insights into into so many things. I think the best side of individual sports and the real challenges of being a Christian, how you navigate that. I know that's a story which many people listening in, a number of whom rarely athletes and thousands of amateurs will will recognize and will understand.

And there's loads more if you are listening and you can kind of unpack on our website. Christians in Sport UK is lots of articles around these kind of questions and challenges. How do you balance churches? What does that look like? Worship and identity? There's there's loads of things you can look at that. And so, Jan, thanks so much for being with us.

Jonny Reid: If people want to find out more about next Booth, you can send, you know, how to use Google. I don't tell you to use Google Google next level to find it. Then you have the URL. Anymore you have to find them, find them on social media as well. But thanks so much for joining us. Yeah.

Jan Achterberg: Yeah, you're welcome.

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