As good as she is, Femke Bol wants to get better. Needs to get better.
Part of the reason is that to win a global title in her favourite event, the Dutch star must defeat the greatest 400m hurdler in history. But part of it, too, is just the way Bol is wired.
At 22, she’s already the reigning European champion in the 400m and 400m hurdles; an Olympic bronze medallist; a world indoor and outdoor silver medallist. She’s the third fastest woman in history at 400m hurdles and following last weekend’s season-opener in Boston, Bol is now the fastest woman in history over 500m, having clocked a blazing 1:05.63 to carve a huge chunk off the previous best of 1:06.31. Her time also surpassed the world outdoor best of 65.9.
On the path to next month’s European Athletics Indoor Championships in Istanbul, where Bol plans to race the 400m and 4x400m, she looks primed to emulate her feat at the 2021 edition in Torun and deliver double gold.
“I feel good, I feel ready,” she says. “So I’ll try to go there and do my best.”
But away from the bright lights of the indoor circuit, Bol is currently going through a process of reinvention. In training, she’s doing all the usual hard, foundational work that is needed at this time of year, but she’s also experimenting, attempting to change her 400m hurdles stride pattern to enable her to reach a new level in 2023.
The roots of all this go back to the Tokyo Olympics, and that unforgettable 400m hurdles final in which Bol won bronze in a European record of 52.03. A truly great performance, but it was clear that to challenge for gold at global level, she would have to close the gap on Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who broke the world record in Tokyo with 51.46.
McLaughlin lowered that to an astonishing 50.68 to win the world title in Eugene, Oregon last year with Bol moving up one place on the podium to silver in 52.27.
Bol has, until now, run with 15 strides between each barrier, but in the coming season she will open her races doing 14 strides. Has the level of McLaughlin-Levrone – who typically runs with 14 strides to hurdle seven – led to her making the change?
“I always focus on myself as I know it’s the only thing I can control, but seeing her go so fast does make you think: ‘We can go faster than this, faster than 51,’” says Bol. “Seeing the way she runs is always an inspiration, something you look up to, but at the end of the day I know I need to get my perfect race and maybe that’s 14 strides, like her, maybe it’s 15 strides. We will see, but you need to make sure you use your own strengths as I’m not the same athlete.”
"Strengthening her weaknesses without weakening her strengths"
Ever since emerging at the top tier in 2019, when she won European U20 gold at 400m hurdles and reached the semifinal at the World Athletics Championships in Doha in her first season in the event, it was clear Bol’s strength was not so much her raw speed, but her remarkable speed endurance. Since late 2019, she has worked with Swiss coach Laurent Meuwly and her previous coach Bram Peters at the Dutch Olympic Training Centre in Papendal.
Their focus? Strengthening her weaknesses without weakening her strengths.
In recent weeks, Meuwly told Colm Bourke on The Track and Field Performance Podcast how he’d left no stone unturned when it came to developing Bol’s all-around ability.
“You cannot win an international medal if your weaknesses are limitations for the performance,” he said. “It’s not only about doing the right training to fit your strength, but also to make your weaknesses good enough that they are not limiting your performance.
Femke Bol is more an endurance-based athlete but she’s now able to run 3.03 on a 30-metre flying, she’s cleaning 100 kilos, and if she would run a 200m tomorrow she’d probably run sub-23. So it’s not like you can say, ‘I’m endurance-based and this is how I’m going to win a medal.’ You have to be good in speed, in strength.”
Meuwly noted that with the improvements Bol made in conditioning in recent years, she “needs to go to 14 steps” to achieve an optimal race. While on training camp in South Africa in December and January, they rehearsed the new stride pattern, with Bol “faster in training with 14 steps (over) three hurdles than she was at 15 steps,” said Meuwly. “But we need to go further, and (do it) in a race.”
Moving to 14 strides also means learning to hurdle off both legs, and Bol admits it was “scary” when she first tried it. But she knew it had to happen, the improvement in her speed and her long, loping stride making it feel like she was “almost skipping” between barriers when running with 15 steps.
How far into the race does she expect to hold the new pattern? “I have no clue,” she admits. “Normally until (hurdle) three, five or seven. Sydney I think does until seven and a lot of the others doing 14 (strides) go to hurdle five, but it’s my first year so I don’t know how far I will go. We will see by racing what’s going to be the best for me.”
Better, faster, stronger with Istanbul approaching
For now, Bol’s chief focus is on the indoor 400m and she relishes the challenge that it presents.
“You have to go out of your comfort zone,” she says. “Maybe my ideal race is going through (200m) in 24.0, but if I’m last at the bell it’s not going to be the ideal race. You have your plan, but you have to adapt to what the others do. I really love that about it.”
In Torun two years ago, Bol won her first senior international title when powering to gold over 400m at the European Athletics Indoor Championships, hitting halfway in third place before powering past her training partner Lieke Klaver to win in 50.63. She later anchored the Netherlands to gold in the 4x400m.
“It was amazing,” Bol says of that weekend. “It showed me that at the championships, under the pressure, I could compete and be my best self. It was the first part of the amazing journey and the medals that came after it.”
Training with Klaver has helped Bol reach a higher level. “She can profit a bit from my strengths and I profit from her strengths because we work together,” says Bol. “I’ll be behind in speed, I can help with endurance, so it helps us to get better.”
Bol put in a consistent block of training during the winter and was “healthy the whole time”, which helped her make such a scintillating start to 2023. “My speed is always the part that’s a bit weaker, but I became really fast last year and this year,” she says. “I had a lot of good training, I became faster but I also feel like my endurance is good, so I’m really happy about it.”
In Boston, she “hoped to get close to the world record” over 500m and thought if she had the “perfect race” she could break 66 seconds. To smash that barrier left her high on confidence ahead of her upcoming races in France – in Metz on Saturday (streamed live on the European Athletics Facebook channel) and Lievin next Wednesday (15) – before the Dutch Indoor Championships the following weekend.
From there, all roads will lead to Istanbul and the next chance for Bol to shine bright on the European stage.
At the European Athletics Championships in Munich last year, she won gold in the 400m and 400m hurdles before helping her nation to glory in the women’s 4x400m but as she looks towards the World Athletics Championships in Budapest in August, the idea of two individual events is off the table.
“What we decided for Europeans, it was once in a lifetime,” she says. “We still stick with that. I’ve never had world gold so we will try for that (in the 400m hurdles).”
And given her recent exploits over 500m, might she ever try the 800m?
“No, I hope not,” she laughs. “Unless my coach has some crazy idea.”
Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics