43 days left before the Games: how does Daphne Schippers reach top speed, and does she stay intact?

Dafne Schippers in action on the 200 meters during the Golden Spike Ostrava athletics competition on May 19 this year.Image EPA

Her coach Bart Bennema has already adjusted his expectations compared to five years ago. At the Rio Games, he went with Schippers for the Olympic title. It was a silver medal in the 200 meters. For Tokyo, Bennema is now talking about reaching a place in the final. After all the setbacks, that is ‘still’ the intention, says Bennema. “I hope that in July we will be at times that allow her to reach the final at the Games.”

The big question is how Schippers gets to top speed in just over six weeks, and how does it stay intact. The sprinter has not won any titles in the past two years. The 28-year-old athlete struggled with the aftermath of a back injury. Schippers has worn cartilage between her vertebrae. If she makes a wrong move, it can trigger a reaction in her muscles. Sometimes it lays flat for days when it suddenly kicks in. Caution is therefore advised. Lots of competitions and busy travel schedules seem to increase the chances of things going wrong.

But Schippers also calls itself a diesel that needs to get going. She thinks she has to walk a lot to get up to speed. According to her manager and brother Derek Schippers, she will run ‘six or seven’ games until the Games. Whether she runs a 100 or 200 meters depends on her physical condition. If she can’t bear the load, she walks 100 meters to save energy.

On Thursday she will start at her best distance, the 200 meters, at the Diamond League in Florence. In Italy she will compete against the world top players Dina Asher-Smith, Marie-Josée Ta Lou and Mujinga Kambundji. Schippers already met Asher-Smith on Sunday at the FBK Games. The Arnhem woman lost her race record in the 100 meters in Hengelo to the British, who dethroned Schippers in 2018 as the fastest woman in Europe.

Asher-Smith ran 10.92 seconds in Hengelo, the ninth season time in the world. That is 0.02 seconds faster than Schippers’ 10.94 from 2015. The old record dates from bygone times. In that top year she won the world title in Beijing in the 200 meters and World Cup silver in the 100 meters. Bennema has been trying to get the former all-around athlete back to those top times for years.

American trainer Rana Reider, who coached her in 2017 and 2018, wanted to make Schippers stronger and more resilient. A lot of time was spent in the weight room. Schippers extended her world title in 2017 in London, but the lightning-fast times from 2015 did not return. She stayed whole. When Reider retired in the autumn of 2018, Schippers returned to Bennema. Her youth coach wanted to get rid of the muscle mass to regain her flexibility and infamous final acceleration.

Bennema saw bouts of old Dafne in training. He just never got the confirmation in the match. Last winter he got a ‘good feeling’ again at the training camp in the heat of South Africa. Schippers ran times that she also ran in training in 2015. ‘For example, she ran 150 meters in 16.4 twice, with a short breather in between. She was then tired on the track, I had a good feeling. I want to see that.’

He had also occasionally had the good feeling in the lost years 2019 and 2020. But it never came out in competitions, because her body gave out. Bennema hopes that Schippers will again run averages of 22.4 seconds in the 200 meters in competitions, as in her top year. In her first 200 meters of this season, she ran 22.91 seconds in Ostrava in May. In 2015, she started with 22.63 and won the world title in 21.63 seconds, the third time ever run at that distance.

But things are not going as well as hoped. In March, something shot into her back out of nowhere. She also suffered from a tendon in her hamstring and her left knee hurt. Schippers calls her work ‘balancing on a thin line’. “Sometimes you go over it, sometimes you stay under it. I try not to dwell on it too much.’ She still has 43 days to get on the edge. And now to stay.

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