The Netherlands Had a Perfect 2023 European Championships

The 2023 European Championships was a remarkable showdown between the British and Italian gymnasts, but I couldn’t help but feel the biggest storyline was what the gymnasts from the Netherlands had accomplished. The Dutch program had success in four different areas and I wanted to highlight each of them.

This article also has a Part II which is a special profile of Naomi Visser.

Sanne Wevers

Sanne Wevers wins a gold medal on beam

This was the most high profile and most obvious highlight the Dutch program achieved at the 2023 European Championships. The Netherlands won gold, and did it thanks to the contributions of its greatest gymnast in program history. Because Sanne is 31 years old, it furthered the cause that there is nothing stopping aging veterans from playing a leading role in the sport and was a victory for gymnastics even outside the Dutch program.

But for the Netherlands, this specific gold medal was absolutely vital because it furthered the legacy of their most visible and high profile gymnast. Sanne is the poster child of the Dutch program. She is their most recognizable name, their biggest marketing tool and provides a boom in media exposure along with attracting interest from casual fans.

Sanne is the rare example where what is good for a single gymnast is paradoxically good for every gymnast in the entire program. Her success promotes the entire program as a whole. At the 2023 European Championships, the Dutch got exactly that with Sanne Wevers.

Eythora Thorsdottir

The contributions of Naomi Visser and Eythora Thorsdottir

For a program like Dutch women’s gymnastics, having a successful and longtime veteran like Sanne Wevers is a great asset for the program. But when aging veterans dominate a program that isn’t being managed correctly, their success becomes a double edged sword. When programs suffer stagnation and are struggling to develop a new generation of strong juniors, aging veterans are inevitably tasked with being forced to carry the workload in the absence of young talent.

But by this point the program is merely masking its problems and is prioritizing short-term success while betting against its own future. Which is why most examples of iconic programs in women’s gymnastics that suffered a fall from grace had one trend in common. In their last years of success their strongest results came from gymnasts who were considered aging veterans.

The Dutch program is having success from an aging veteran like Sanne Wevers, but is doing so without any of the warning signs that her success is coming at the direct cost of developing younger talent. Eythora Thorsdottir (6th place) and Naomi Visser (7th-Place) both had strong results in the All-Around standings. At 21 years old Visser is still on the young side of the sport, while 24 year old Thorsdottir is in a middle generation where she can’t be considered one of the young guns, but isn’t old enough to be lumped into the same category as the oldest tier of gymnasts. All while the previously mentioned 31 year old Sanne Wevers won a medal.

This multi-generational approach highlights a program where everything is in perfect harmony. The program is retaining the services of an invaluable Sanne Wevers, without feeling like it is betting against its own future in order to support her. Having its top gymnasts represent three different generations reflects a program that can take any specific gymnast, and get the best out of her regardless of which stage of her career she currently is in. The Dutch program currently feels like a well oiled machine where the cylinders will keep firing today, tomorrow, and long after that. As if they were driving a car and never neglecting to keep the fuel tank full.

From L to R: Naomi Visser, Vera van Pol, Eythora Thorsdottir, Sanna Veerman, and Sanne Wevers

Winning a Team Medal

If Dutch gymnastics gives the appearance of a program where it is having success on all fronts and has the traits of a program where its lineup is top quality, their medal in the team competition at the 2023 European Championships validates said notion. Such a medal would only be possible if the Dutch were currently at the top of their game. In an era where Italian and British gymnastics are the dominant European powers, everyone else is only able to sulk in their unluckiness of not being blessed with the presence of an unstoppable duo of twins.

Combined with the ban on Russian athletes, Europe was left in the state where the two programs who would battle for gold and silver was a forgone conclusion, while the rest of the field was going to battle each other for the last remaining medal in the team competition. In the end it wasn’t really close.

Yes, the British beat the Italians by a comfortable margin, and then the Italians beat the Dutch by a comfortable margin. But when it came to 3rd place the Dutch had a margin of victory that was greater than the next four teams combined. The success of Visser, Thorsdottir, and Wevers in the individual events was an indication that the Dutch lineup was strong. But a few days beforehand the results of the Team Competition had already proven that beyond all doubt. Which begs the question if the 2023 European Championships lineup was only the tip of the iceberg, and the Dutch program was doing as excellent of a job in developing its “B-Team” as the A-Team lineup it had sent to Antalya-2023.

From L to R: Manila Esposito, Sanne Wevers, and Zsofia Kovacs

But there is another dynamic at play.

At 17.5 million people the Netherlands are a significantly smaller country than Italy (59 million) Great Britain (67 million), France (67 million), and Germany (83 million). Women’s gymnastics is a sport where having a large population base is critical to achieving major success. At the Group-1 level the Netherlands are the smallest country to qualify to Team Finals on multiple occasions since Belarus did so during the 1993-1996 Olympic quad. But this was an era where ex-Communist athletes from Eastern Europe were still competing in large numbers and the transition to the sport being dominated by large countries was only just beginning.

For the Dutch program, the success they have had is commendable given their small size. But they are also a program where every successful competition is critical. Large countries can suffer a bad Olympic cycle, but recover quickly from their mistakes. Programs representing smaller countries are much more vulnerable to a loss of momentum because they have fewer resources to build up a large pool of depth.

Naomi Visser

If the Netherlands were the smallest country to qualify to multiple Team Finals since 1996, the second smallest country was Romania. No country learned this lesson more painfully than the historic Romanian program who after being one of the top powers in women’s gymnastics for 40 years, suffered a rut in the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics and has struggled to get out of it ever since.

Small, successful programs like the Netherlands live and die from competition to competition. Fueling their last successful competition into the next, under a “survive and advance” mentality as if this were a postseason elimination-tournament. Their future becomes uncertain if that cycle of success ever gets broken. For the Netherlands, success isn’t a luxury, but a necessity. What the Dutch accomplished at the 2023 European Championships has ensured that this program is here to stay and will remain competitive in the long term.

Coming up quietly behind the British and the Italians who seemed to have all the flash and big name icons, the bronze medal in the team competition was a statement win that the Dutch are here to stay.

Sanne Wevers (L) and Naomi Visser (R)

The rise of Naomi Visser

To conclude this article, I want to talk about Naomi Visser. From the moment Sanne Wevers won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics, the pressing question became “what comes next?” No legend can compete forever and if Dutch gymnastics wanted to continue its rise, it needed to figure out how a program can win an Olympic gold medal without letting that be the climax of their program identity.

It was never a question of replacing Sanne Wevers, but bringing the Dutch program to a point where it could continue to thrive even when Sanne was no longer around to support it. Wevers is a legend in Dutch gymnastics history, but for the next generation of gymnasts it will always be a challenging task being the one expected to fill the shoes of a legend. But Naomi Visser might be the gymnast who is capable of doing it.

I have so many positive things to say about Naomi that to save on the word count I ended up making an entirely separate article dedicated exclusively to her. There are simply too many nice things to say about Visser. But what is important is the following:

Naomi Visser

Naomi’s stat lines are absurd. In the last three major competitions at the European Championships and World Championships level, she has appeared in 60% of the All-Around and Apparatus Finals. She has competed All-Around in her last eight major competitions and made All-Around Finals on all eight occasions. The last time she failed to reach the top-10 of the All-Around standings in either finals or during the qualifications stage was 2019.

Naomi is arguably the best gymnast in the sport who has not yet won a medal in a major individual event at the European Championships, World Championships, or Olympics. But as an athlete, she’s as likely to qualify into the top-10 as any of the regular medal contenders. Visser is at the point where it is now fair to describe her as one of the leading figures in the sport. She is a gymnast who will ensure the Netherlands are well represented in the individual events even when Sanne is no longer around.

Naomi Visser is one of the Netherlands most valuable assets and the 2023 European Championships was the competition that has finally put her over the edge. The potential of this gymnast can now no longer be denied. With a 4th place finish on floor this is to date the closest Naomi has come to a medal in a major, individual event. For the third consecutive time she qualified to 3 of 5 individual events in a major competition.

Naomi Visser

Doing that once can be dismissed as a fluke and doing it twice is a pattern, but doing that three times in a row makes her one of the most successful gymnasts in the sport. All while Naomi is 21 years old which is the ideal age for a gymnast to witness her career suddenly skyrocket. Naomi Visser’s personal profile has much in common with that of Angelina Melnikova, Rebeca Andrade, Alice Kinsella, Martina Maggio, Jordan Chiles, Coline Devillard, Zsofia Kovacs, and Shilese Jones right before their careers took off.

If ever there was a moment where Naomi Visser’s career crossed a threshold and gymnastics can no longer ignore her, but now must respect her, the 2023 European Championships was it.

In a single competition the Dutch program was able to embolden the legacy of their greatest gymnast of all time, won a medal in the team competition, and established that they have talented gymnasts who bring a dominating presence into the individual events. All while doing it with a multi-generational lineup that ensures their success is coming in a way that will be sustainable long term.

The Dutch program had the perfect competition at the 2023 European Championships. Part of that perfection is putting themselves in a position where the Netherlands look poised to do it again in 2024 and even 2028.

Link to: Naomi Visser article

From L to R: Naomi Visser, Vera van Pol, Eythora Thorsdottir, Sanna Veerman, and Sanne Wevers

One thought on “The Netherlands Had a Perfect 2023 European Championships

  1. Thank you for always posting such interesting and thoughtful pieces! Love to see these reflections on the Dutch team, so excited to see them through the rest of this quad


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s