The flying Dutchwoman
Equally brilliant on road and track, cyclist Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorsel is widely regarded as one of the greatest champions in the annals of Dutch sport.
Teen spiritBorn in Boekel in southern Holland, Leontien van Moorsel was a cycling legend before she turned 20. She first demonstrated her prowess on two wheels when she won the first of nine national titles on a road bike, and two years later made her mark on the international stage, finishing as runner-up in the Grande Boucle (the women’s equivalent of the Tour de France). There was no settling for second in 1992 and 1993, when she took back-to-back titles, on each occasion winning thrilling duels with home favourite Jeannie Longo, to confirm her status as world number one.
A personal battle Diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, van Moorsel took time out from her sporting career in 1994 to seek help for her illness. She received a great deal of support from Dutch cyclist Michael Ziljaard, who went on to become her husband, coach and manager. After several years struggling to regain her fitness, Zijlaard-van Moorsel, as she became after her marriage to Zijlaard in 1995, finally returned to competition in 1998. In October that year she won the time trial in the World Road Cycling Championships in Valkenburg (NED) and finished second in the road race. Those performances were the prelude to a stellar showing at the 2000 Olympic Games.
Triple gold in Sydney The Dutchwoman took Sydney by storm, dominating on the roads of the city centre, and in the Olympic velodrome in the suburb of Bankstown. First up, on 18 September, she won gold in the individual pursuit, beating France’s Marion Clignet in the final, setting a new Olympic record of 3.33:960 in the process. She followed up by taking the silver in the points race. Switching her attention away from the track, she then won a mass sprint to cross the line first in the women’s road race on 26 September. Finally, four days later, she blitzed the time trial to complete a hat-trick of gold medals, finishing 37 seconds faster than her closest rival, Mari Holden (USA) and 52 seconds ahead of Jeannie Longo. That victory took her overall tally in Sydney to four medals, more than any other cyclist, male or female.
Final flourish in Athens On 15 August 2004 in Athens, Zijlaard-van Moorsel looked all set to retain her Olympic road race title, but crashed during the penultimate lap and was forced to pull out. However, three days later, she bounced back to win the time trial, more than 24 seconds ahead of the USA’s Deirdre Demet-Barry. She then headed into the velodrome, to win bronze in the individual pursuit, taking her total Olympic medal tally to six, an achievement that further cemented her place in the pantheon of all-time Dutch sporting greats.