After this weekend, there will be a changing of the guard at the European Para Championships. Sunday brought an end to the tournaments at boccia, goalball and wheelchair tennis. Meanwhile, in Ahoy, the training sessions at para badminton and para taekwondo have begun. We look back and forward. Where those who are saying goodbye look back enthusiastically on the new set-up with combined European championships, the newcomers are excited to also be able to show themselves in Rotterdam.
There was much to enjoy on the tennis court Sunday for anyone wearing orange-colored glasses. Niels Vink took gold in the quads by beating compatriot Sam Schröder. Maikel Scheffer captured bronze in the men’s singles, where Ruben Spaargaren won the top prize by beating Martin De la Puente (Spain) in a thrilling final: 7-5, 5-7, 6-4. Diede de Groot beat rival and compatriot Aniek van Koot (6-3, 6-1) in the women’s singles. The duo then also won the doubles title.
Olympic champion De Groot spoke of an extremely successful event not only because of that aspect. She looked back fondly on the tournament, which provided many new experiences. “It was really a lot of fun and it felt a bit like a mini Olympics. It is also really a new event and if it continues like this, it will be held every four years. The chance of it coming back to the Netherlands is perhaps very small. That’s why I wanted to compete here. I did think it was so cool that I thought, I’m just going to do this.”
For Diede, being able to play in Rotterdam was special. “I have a lot of family living in Rotterdam or close to Rotterdam. Everyone can come and watch and that does make it a lot of fun. That is not always possible because we often play abroad. So then it’s nice to have them here today.”
When Diede looks back on the European Para Championships in Rotterdam a few years from now, she will always think back to the tennis court in the middle of the Schouwburgplein. “We had a little bit beforehand that we thought: what is that going to be like? Isn’t that going to be way too noisy? But when I first got here on Friday, I was immediately super happy to see it. It turned out so cool. That we got to play on the Schouwburgplein in front of stands full of people was really a party.”
Ruben Spaargaren won gold on Schouwburgplein Sunday after a nerve-wracking battle against Martin de la Puente. The crowd pulled him through the tough match. “I think we succeeded in bringing the audience to Rotterdam. Especially if you look at the number of visitors who were in the stands during the match. My parents, my uncle and friends were here to cheer me on and several friends watched via the livestream. That’s really a very special feeling.” The match against La Puente will forever remain a fond memory. “How I pulled this off will probably stay in my head.”
The goalball tournament was a, even for insiders, still fairly surprising crowd pleaser, both in Ahoy and online. On TikTok, a million (!) people watched the goalballers’ exploits. At the end of the tournament, it was not only the winner Sweden (which beat Hungary 11-5 in the final match) who left Rotterdam glowing. The other teams also looked back on a special week.
Even the coach of Bulgaria, who attended EPC2023 with only three players, shared that feeling. “We came with only three players, unlike other teams who had at least six players. However, the tournament was very good. There were a lot of people who came to watch. We tried our hardest, showed perseverance. The atmosphere was also very motivating.”
“Our sport is unlike any other, and you can’t find it anywhere else. When I was introduced to this sport six years ago, I never imagined that one day there would be so many people interested in something that originated from the culture of the blind”, French goalball player Ambroise Daudin told with satisfaction afterwards, even though Spain had lost 6-5 in the small final.
By the way, the Netherlands finished sixth, after a 10-2 defeat to Italy. Joost van de Kreeke called the turnout in Ahoy incredible. “There were hundreds of people every time, unbelievable. That was new for us, but also for goalball. In the past, when I could still see well, I played field hockey and there were always people along the side as well, but this was really special. Especially the attention on TikTok I found surreal.”
Opponent Emanuele Nicolo agreed. “It’s great that so many people who don’t know this sport are now following it. I am happy that other people can now see what we are doing’’, said Nicolo, who had experienced the European Para Championships as very special. “I loved being able to see so many different athletes and sports myself. And enjoyed the attention we received.”
There is already an exuberant atmosphere in the hall where next week’s para badminton will be played. The training sessions are open to the public, which means that many friends and family have already come to watch. The nationalities train side by side and sometimes on the same court. “I am very much looking forward to being in action in Rotterdam starting Tuesday. The atmosphere here is great, and I’m all set to do my best”, said Scot Gregor Anderson. “It was nice to be able to watch the other parasports at the event already. Seeing the dedication and skill of other parasport athletes I find very inspiring. There is a real sense of togetherness here.”
Swede Dilan Jacobsson is still in high school, but seems to be in no way inferior to the competition during training sessions. “The energy here at the European Para Championships is fantastic. I trained hard for it and am super excited to show what I can do”, he said. “Everyone here shares the same mindset.”
Chantal van Engelen was glowing from ear to ear after the boccia tournament. She was – after victory in the BC1/BC2 country tournament on Sunday (Great Britain was defeated 10-2) – not only the proud winner of two gold medals, but also proud of how Rotterdam had de-emphasized her sport. “It was already nice to play in Ahoy, but the Schouwburgplein was totally awesome. It’s a very beautiful venue. And because it’s outside it’s also extra special. It is also the first time for us that there is so much audience in the stands.”
Referee Roberto Pecellín found the challenge great, but called the setting special. “We are used to playing indoors. Here outside, in the middle of Rotterdam, you can be bothered by the rain and the wind. That makes it complicated, but we like this situation because it’s for the first time. That makes it unique. For a boccia referee, this is also a special tournament. Normally we don’t have much noise from the audience, but here at the Schouwburgplein it was different. Every now and then the audience makes extra noise. I’ve never experienced anything like that before, but I love it.”
David Araújo, bronze medalist for Portugal, was also pleased with the atmosphere at the Schouwburgplein. “The fact that other people can see boccia and interact with us and ask questions is positive for the sport. It’s the first time for me that so many people are watching me. That’s fun, it gives adrenaline.” When David looks back ten years from now, he will especially remember the crowd at the first European Para Championships. “It was the first time I played boccia outside, with an audience. It was fantastic.”
Although the taekwondoka did not show themselves for a while on Sunday afternoon, there was activity on the mat. Twelve referees divided into four teams of three are practicing extensively for Para Taekwondo under the guidance of taekwondo referees who just a month ago were active at the 2023 World Taekwondo Championships in Baku. “I have been taekwondo refereeing for years”, one of them told me. “But diving into the para variant is a fun challenge. The dynamics are different – the athletes’ movements and strategy can vary because of their unique skills. Understanding the ratings and how they affect the sides is crucial. We train to ensure fairness and consistency while adapting to the diverse styles of para taekwondoka. Being at the European Para Championships is an honor. It is a celebration of everyone’s perseverance. And that is enormously inspiring.”