Worldwide winner: Olav Molenaar dominates wherever he goes

Photo of Olav Molenaar
Matt Carter for Cal Athletics/Courtesy

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lenching his teeth as he pulled the last few strokes over the finish line, Olav Molenaar was ecstatic to see his boat had   beaten his opponent’s by one boat length. The “six minutes of hell” — six minutes and 24 seconds, to be exact, of utter physical exhaustion — had paid off in a big win at the 2018 Prince of Wales Challenge Cup at Henley-on-Thames for then-18-year-old Molenaar and his A.A.S.R. Skøll crew.

“When you win together as a crew, there’s that strong feeling of camaraderie,” Molenaar said. “It just felt so good to win that race.”

Molenaar, now a junior on the Cal men’s rowing team, is no stranger to podium finishes. Not long after he began seriously rowing at age 15, Molenaar began to dominate junior competitions in his home country of the Netherlands.

The 6’4” Dutchman was introduced to the sport by his father when he was 10 years old. During those first few Sunday mornings on the water, he was just a coxswain, learning the basics by calling the shots. He quickly took the oars, and for the next four years, Molenaar rowed once a week with his first team, ZZV.

When he switched clubs at 15 years old, Molenaar was bigger, faster and more focused on the sport than he was when he first started. He joined the club KR&ZV Het Spaarne and formed a competitive racing crew with three other strong rowers on the team. They were coached by one of his crewmates’ fathers, Sven Schwarz, who rowed for the Netherlands in two Olympic Games.

Molenaar and his crewmates went on to win numerous races nationally. The group was so strong that if each rower were to compete in a singles race, all four of them would place within the top 10.

When he turned 18, Molenaar still had one more year left in high school but was no longer eligible for junior races. His first stint at a student club fizzled out after he fell out with the coach of the crew. That led the talented Dutchman to transfer to A.A.S.R. Skøll.

This club was full of rowers who were older, very experienced and very fast, but Molenaar showed early on that he could keep up. He received an invitation to join a quads crew, with whom he competed and won at the Henley-on-Thames.

“That was probably one of the most fun events I’ve ever experienced,” Molenaar said. “There was some great competition; the best was called the Leander Club, who were two-time under-23 world champions. For me, as a 19-year-old boy, beating them, it was phenomenal.”

The next stage of Molenaar’s career is currently unfolding at Cal. In his freshman year, he showcased his impact on the second varsity boat. During the 2019 IRA National Championship Regatta, Molenaar’s crew finished first in the second varsity eight grand final.

Despite racing in these major competitions, Molenaar said pressure rarely affects his performances on the water.

“I’m normally not stressed at all for a race,” Molenaar said. “I’m a guy that works best when I’m relaxed, so I just show up, do my job and have fun doing it.”

Photo of Olav Molenaar

Matt Carter, Cal Athletics

ne aspect of rowing that the junior has especially enjoyed is meeting and becoming friends with new people, including his crewmates and opponents. According to Molenaar, in the Netherlands, the field of rowers is small, and as a result, they all know and are quite friendly with one another.

Moving to Cal was a bit of a shock to the rower from Santpoort-noord, a small town just west of Amsterdam, because the field of rowers grew significantly. Molenaar said he only really knows the rowers on the Cal team but has enjoyed their company.

“It’s a very accepting group,” Molenaar said. “As long as you show that you work hard, everyone will be your friend.”

This past fall season, the junior took what has been one of his longest breaks from racing since he began rowing competitively. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Molenaar decided to stay at home in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, Molenaar said the restrictions were often more lax than what he would have faced at Cal, which allowed him to continue his training. In fact, he was able to obtain a top sports status, which gave him more freedom to row in groups and without masks.

“It felt a bit useless to be (in Berkeley) and have online college but not be able to train,” Molenaar said.

During a typical day, Molenaar would wake up around 6:30 a.m., practice for two hours in a single scull, go home to study and spend time with his mother, lift weights in the late afternoon and end the night with classes from 6 to 10 p.m.

According to Molenaar, the time zone difference did make completing schoolwork challenging, especially when it came to exams. Although some professors were lenient with the timing of their tests, Molenaar recalls other professors who required him to take three-hour tests starting at midnight.

“Since I had to train at 7 a.m. in the morning the next day, it was a bit unfortunate, but I managed,” Molenaar said.

As for the upcoming season, Molenaar has moved back to Berkeley, and he continues to improve his skills on the water. He has come a long way in his career, from rowing once a week in the Netherlands to becoming a collegiate rower with multiple first-place finishes under his belt. Not one to rest on his laurels, he sees a bright future ahead of him at Cal.

“You grow throughout the years, and you’re better than the year before,” Molenaar said. “To reach your peak, it takes a while, and I believe I’m still not near my peak even after 10 years of rowing.”

Alex Wang covers rowing and men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].