Els Visser is a medical doctor. She’s also just got a PhD in oesophageal cancer surgery. But away from the medical world, Els Visser is also an up and coming professional triathlete from the Netherlands. Her progression has been rapid. She did her first ever triathlon in 2016, a year later she won the age group race at Ironman Switzerland and then turned pro and in 2019 she came 16th on her debut at the Ironman World Championships. But it’s Els’ story about survival that sets her apart from her compatriots. In 2014, aged just 24, Els was studying and travelling in Indonesia, when the boat she was on started to sink...
*Els' incredible story of survival
*How she swam for 8 hours to reach an island, only to find it was uninhabited
*How she eventually got rescued
*About her rapid progress in triathlon
*If she ever now gets scared in open water
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INTERVIEW TIME LINE* (not the whole episode)
01:00 Els talks about how she studied medicine at University and in 2014 she was doing an internship in Indonesia, as part of her studies. In the last few days of her trip, she decided to go on a diving trip, which involved a 4 day boat trip, during the second night, the boat started to sink. “We didn’t have a satellite phone, our phones were out of service so we couldn’t reach anyone and nobody knew we were there in the middle of the ocean, sinking”
03.45 I was pretty calm and I was the first person to have my life jacket on and get downstairs and all I could think was ‘what do I have to do right now, to get out of this situation. From the moment that I heard we were sinking, I went into survival mode and I really thought ok, we’ll be in the ocean in an hour or a couple of minutes, and my life will come to an end”
05.00 I drank a whole bottle of water, I took my passport because I was pretty convinced my life would come to an end and at least if I had my passport and they found my body, my parents would know it was me. I also took the memory card of my camera, as I thought if I survive this, I will still have some photos.
06.00 Els describes what the boat was like. It was cheap as it was aimed at backpackers “I remember sitting there, on the second day, reading the Lonely Planet and it said about shipwrecks in that area.” We all had lifejackets, but they were from 1970 and we couldn’t close them, and we had a very basic wooden rescue boat, with space for 6 people, and there were 25 of us. It was completely unsafe. We rotated in that boat. During the night, we were still close to the big boat, as it hadn’t totally sunk, so some were In the little boat, others were on the roof of the bigger boat.
09.00 Els talks about how she saw an island in the distance and sunrise and how she thought if she wanted to survive, she had to swim to the island. “I can’t survive a second night in the ocean” I thought, so I decided to leave the group, 4 other people came with me and we started swimming.” After an hour we became separated and I swam a bit faster with a woman from New Zealand and in the end we swam for 8 hours to reach the island. When I left, I thought I’m going to die swimming. I thought I’ll either die waiting at the boat, or I will die swimming. We reached the island just before sunset. In the beginning we were laughing that we’d get to the island and have some beers. But we got there and it was a volcanic island, there were no people, there was no water. But when I got there, I was so relieved just to be out of the water. But once we were on the island we knew we had to survive the island.
13.00 When we woke up at sunrise the following morning, I was trying to find some water and the New Zealand lady was looking out for boats and I felt pretty calm and safe and once I had found water and saw animals, I knew we would be ok.
14.15 Talks about how they saw a boat and started waving their life jackets on sticks and the boat came towards then and they got rescued “it was by accident, they hadn’t been sent out to help us, they just saw us” and in the end the other people were all found just after the second night and the only two people who didn’t survive were two Spanish people who tried to swim too.
16.00 Does Els ever think ’what if?’ “It’s more that I decided to swim and take that risk and you realise you are completely dependent on the ocean and the currents.”
17.00 What was it like on the rescue boat? “I was so emotional because I was so convinced my life would come to an end. I was 24 and because I was still so young, maybe it was easier to handle situations like this. “
18.30 “It helps to have some photos and a guy filmed some bits of it, and we have footage from the island and it helps to know I have been in that situation. Because when I talk about it, it’s like I’m talking about a movie, about someone else, not me. The week after the accident I was at University again and I think after 3 months, I started to realise what happened. Before that, I was still in survival mode and hyper-alert and probably difficult to communicate with, because I was in my own world. I think it was good to try to continue with my own life. I’ve always been quite open about it with my family and friends and 6/10 times I start crying during one of my talks, but I am really grateful I am still here and it’s part of who I am.”
21.15 How did Els go from being shipwrecked medical student to a professional triathlete?
“During my studies I didn’t do any sport, other than a bit of running to try to be fit, but at the end of my studies I decided I wanted to do a marathon, so I did Amsterdam in 2016 and finished in 3h30, which I was really pleased about. Then one of my colleagues mentioned a triathlon and I thought ‘why not’ so in August 2016, I did my first sprint triathlon and from the start, I loved the vibe. Then my colleague told me about Ironman races, so I looked it up and thought ‘ok, let’s see it as a challenge, because now is the right time to do this’ so I entered Ironman Switzerland in July 2017 and I had 10 months to train. During that time, I trained a lot, improved a lot and had a lot of fun. I had a really good race, I finished first age grouper and my coach said ‘ok Els, I think you have a talent for this sport and id you focus more, you can achive great results. So I thought ‘why not, let’s go for it, give it a try and start working!”
24.30 Els got her pro card after Ironman Switzerland 2017, so just after two years after her first Ironman, she finished 16th at the World Championships in Kona. I also ask her if she had a background in swimming? ‘I swam until I was 12, so I knew the technique and the strokes, but it wasn’t really competitive, like once a week. Tennis was always my main sport, which I still love to do. The day after Challenge Roth, with my homestay family I played, which was really good fun!’
26.15 Explains how she was able to mix up doing her PhD with training in Brisbane. “It was like a whole new world for me! The volume increased, the intensity and normally I was always busy and running from place to place. And I was forced to rest more. It was pretty hard to adjust to this new way of life, but I really enjoyed the progress I made and the new challenges and with my PhD there was a lot of emotional moments but I’m so proud I finished it!
29.00 Talks about completing her PhD after Kona and how she will be writing a book and how in 2020 she wants to promote active and healthy lifestyles to prevent diseases so she can help more people rather than just a single patient in the operating room.
32.00 Talks about how she wants to combine public speaking, creating healthy work spaces and how far she thinks she can go with her triathlon “I really have the aim to get a podium finish in Hawaii and given how little time I have been in the sport, I think if we continue working how we have worked over the last few years, it’s possible.”
34.00 Explains how she is mentally stronger because of the Shipwreck experience she went through ‘there is always a way to push through the race or to push a bit harder’ and for me, it’s an advantage to have my mental strength for my performance.