Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The most incredible sporting gamble?

By Paul Gittings and Brooke Bowman, CNN
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Totally focused
Unique routine
Nervous moments
Perfect landing
Total dedication
Golden boy
Grueling training
  • Gymnast Epke Zonderland is nicknamed "the Flying Dutchman"
  • He performs unique routines on the high bar
  • Zonderland won gold in the discipline at the 2012 London Olympics
  • He is studying medicine while training for 2016 Rio Games

Editor's note: CNN's Human to Hero series screens on World Sport at 1700 GMT (1200 ET) and 2230 GMT every Wednesday, and 0500 GMT Thursdays.

(CNN) -- It was a "crazy" high-stakes routine that risked everything in the pursuit of gold.

Epke Zonderland had linked together the three most difficult moves in the high bar discipline, but the Dutch gymnast knew if he fluffed any one of them it would lead to humiliation on the world's biggest sporting stage.

The omens were not promising. A few short weeks before the London 2012 Olympics, as defending European champion he fell off the apparatus and finished 56th.

Human to Hero: Epke Zonderland
Comaneci's perfect 10 caught on camera
Human to Hero: Stephanie Rice

But Zonderland knew that to beat the best in the world he had to persist with his plan. and on the afternoon of Tuesday August 7, he produced one of the most memorable moments of a Games defined by its iconic sporting achievements.

"I was really focused and not thinking about the past or the future but just of the moment," he told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"The routine was going so fast but by the end of it I was getting more relaxed, and then I did the dismount -- and when I landed the dismount it was the best feeling I ever had."

From the moment the 26-year-old spun off the bar to come down flush on the mat without a hint of a wobble or further movement, he knew the gold was his.

Perfect landing

"It was a perfect landing so it was a really great feeling and the crowd was going wild," he recalled.

After a nervous two-minute wait for the score, Zonderland was confirmed in first place with a massive 16.533 points, beating Germany's Fabian Hambuechen into silver on 16.400 with defending champion Zou Kai of China third on 16.366.

The "Flying Dutchman" -- his rather predictable nickname -- was indeed flying high and returned home as a hero to win a string of awards -- as well being named to the Order of Orange-Nassau, one of the highest honors in the Netherlands.

It was perfect landing so it was a really great feeling and the crowd was going wild
Epke Zonderland

The YouTube clips of his performance have become a big viral online hit, and he is regularly named in polls of top performances in the 2012 Games.

Read: Olympics 2012 - Top Ten moments

It's all down to pulling off a sequence of complex moves -- named after former gymnasts.

"The first is the cassina, you have a double somersault and then straight, and you make one turn," he explains.

"The second is the kovacs, a double-somersault and then tucked, with your legs, and the third one is the kolman, and it's a double-somersault tucked with one turn."

Zonderland had become renowned as the only gymnast to regularly perform two of the difficult moves in succession, but to perform three had many shaking their head.

Crazy risk

Gold medalist: Losing is not an option
Roller hockey star lives for his sport

"A lot of people thought that I was crazy because I wanted to do it on the Olympics, because they thought the risk was too big.

"I think I surprised a lot of people to really do it."

For many, such a triumph would be the signal to bow out, but not only is Zonderland setting his sights on the next Olympics in Rio in 2016, he is also combining up to 30 hours per week training with medical studies.

"Of course it's a hard combination. I have a little bit less time for other things but it's great I can do sport at this level and get a great education," said Zonderland, who aims to be an orthopedic doctor.

Immediate motivation comes in his desire to win his first world title after finishing second at two championships.

"It's the one big goal I have left," he admitted.

It's great I can do sport at this level and get a great education
Epke Zonderland

"It's getting harder and harder to compete at this level but I think I can manage to continue until the next Olympics when I'm 30."

Having started gymnastics training when he was four in the town of Heerenveen, Zonderland will have been in his sport for over a quarter of a century come the next Games, gradually building up the intensity of his efforts.

In a typical four-hour session he will do 50 somersaults, and does not just confine himself just to the high or horizontal bar discipline.

All-round ability

Zonderland has won European silver on the parallel bars, and it was thanks to his ability over six events that he was even able to appear at the 2012 Olympics.

Human to Hero: Gao Fangxia
'Secrets' of sports photography

Finishing outside of the top three in the high bar at the 2011 world championships in Tokyo after a disappointing display, he was forced to qualify via the all-round competition at the London test events.

"I wasn't ready for that anymore but it was the only possibility," he said.

"I qualified (beating fellow Dutchman Jeffrey Wammes) so I was very happy with that, and after that I could train on the parallel bars and high bars again."

It was during this period that Zonderland decided to go with his high-risk strategy, gaining the support of his coach Daniel Knibbeler, who was "quite positive also from the beginning.

His confidence increased as Zonderland appeared to perfect the routine in almost every training session.

But performing it under the pressure of competition is another matter, and Zonderland's spectacular flop at the European championships in Montpellier set nerves on edge.

It's called the Epke effect, he's inspiring a generation of young people
Johan Boesjes

"I knew from the training where I made it almost all the time that it was possible but the big challenge is in your head," Zonderland said.

"On the day of the competition I had a lot of nerves and it was quite hard to get it under control."

Unique feat?

But he need not have worried, stunning the crowd and his rivals with his performance. But now he is at the summit of his sport, Zonderland knows he cannot relax.

"You realize there are a lot of talented gymnasts who can do the same as you do, so I think about my competitors who are really working hard," he said.

Human to Hero: Adrien Niyonshuti
The human cost of Olympic gold
Gold medalist conquers heart condition

"I heard about one gymnast in the Netherlands who is also able to do it (the triple move) but for the rest I don't think anybody can do it."

He will step up his training for the world championships in Antwerp in the first weekend of October, sacrificing the sort of lifestyle friends of his own age enjoy.

"You don't have so much time to go out or do things with your friends, so sometimes that's hard but with sport at this level you have no choice."

Fortunately, his girlfriend Linda, who competed at a high level in speed skating as a junior, understands the nature of top-class sports competition.

Zonderland appears remarkably unaffected by his celebrity status in his home country as the first man to win a gymnastics Olympic gold.

Lasting fame

Even his nickname has echoes of the most famous figure in Dutch sporting history, athlete Fanny Blankers Koen, who won four gold medals in track and field at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London.

Blankers Koen was called "the Flying Dutchwoman" and was named IAAF female athlete of the 20th century by the world governing body.

The routine was going so fast but by the end of the routine I was getting more relaxed
Epke Zonderland

Zonderland has etched his own piece of Olympics history with his stunning performance in London and set new standards in his discipline -- its impact similar to that of the perfect 10 achieved by Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Read: Nadia Comaneci and the first perfect '10'

In his own country, gymnastics has received a massive boost as youngsters look to emulate him.

"It's called the 'Epke effect,' " his agent of five years Johan Boesjes told CNN.

"He's inspiring a generation of young people and all the clubs have had a massive boost."

Part of complete coverage on
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Seema Tomar has stared down the barrel of poverty and prejudice to become one of the world's leading trap shooters.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Seema Tomar created history when she won a World Cup medal in 2010 and recently won double gold at the Asian Shotgun Championships.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
Hurtling down a mountain side at 50 mph on a bike isn't everyone's cup of tea. But for Rachel Atherton it's a zen-like experience.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
In the twinkle of an eye, Israel Folau has accomplished what most athletes would be happy to achieve in an entire career in not one, but three sports.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
Helgi Sveinsson was a promising handball player until bone cancer forced his left leg to be removed. Undaunted, he picked up a javelin.
November 26, 2014 -- Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
Nguyen Van Chieu has fostered the growth of the Vietnamese marital art since the 1960s, helping the sport go from strength to strength.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1809 GMT (0209 HKT)
Carissa Moore is a double world champion and she's still only 22 years old. Her exploits on the ocean are making waves both in and outside surfing.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Playing pro ping pong is a bit like running the 100m while playing chess, says Ai Fukuhara.
November 5, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
Guor Mading Maker's story makes most sporting tales of triumph over adversity look like a walk in the park.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
The comparison might irk Michael Jackson purists, but it's easy to see why Kilian Martin's fans liken his fancy footwork to the late "King of Pop."
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
Olympic hero Kosuke Kitajima is hoping to inspire a new generation of Japanese swimming stars ahead of his home 2020 Toyko Games.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0935 GMT (1735 HKT)
Much may have changed in post-Communist Romania, but its production line of gymnasts continues to generate champions.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Taking time out to eat a homemade chocolate cake is hardly the conventional way to win a mountain race, but don't tell Emelie Forsberg.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
He grew up in a surfing party town on the U.S. "space coast" and has conquered waves in the world's most exotic locales.
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Christian Taylor knows all about putting his best foot forward -- but the Olympic triple-jump champion has had to rewire his muscle memory.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0142 GMT (0942 HKT)
It's a surfer's paradise -- but Diah Rahayu is out on her own when it comes to professional women's wave-riding in her native Bali.