Dutch karate kid takes on Maccabiah

European champ Esther van Schaik has overcome severe knee injuries in her young career.

karate 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
karate 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
She's only 18, but over the last nine years she's drummed up more than 100 karate titles despite spending a year on crutches with a devastating knee injury in the early stages of her career. Now, Rotterdam's Esther van Schaik - the third-ranking karate junior in the world and the 2008 European junior champion - is hoping to increase her tally when she arrives in Israel early next month as a member of Team Holland at the Maccabiah Games. When the idea of competing at the Games was first brought to her attention by her mother, Jacoba, van Schaik hadn't even heard of the Maccabiah. Jacoba wasn't sure if her daughter qualified, because she isn't Jewish. Van Schaik's father is, though, and once Jacoba found out that it was fine, she told her daughter. "Even though I wasn't raised that way," explained van Schaik about her religious background and her expectations about competing in the Maccabiah, "I think it's more about being together - all top athletes - with one thing in common. Instead of going there for yourself, thinking about winning that competition." The Macabbiah will be a new experience for van Schaik. "It's such a big event. It's so different than a [regular] karate tournament," she told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview. "I think you feel more at one with all the other athletes there." Van Schaik was an early starter on the Dutch karate scene. She began fighting when she was nine years old, after following her older brother Bram to his first karate lesson. He wasn't interested, but van Schaik liked what she saw. A month later, she gave up gymnastics (it was either that or tennis) for Wado-Ryu semi-contact karate, where blows are aimed mainly at the torso, and elbowing, punching and kicking are limited to the upper body. Van Schaik eventually stopped playing tennis, as well. A year into her karate career, van Schaik won a junior title at the Nationales, the Netherlands's athletic championships. But difficulties were soon to come. When she was 12, van Schaik started feeling pain in her knees during intense training. Then her knees started locking when she walked down stairs or rode her bike, and eventually they hurt even when she wasn't moving. Van Schaik and her mother visited doctor after doctor, but to no avail. The up-and-coming star tried to make good use of her time. She helped teach karate (something she still does today), and watched her trainer give lessons. "Sitting on the sidelines, watching kids I used to beat train harder and get better," van Schaik remembered, "It made me really sad. I wanted to join, I wanted to train - I felt crazy sitting there and doing nothing." A year later, when van Schaik was already walking with crutches, a doctor told her that her body wasn't built for athletics. He said if she continued at that pace, she would be using a walker at the age of 30. "When I walked out of his room, with my mother, on crutches, it hit me," van Schaik said. "My whole world that I dreamed of - I can't do that any more." A devastated van Schaik could not accept that this was the end of her short but promising career. Her mother took her to see another doctor, who determined that van Schaik didn't position herself properly when she stood. She was also growing at a very fast rate - 3 cm. a month - and that, combined with her rigorous karate schedule and her posture, was the issue. In one day, remembered van Schaik, the problems were diagnosed, shoe inserts were ordered and therapists at a clinic were showing her how to recover properly. "I know that's just their job, but to me they are heroes," she said of the therapists. "When I'm telling the story, I've got this big smile on my face." It took about two years for van Schaik to learn proper posture and to recover, and once she did, she was determined to catch up on the lost time. That year van Schaik got her black belt and in the next two years she proceeded to win every one of the 12 tournaments she entered. Van Schaik was selected to be on Holland's European and World Championship karate team, and she went on to the World Championships a few months later. She also continued winning the Nationales each time she participated, for a sum total of eight wins. Even though it was painful, in retrospect van Schaik feels she gained from her knee problem. "Because of my injury, I was unhappy I couldn't train. I found out that I love this sport so much, that I would do a lot to make whatever I want to achieve possible," van Schaik said in an email. Now, van Schaik is taking that upbeat attitude and her competitive edge to the Maccabiah. "I'm really going there to fight," said van Schaik. "My mind is on winning the medal."