By Patricia Duffy

When you’re arguably the best high bar worker in the world, holding multiple Olympic and World gold medals on the apparatus, it could be hard to imagine missing the biggest competition of the year, but the Netherlands’ Epke Zonderland almost did.

Photos by Grace Chiu

The decision wasn’t Epke Zonderland’s to make, but, rather, that of his first child. Zonderland, 32, and his wife Linda Steen didn’t know when their child, a baby boy named Bert, would arrive. The fan-favorite “Flying Dutchman,” as he’s affectionately called, planned for the possibility that he might not be able to travel to Doha, Qatar, for the 2018 Gymnastics World Championships.

“There was a situation [in which] I wouldn’t come to Worlds if he wasn’t born yet,” Zonderland said, matter of fact that he wanted to be there with his wife to meet his child.

Whether Zonderland talked him into it while he was kicking around in his mom’s stomach or he just knew his dad had somewhere important to be, Bert Zonderland arrived in the nick of time on Saturday, October 13.



“I was really happy that I got six days with him to enjoy,” Zonderland beamed after qualifications, clearly thrilled to be a dad. “It was quite hard to go away and travel [here] to Doha. But… yea, it’s quite hard, but I think it’s worth it to be here and make the best of this competition.”

For any parent, it’s hard to be away from your child, but especially when that child is a newborn and you’re a first time dad. Despite the emotional rollercoaster that is the experience of becoming a parent, Zonderland showed up and showed out during qualifications, first on parallel bars and then on the event where he’s made his name, the high bar, as the Netherlands go-to anchor on the event.

Epke Zonderland flies high on his signature event at the 2018 Gymnastics World Championships in Doha, Qatar. (Grace Chiu)

The Netherlands had an overall exceptional performance as a team earlier today in subdivision 2 of men’s qualifications, finishing with a 245.663 team total to provisionally move into second place behind Russia. For his part as the bars specialist, Zonderland led his team on both events, scoring a 14.633 on parallel bars and a 14.4 (with a huge 6.2 difficulty score) on high bar.

The 14.4 was enough to place him first place on the event early on, and as of the fourth subdivision, Zonderland is still sitting comfortably in the top spot. It’s good news for the 2012 Olympic High Bar Champion, since he watered down his routine at the last minute.

“[I took out the] Gaylord 2 piked, and I also wanted to do the Jam full,” Zonderland confirmed. “I don’t know why [I didn’t]. It might be because it was quite hot, and the rotations were quite fast. In podium training, it was no problem, but today, I wasn’t recovered yet from parallel bars.”

If he does make the high bar final, which seems likely at this point, there isn’t a question he’ll put those big skills back into his set.

“In the final, you just have to go for it. It’s a real different competition than the qualification. I really do like the final better than this. It’s not nice,” Zonderland laughed.

As the 2012 Olympic Champion and  2013 and 2014 World Champion, Zonderland is no stranger to immense success on the international scene, but since that gold in Nanning, China, in 2014, he’s missed out on gold at Worlds and the Olympics. Most recently, he earned silver in 2017 in Montreal, Canada, when he caught the bar with just one hand after a flight element, ultimately swinging into a giant and finishing his routine.

Despite the lack of gold, Zonderland doesn’t feel like he has anything to prove.

“I think last year I had to prove it,” Zonderland said of his performance in Montreal. “I already proved it to myself that I’m back. This year feels better than last year, so I really hope it will be enough for the final because I can do much better than I did today.”

If Zonderland does make the high bar final, he’ll be in Qatar and away from home for another 10 days, but it’s definitely not business as usual with Bert and Linda watching from afar at home in the Netherlands.

“Every day I get some photos, videos and we Facetime, of course. I get more contact than usual,” Zonderland laughed.

After Worlds, Zonderland’s No. 1 priority will be baby Bert, but he doesn’t want to come home empty handed.

“14.4 is possible for a lot of guys,” Zonderland said of his qualification score. “So I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”

It’s hard not to imagine him winning or, at the very least, making the podium. Either way, gold or not, Zonderland’s journey to Doha will be an unforgettable story to one day share with his son.