At only 17 years old, Donato Freens has quietly become one of the most familiar faces on the European circuit. The young Dutch SUP Racer, thanks to a massive support from his family, has shown over the past three years a rarely-seen commitment to training and competing internationally and the results are there, 2022 being his best season so far with, among other achievements, three national individual titles under his belt at the recent Dutch SUP Race Championships. As some major and very exciting events are fast approaching, namely EUROSUP 2022 in Denmark and the 2022 ICF SUP WORLDS, where he will choose once again to not compete in the Junior category but in the Open one, we are catching up with Donato who’s craving even bigger titles as part of our Young SUP Athletes series.
Hello Donato! I have been looking forward to getting to know you better! Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your exciting international life until today?
Bonjour Mat! My name is Donato Freens, I am 17 years old and I am from the Netherlands. Currently I live in the South West namely in the province of North-Brabant which for a water-abundant country such as the Netherlands is pretty landlocked. I have lived abroad the majority of my life. When I was 11 months old my parents decided to move to Qatar and this is where I spent most of my childhood. I attended an international school, had friends from all over the world, played rugby (number 8) across the Middle East region and travelled the world during our many family vacations.
Photo: Liveit.ch / Simon Boschi
What is your sport history before becoming of the fastest SUP racers in Europe and how did you get started with Stand Up Paddling and SUP Racing?
From a young age onwards I got introduced to sports. My dad is a former professional windsurfer and although he chose to pursue a career outside the sport, he remained passionate about wave sailing and therefore we spent a lot of time out on the water. When I was 5 years old I got my first set and learned to windsurf in Perth, Australia. Back home in Qatar, we windsurfed occasionally but it was not ideal because of a lack of waves and so we were looking for different activities. The family started surfing too on our family holidays and while on Mauritius we saw people riding waves on a SUP. Initially, we thought it was not exciting enough – quite frankly dorky – until we tried it eventually and got hooked in 2015. It proved to be a good activity to do in Qatar where it is usually very hot in summer but pleasant the rest of the year and thus ideal to go for a paddle. My dad and I got a couple of cruiser-type boards and did 5-10km leisurely paddles in the evenings after school and work. In 2016 we decided to go back home to the Netherlands where I have lived since.
I moved back to the Netherlands at 11 years old having lived basically my entire life abroad. The Netherlands was a place a visited now and then, but it was a totally new society for me and it took a bit of time for me to adjust to the western lifestyle. One of the things I did when I came back was join the local rugby club. I played rugby for many years in Qatar with Australian, English, Welsh, French and all sorts of other kids and in the Netherlands I could use that background successfully. Because of this I played 2 age groups up and enjoyed it very much. As I got about 14-15 years old I gave up rugby to focus on Stand Up Paddle racing. I felt the risk of seriously injuring myself in rugby became too great and quit. So far I think it is a good choice.
I did my first race in 2017, namely the Lost Mills Race and felt I had a bit of talent. Paddling requires physical ability but also mental strength and I finished the 18km elite race in 25 knots wind at 12 years of age, without a drinking bag. Since then I gradually started with some more serious training, participated in national and international races and in 2019 I got some good results. I landed my first podiums at the Dutch Nationals in 2020, won the Tech Race title in 2021 (plus two silver), and in 2022 I took the win in Sprint, Tech Race and Long Distance.
You seem to have a lot of family support wherever you go and it feels like your commitment to SUP is also a family project. Any comments on this?
It is fair to say that my family is very passionate about the things we pursue. My parents are very supportive of my younger sister Felica and me. If we want to take up an activity, my mum and dad will help us with all their might. They will do everything in their power to support us in what we do. At the same time they demand that we are dedicated, disciplined and driven. They will stand strong with us, but not without proper investment from our end. My dad understands the importance of having support from your parents when you want to become an accomplished athlete. You need to have the proper gear, training and tactical support and the opportunity to travel to excel at a high level. This is especially true in SUP racing as the international events are held in all sorts of water conditions and therefore you need to understand how this affects your racing and be able to adapt to it. Simply put, my family and I go all in. If we start something, we invest all our passion, time and energy into it and enjoy it together as a family, as a family adventure. Our time in Qatar has really bonded us. We lived in a foreign country with a different culture and that has made us put trust and comfort in each other. In the early days, my father raced as well, but now he enjoys working with me more than anything. He brings me to races, trains me at home and because of his past in windsurfing and his racing experience, he shares a lot of his knowledge about race strategy and tactics. My mom goes with us whenever she can and it’s fair to say that she together with my little sister Felicia are quite vocal when I am racing 😊.
I am very fortunate to have such a family and I could not do it without them.
Can you take us through your season so far and tell us what is your favorite achievement to date in 2022?
This season has been my most successful season so far. I feel that I already have so many good memories and the season is just halfway! Last year I got my first national title and this was a watershed moment for me. I had worked so hard, day in day out, to be the champion and when I finished the line in first, it was such an emotional moment. If I would have to choose then I would say that this achievement is very special, perhaps the most special, to me. Before then, I snapped at the heels of my fellow competitors but failed to climb top spot in a race that really mattered. On that day, in august 2021 I proved to myself that I could, at only 16 years of age. I waited for my moment to strike and made my move just before the finish line and outsmarted my nemesis. Finally!
This victory fuelled me to become the undisputed Dutch champion across all three racing disciplines in 2022. Because of Covid I had online classes which allowed me to get a lot of training in. I prepared myself really well with the help and support of my parents and Vincent Guillaume, and got the job done.
Just like I had to mentally grow to win in my home country of the Netherlands, I am starting to get more comfortable on the international stage. This year, I won all disciplines at the ICF Prague World Cup, got a silver medal at the EuroTour in Norhausen as well as Namur. Also in oceanic conditions I am starting to get closer to the front.
You’ve won all SUP Race disciplines in the latest Dutch champs. How important is that for you and what is the current state of SUP racing right now in the Netherlands?
It is fair to say that I was really keen on winning all disciplines at the Dutch Championships in 2022. The year before I got one gold and two silvers, and although I was extremely stoked about my first Dutch title, I felt I left shorthanded. Internationally I had been doing more races last year and I did well there but I feel I was perceived as that cute boy from Holland that is promising but not yet a contender for the win in bigger races. For foreign pundits, the Netherlands seems like a tiny country with only flat water so it was important for me to be both undisputed Dutch Champion in all disciplines but also do well internationally, both on “typical Dutch water conditions” as well as oceanic conditions.
When it comes to the racing scene in the Netherlands, I think it is more of a North West European SUP society. We all mingle and come together at races in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany and you will often see the same top racers there from all these countries at events. Because geographically we are pretty close, I would say closer than most French racers are to each other, we only have to drive a few hours to race the best those countries have to offer. These races are often on protected water, such as lakes and rivers, which does not make you the most well-rounded racer but at the same time the races are usually very tactical so I have learned a lot from racing in these type of conditions. It is not just about paddling hard, but racing smart. Just like cycling, you have to have your wits about it.
Personally, I want to become a good paddler in all sorts of conditions and therefore I train a lot on moving water in the Netherlands. My local spot is a large tidal lake called the Oosterschelde which is about a 20-30 minutes drive from my home, but fortunately my parents are very supportive and make time available for me to train. On weekends I train on the North Sea so I can get better sea legs. This year alone my dad has driven 60.000 km’s to take me to events all across Europe and train in France frequently to become a better ocean paddler.
What are your objectives for the 2nd part of the season?
The period of the last week of August till the second week of September are marked red in my calendar! I am very excited and honoured to represent the Netherlands at the upcoming EUROSUP in Hvide Sande, Denmark. The location seems stunning, the ocean on one side and the lake on the other. The racing will be diverse and the conditions on the day shall be a lottery. It reminds me of the place I train a lot in the Netherlands and I can’t wait to see my fellow competitors again and give it my best.
Following this event, I am heading off to Poland. I am very excited to participate in the upcoming ICF SUP World Championships in Gdynia. It will be my second World Championships after my maiden participation in the 2021 ICF World Championships in Baltonfured, Hungary. The ICF events I have been to were a blast and therefore I am very much looking forward to coming to Gdynia to see my friends again, but also to give them a hard time on the water! This is my main event of the year and I anticipate that the Baltic Sea can surprise us with all sorts of conditions, from completely flat to bumpy. I am preparing myself for anything, stick to my training plan and hope that the form of the day will let me execute well.
You were among a few brave under 18 years old SUP Racers to choose not to compete with the Juniors at the last ICF SUP Worlds. Why? Are you planning to do the same this year?
Although I am only 17 years old, I want to race the best of the best and therefore I have decided to race in the Open Men Class (Sprint, Tech Race and Long Distance) again like the previous edition. Quite frankly, I have always raced in the elite men’s division from my very first race onwards. Through trainings and national and international competitions I have put in the work to be able to do well at this main event of our sport this year. I am the reigning Dutch champion as well and I feel it is my honour and duty to represent my country in the elite men field at the main event of our sport. Secondly, I think that high-performance racing should be done on high-performance gear and only in the Elite class competition will I be able to do exactly that.
Overall, I am pleased with my racing and progress this year and I look forward to the opportunity to better my last year’s result in Gydnia. Last year I think I did very well as I reached Final A (8th) in Tech Racing and ended up 11th in the Long Distance. My plan is to do my best and see where it will take me. It will not be easy, but I will try!
See you all hopefully very soon on the starting line!
Bio and (Key) Results
Name: Donato Freens
Height: 188 cm (6’2”)
Weight: 83 kg (183 lbs)
Date of Birth: 28 May 2005, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Hometown: St. Willebrord, the Netherlands
Competing internationally since: 2019
Favourite SUP Locations: Crozon Peninsula, Oosterschelde
Sponsors: Light Corp Board, Black Project SUP, Freens SUP
Contact: [email protected]
Dutch Championship – 1st place Sprint
Dutch Championship – 1st place Technical
Dutch Championship – 1st place Long Distance
Open Belgian Championship – 1st place Technical
Open Belgian Championship – 1st place Long Distance
The Hague Paddle Fest – 1st place Sprint
The Hague Paddle Fest – 1st place Technical
The Hague Paddle Fest – 1st place Long Distance
ICF Prague World Cup – 1st place Technical
ICF Prague World Cup – 1st place Long Distance
Eurotour Namur – 2nd place
Eurotour Nordhausen – 2nd place
Dutch Championship – 1st place Technical
Open Belgian Championship – 1st place Long Distance
Eurotour Nordhausen – 3rd place
ICF World Championships – Technical 8th place
ICF World Championships – Long Distance 11th place