Sportswomen 2022: Vera Pauw’s purposeful activity is paying dividends

Sport gives the Republic of Ireland manager freedom and she is passionate about why ‘life is about movement’


She uses the word so often it’s like Vera Pauw’s personal mantra which is understandable given the scant face-to-face time she gets with her Irish players, when “nothing is done in training that is not purposeful”.

It is also a maxim for her own personal health and wellbeing and explains why Sport Ireland have asked her to be an ambassador for their new It’s My Time campaign.

They’re on a crusade to get women over-40 to hit the “off” switch on all those tugging on their time and set some aside to find and do a regular physical activity that brings them personal joy. The Ireland manager’s own hamster wheel is spinning towards the World Cup - and all its attendant expectation and hype - which is now just seven months away.


Pauw turns 60 next month yet exudes enviable fitness, energy and enthusiasm which she attributes to finding time to engage in daily “purposeful” exercise. Even during Ireland’s action-packed quarterly training camps she makes time, not only for herself but for the rest of her backroom staff.

“Every other day there is a group of us going running together in the morning, at 7.30 or 8.00, because during the day we cannot find the time. We have our staff meeting at 9.30 and always force ourselves to do it within 20 minutes so we can have breakfast with the team at 10am.

“I have also made an agreement with the FAI, since the coronavirus, that, in the morning [in the Netherlands] I cycle. The morning is my time because you cannot cycle in the evening.

“I start working about 2pm our time which is 1pm here and go on as long as I need. People can get emails from me at 11pm or midnight or also at 5.30am your time as I get up very early sometimes to cycle before work.”

At this point in her life she exercises to feel free and have fun, not to get fit and don’t get her started on gyms.

“I’ve had several, how do you say it, applications [memberships]? It’s a waste of money for me. I go one or two times and then I’m bored.”

We do it because we love it and we plan the rides that make things feel special for us

She practically snorts at the suggestion that a gym might be a good place to start if you’re a woman in midlife looking to rediscover your sporting joy.

“Going to a gym where all those fit people are? Come on!” she says. “They are already fit and just there to show off. Can I say that? Yes, I will say that!” she says with a grin.

“Of course I want to have core stability so I have a few tools at home but, other than that, what I am doing is only purposeful movement.

“I am biking every day that I possibly can, maybe 70 to 80 kilometres on a racing bike, out on the roads. I don’t do stationary [biking] unless there is ice or snow. I also run a few times a week and in the winter speed skating, which we do on tracks and artificial ice in the Netherlands. Speed skating is probably my biggest passion, I’ve skated since a child.”

Cycling she can do anywhere which particularly suits her peripatetic career as a football manager and she happily admits to “spending all my money on bikes, not handbags”.

If you move because you love it and there’s purpose in doing it, that is much better

How many have you got then?

“What? Is this a serious question?” she says with laugh. “Well I’m Dutch yeah, so I’m a bit crazy! I have three ‘superbikes’, not electric bikes but with electric gearing which is, yes, crazy. Then another carbon bike, a city bike, two mountain bikes and I think four visitor bikes in France.”

That’s 11, so a wee addiction maybe?

“Oh my husband’s worse, he’s got even more!” she says. “I think we probably have 12 bikes in France. I always cycled, even when I was a footballer because that is how I did my recovery. Now we have a house in the Dordogne, especially chosen for cycling. We go to France to cycle the mountains two or three times a year.”

It’s no surprise that herself and husband Bert van Lingen aren’t tootling around the foothills looking for an excuse to scoff croissants.

“The biggest thing for us is climbing and doing climbs like the Mont Ventoux and the Tourmalet,” she says, singling out two of the Tour de France’s most fabled challenges in the central Pyrenees.

The Col du Tourmalet is a 19km climb with an average gradient of 7 per cent, which tops out at 2,115m, over twice the height of Carrauntoohil.

It’s as famous for its stunning scenery as its extreme difficulty yet Ventoux, with an iconic radio tower on its bald summit, is even harder but her favourite. It’s a 21.5km climb to 1,579m and has one 5km section that averages nearly 10 per cent and another famous 500m ramp that is an even slower grind.

Ventoux seriously tests even Pauw’s redoubtable physical and mental resilience.

“I’ve done it two or three times and every time I think I’m not getting there! I’m thinking ‘how many more km are left?’ yet every time I somehow manage it,” she says without a trace of hubris, just sheer satisfaction and delight.

Finding time hasn’t always been easy in some of her previous managerial locations yet she has always found a way.

“I’ve kept a bike in America and in South Africa, even in Russia. We cycled in -15 degrees there. They have these huge, wide footpaths in Moscow so we’d do 20-25km one way and then back but on mountain bikes because of the poor surface.”

She’s as much of a sucker for cycling gizmos and the monitoring fitness wearables and apps as the rest of us yet “when people ask me what my average pace was, or how many kilometres I did, I have no idea. We do it because we love it and we plan the rides that make things feel special for us”.

You need to find time for activities that give you freedom because, if you feel freedom, you feel joy

“We don’t do Mont Ventoux to show off. We do it because climbing gives such a freedom to your body. The Tourmalet is the same. You just feel such a part of nature. If you are not into hours of cycling just find something you really enjoy, whether that is a football game or walking or basketball,” she says.

“Even if you’re a member of a gym, to me it’s much nicer to do a class in yoga or kick-boxing because that is purposeful movement.”

She believes there is far too much emphasis on female fitness, even in well meaning, mass-participation campaigns.

“We try to get women to ‘get fit’, to put the purpose on ‘being fitter’ but, in my opinion, if you move because you love it and there’s purpose in doing it, that is much better. So moving is to score, for example. That’s why football is such a great activity. You’re not playing it to get fit, you’re enjoying playing as a team and try to score more goals than your opponents.

“Sport gets the stress out of your body. Life is about moving. Go for walks or cycle or play a game not to get fit but to get into yourself and find time for yourself.

“You need to enjoy it,” she says. “Do it together and with other people. Every sports club probably has activities for over-40s. Just find something that you really like to do and make it sensible and purposeful.

“Maybe don’t do like me,” Pauw says. “If you exercise every day you might give up. That is just what I like. The key thing of sport is that you find freedom. That is what sport does. You need to find time for activities that give you freedom because, if you feel freedom, you feel joy.”