Fierljeppen: national sport of Friesland
Fierljeppen is a traditional Frisian pole-jumping sport over water that is both demanding and complex. A jump consists of an intense sprint to the pole (polsstok), jumping and grabbing it.
You then climb to the top while trying to control the pole's forward and lateral movements and finish with a graceful landing on a sand bed on the other side of the water. The person who lands the furthest wins, and the current record is more than 20 metres.
Because of all the diverse skills required in fierljeppen, fierljeppers are considered to be very complete athletes with superbly developed strength and coordination.
The Netherlands has always been a very flat country with lots of ditches and trenches crisscrossing the countryside.
To jump over these waterways, the Dutch people have been using poles for as long as people can remember. Old paintings of Brueghel already show jumping Dutchmen crossing the canals. The first written records stem from the 1200s.
A favourite pastime in the olden days of people living in the northern provinces of Groningen and Friesland was to collect the eggs of lapwing birds. These were considered a delicacy.
In order to reach the nests, people had no choice but to find a way to cross the ditches that were in the fields everywhere. For jumping across the wider canals a pole was required.
People realised the jumping in itself was pretty fun, and they began organising competitions. Wooden poles with a length of about four metres were used in the beginning. At the base a square or round block was mounted to prevent the pole from sinking into the mud.
Of course people weren’t satisfied with jumping over ditches, so they started using longer and longer poles in order to cross increasingly wide waterways and canals. This is what turned into fierljeppen.
In 1771 the first official match was held in Friesland. By the 1930s the sport already closely resembled what it is today, and professional jumping arenas were created.
Official rules were established for how the competitions should be run and what all the measurements and conditions should be. In 1957 a league was formed in Friesland, followed by leagues in Utrecht and South Holland, and in the 1970s the first Dutch championships were held.
In the beginning people leaped about 10 metres, but that has since doubled. As the sport grew increasingly professional, wooden poles were replaced by aluminium and then by carbon fibre. The poles can have a length of up to 13,25 metres according to federation guidelines.
While fierljeppen may look like a typical countryside folk sport, the practitioner requires great technical expertise. Many different aspects have to be mastered in order to execute and land a successful jump.
First the pole has to be placed at the right distance from the platform. You then do a short and explosive sprint of 15 to 20 metres and grab the pole with both hands, while your legs swing around both sides.
Then you frenetically and as quickly as possible start climbing to the top, because the higher you get, the more distance you will bridge. However, you have to make sure to not upset the balance or trajectory of the pole.
Once the pole starts its downward trajectory, you need to push yourself off and swing your legs forward in order to maximise your momentum. It’s of course important to nail the landing properly in order to avoid injury.
The Dutch championship in fierljeppen is held every year at the Grijpskerk Arena, which has been in use since the 1930s for this unique Frisian form of pole jumping, ditch jumping or canal vaulting.
Would you try jumping over water with a 13 metre pole?