Sportspersons are wired differently. Dennis Warmerdam is an embodiment of it.
Five years ago, when doctors told the Dutch striker that the only way to stop cancer in his right forearm from spreading was to amputate it, his immediate thought was to ‘try everything to save it.’ “’Otherwise’, I told myself, ‘go for the Paralympics’,” he says.
Warmerdam says it as a matter of fact. Here as a reserve player, he did not feature in the Netherlands’ opening-game win over Malaysia in the World Cup on Saturday. “But I am the guy with a story,” the former Netherlands junior captain says.
And it’s a helluva story.
Warmerdam is sitting on a bench next to the practice pitch in the shadows of the imposing stands of the Birsa Munda Stadium, recalling a spring afternoon five years ago when he thought his career was done.
For more than two years, he’d been suffering from pain in his right forearm but doctors were unable to find its cause. He’d even undergone surgeries. But Warmerdam says they only complicated his condition. “Because of all the surgeries, the tumour exploded. It was getting worse because we didn’t do the right things,” he says. “In the end, after two years of searching what it was, it was a big bomb… cancer.”
The rare form of muscle cancer wasn’t life-threatening, doctors assured him after multiple scans. “At one hospital, the only option (he was given) was to amputate the arm,” he says. He sought a second opinion and one specialist suggested a process that had a ‘success rate of just one percent.’ Of course, Warmerdam went for it.
Before he began his battle with cancer, which could’ve ended with his arm amputated, Warmerdam stepped on the hockey pitch ‘one last time’ for his then-club Pinoke in an emotional derby with Amsterdam. It was a day all players in the Dutch top division wore Warmerdam’s ‘number 13’ jerseys during warm-up; after the game, he left the field in tears on the shoulders of his team-mates.
It took six months for the operation to happen after he was diagnosed with the disease and while he waited for the tumour to be removed, Warmerdam, experiencing a ‘rollercoaster of emotions’, went to extremes to stop the cancer from spreading. “You don’t want to be the guy that doesn’t try it and maybe later thinks ‘should have tried it’,” he says. “Maybe it’s a rumour but they say eating red meat during your cancer can see your tumour growing. So, I was like I don’t want to eat sugar and red meat. I don’t know if it worked but these are the small, little things you can do.”
Muscles, skin grafted from thigh
The skin grafting surgery itself was complicated. “They took muscles and skin from my leg, you can see it,” he says, pointing to his right thigh, “and created a new arm (with) it.” He then proceeds to show his heavily-scarred arm.
The surgery had been a success – a ‘medical miracle’, he underlines – but the doctors said he wouldn’t be able to play hockey again. When he woke up from anaesthesia, Warmerdam first tried to move his right hand followed by flexing his wrists, holding an imaginary hockey stick. Then, he tried to wrap his fingers around an empty glass and lift it. He could. So finally, he poured some water into it and tried to lift it again. He smiled, thinking to himself, “If I can move my hands and lift this, I would be able to play hockey too.
“I recovered really fast from the surgery because I was fit. After surgery, it took me four months to hold the stick. Then, one year later, I played my first match for my club. So, one-and-a-half years I was out of hockey but out of that time, I trained five months so that I could be fit and strong (upon return),” he says.
His perseverance paid dividends and Warmerdam returned with a vengeance. He played for his club, was selected in the larger pool of players for the Tokyo Olympics, joined one of Netherlands’ biggest sides Bloemendaal and became one of the league’s highest goal-scorers.
When former Netherlands captain Jeroen Delmee became the national-team coach after the Tokyo Olympics, Warmerdam got his first national call-up. He is in Rourkela as a reserve player, hopeful that at some stage in the tournament, he’ll be called into action.
“I think during the last World Cup in India, they (the Netherlands) needed three reserves so there’s a chance as well that I will play,” he says. “But then, I’m playing at the highest level and nobody expected it. Sometimes, I have to tell myself, ‘it’s true, I’m here.’”