What has a giant stick, superior upper body strength and can cross a canal in a single bound? A fierljepper, of course! But what are these curious flying Dutchmen? How exactly do you fierljep? And how the hell do you pronounce that…word? 

This athletically demanding sport hails from West Frisia, Friesland but has spread all over the Netherlands, next door to Germany and even to other continents. Sit back, grab a pole and relax: we’ve got everything you need to know about the curious Dutch sport fierljeppen.

How do you pronounce fierljeppen?

There’s a lot of letters in that word, so let’s break it down before you flip-flop-flep all over your mouth (that sounds uncomfortable for you, and awkward for us). Fier-ljep-pen. Or, phonetically fiel-lep-en. Or, just press play on the below:

What is fierljeppen?

This strange combination of vowels and consonants is a sport that resembles pole-vaulting – in the most Dutch way possible, of course. Directly translated from Frisian, fierljeppen means ‘far leap.’ The goal of fierljeppen is to get as far as possible from the starting point while crossing a canal. Easy, right? Well, not really.

Where did fierljeppen come from?

Fierljeppen is a sport that was born out of necessity – the need to get over the various canals that criss-cross the Netherlands. Farmers began the practice when they decided that instead of going around the water, they would go over it. Genius!

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Dutch farmer fierjleppen 1938
A Dutch farmer fierljeps across a canal in 1938. Image: National Archief/Flickr

There are written records of fierljeppen dating all the way back to the 1200s, and paintings of people fierljepp-ing their way across the fields. Always a competitive bunch, the Dutch hosted the first fierljeppen competition in 1767.

Of course, more bridges and roads being built in the Netherlands reduced the need for fierljeppen as a method of transport. But hey, launching yourself through the air at the mercy of a stick is pretty fun, right? So the Dutch turned it into a competitive sport in 1975. Long live fierljeppen!

How do you fierljep?

To begin with, a fierljepper sprints like mad 15-20 metres toward a canal. When they reach the canal, they grab hold of a large pole (polsstok) and push it into the bottom of the muddy water. Relying on brute gravity and force, the fierljepper then rapidly climbs and attempts to control the pole midair as it begins to swing to the opposite side.

If successful, the fierljepper lands gracefully on the other side of the canal on a soft bed of sand. If unsuccessful, well…

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The pole that the competitor grabs onto is strategically positioned prior to the jump. A pole that is closer to the finishing end will get a competitor further, and give them more time to climb – but requires more momentum to make it all the way across. If the pole is placed closer to the starting position it requires less momentum – but gives the competitor less time to climb, resulting in a shorter distance achieved.

While the goal of fierljeppen is to go straight forwards, some competitors fall backwards, and others fall sideways into the canal. This is common even at the highest levels because fierljeppers will try to pass the dead centre (pole sticking straight up) as slowly as possible to maximize their climbing time.

What pole is a fierljeppen pole?

When it comes to fierljeppen, not just any pole will do. A polsstok has a round, flat base to prevent it from sinking into the muddy bottom of the canal. In the past, the poles were made of wood, then later constructed from aluminium. But today the poles are high tech, made of lightweight carbon fibre.

While we all know size doesn’t matter, that’s not true for this sport: the size of the pole ranges in size from 8 to 13 metres. More length = more height = more distance = more winning!

fierljeppen_man
Fierljeppen is the Dutch sport we can’t tear our eyes away from. Image: bertknot/Flickr

How do you win at fierljeppen?

In fierljeppen, the only thing that matters is where a fierljepper lands. When a competitor clears the canal and lands on the bed of sand, the distance is the only thing that affects the score. A competitor that climbed their pole halfway could technically still win over another competitor who climbs theirs all the way to the top, as long as they landed a further distance away.

You almost always have a friend in fierljeppen

Some competition rules state that when a competitor takes off on their sprint towards the pole, they have another person running directly behind them – a spotter. If the pole begins falling backwards (a.k.a in the direction that the competitor ran from) the spotter can yell ‘let go!’ and stop the competitor taking a nasty fall. It can also be motivating to have someone chasing you on your sprint!

There are cases where the spotter has been a little too focussed on spotting, and less focused on watching where they were going – leading to the spotter tumbling into the water below. Oops!

Fierljeppen records

So how far is a far leap? When fierljeppen began, these leapers would jump around 10 metres. Thanks to a better understanding of the sport and changes in pole material, the world record distance for fierljeppen is now 22.21 metres, held by Jaco de Groot from Utrecht. Not bad for a run, climb and jump!

Category Name Distance Place Date
Seniors Jaco de Groot 22.21 Zegveld 12-08-2017
Ladies Marrit v / d Wal 18.19 Burgum 31-07-2019
Juniors Reinier Overbeek 21.38 Burgum 19-08-2019
Veterans Theo van Kooten 20.60 Linschoten 31-07-2013

Source: Nederlands Fierljepbond

Watch Jaco de Groot break the fierljeppen world record here – any further and he would have landed in the crowd!

Where can you fierljep?

Today there are over 600 registered jumpers in the Netherlands, and international acclaim has eventuated in various clubs springing up all over the world! If you’re in the Netherlands and want to soar over the canals on a stick, you can head over to Polsstokbond Holland to find a fierljeppen club in your area.

Have you attempted fierljeppen before? Have you seen a fierljeppen competition? What do you think of this curious Dutch sport? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature Image: Peter van der Sluijs/Wikimedia Commons

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