Aafke van Leeuwen was victorious at the Jiu-Jitsu World Championships, which made up for her missing out on a medal at the World Games ©TWG

This year was going to be the year when, for the first - and last - time in her career, Aafke van Leeuwen won the World Games. 

And then, at the age of 30, this illustrious Dutch ju-jitsu athlete planned to retire from international competition and turn her attention to her club, and her coaching.

But the World Games finale fell flat. After failing to reach the women’s 70 kilograms final at the Birmingham Southern College venue in Alabama in mid-July she then lost the bronze-medal match to one of her perennial rivals, Denmark’s Liva Tanser.

That led to a period of self-doubt that was resolved when she decided to contest the World Championships for a final time - and signed off on her career by winning the title for a fourth time, an achievement that she discovered earlier this month that saw her be named as the International World Games Association's Athlete of the Month for November.

Reflecting on her late decision, she told insidethegames: "I had had a not so great one and a half years.

"I was fifth at last year’s World Championships in Abu Dhabi, and in the Europeans something happened which meant I couldn’t get a medal.

"The World Games was also disappointing. So after those three really disappointing tournaments I started doubting myself and thinking, should I still proceed on this course?

"I talked with my coach, Allard Schulenklopper, if I would do one more tournament after the World Games. 

"We decided together we would do one more because the feeling after it was quite bad.

"So we decided, yeah, let’s just have a nice experience and just enjoy the World Championships."

That meant a return to the Abu Dhabi venue where she had missed out on the finals section by one place in 2021. 

But she was arriving this time with a very different attitude.

"I just really love to compete," she said, "and wining in the process was a plus as the goal of this tournament was really just enjoying it, seeing every little detail and thinking, oh yeah, soak this in because it is the last time I experience this as an athlete.

"For the World Games, I was focused upon it for one and a half years. My eyes were on the prize, and I only went for gold. 

"It was a very different mindset than just enjoying. The World Games was for me the one gold medal I don’t have and that was the goal and I was very determined to get it but unfortunately it didn’t work.

"So it will be a little stain on my career! But at the same time I learned a lot from it so - yeah, it’s OK.

"And to end my career with another world title was so satisfying. Because this was my goodbye tournament as an athlete."

She had the satisfaction of defeating Tanser in the semi-final to earn her gold-medal match against another familiar and tough opponent in France’s Chloe Lalande, who took World Games silver after losing to Annalena Bauer of Germany.

For all the tension of the occasion, van Leeuwen stuck to her plan of taking maximum enjoyment from the event.

"The facilities at Abu Dhabi are super," she said. 

"The hall is super nice, big, the ambiance is really great. 

"Last year I missed competing in the final contests when I finished fifth, but when I watched finals there was this light show beforehand and I was thinking ‘Oh My God I would have loved to be there’.

"So the moment I got to the final I thought, OK, I must just enjoy this light show and that was something I really wanted.

"Before every final call out you have a blue and a red corner, and you can come up with some music and then your name is called and you are on the main mat with the light show. It’s super-cool."

The final against Lalande was very tight, but the tide began to turn van Leeuwen’s way when her coach made a successful challenge and she went on to secure a narrow but decisive victory.

Describing her start in ju-jitsu, van Leeuwen recalled how, aged five, she had followed her elder brother to a local judo club - "he really didn’t like it, but I saw all these little white ninjas running around I was like, ‘what is this? I want to wear these ninja suits too!"

When she was eight her coach, who was also well versed in ju-jitsu, asked her if she wanted to do some "kicking and punching."

So she took up ju-jitsu as well.

"I really loved it," she said. 

"Eventually I had to choose between judo and ju-jitsu, because if I had to focus on both it would mean I would be mediocre at both, which I did not want to be. So I chose the thing I liked most."

Van Leeuwen's studies have already led to her becoming a Master in Sports Management.

She also works as a lifestyle manager at Sport Gouda in The Netherlands, where her work aims to help people become more physically active through innovative exercises, and now she is looking forward to helping youngsters at her club develop their own skills.

But for now she is still reflecting upon the unplanned, and perfect ending to her career.

Cheering her on were many of her longtime club training partners, and her girlfriend Rebekka Dahl of Denmark, who had won bronze in the women’s 57kg class.

What made the occasion extra special was the fact that both her parents - Afra and Wil-Jan - were there, as her mother had been diagnosed with cancer in 2018, since when she had missed numerous tournaments because she was receiving treatment.

"My mum has been sick for four years," she said. "We heard the diagnosis two days before the World Championships in Sweden. I decided to go but I was crying on the mat and it wasn’t my best tournament, although I was still able to get a bronze.

"From that point she wasn’t able to come to a lot of my tournaments, but now she is doing quite well and has more energy. She was at the last World Championships in Abu Dhabi when I lost - I really wanted to win for her.

"So this year having her there again together with my dad was very special. 

"Four years ago we would never have believed that she would still be there and would be able to see me win the Worlds and end my career like that."