My favorite moment of the Aquece Rio competition was Belgium qualifying a full team to the Olympic Games. After coming so close four years ago but then missing out by a point, the Belgian women’s program has worked hard to build up one of its most talented programs of all time, one that finished third this weekend ahead of typically stronger teams like France, Australia, and Romania.
What made it even more special is that the team performed so well after several rough points over the past few months. In December, just two months after her excellent qualification and all-around final performances at worlds, 20-year-old Lisa Verschueren was forced to retire. The 2014 national champion was doing school work and noticed she didn’t feel well the day after a gala performance when doctors found a heart defect and told her she would never be able to compete in gymnastics again. As one of the best in her nation — always able to put up top scores on all four events — the loss of Verschueren so close to the Olympic year was a huge blow.
The team then suffered another hit when new senior and top all-arounder Nina Derwael, known for her beautiful and difficult work on bars, injured her hand while training on beam less than a month before the Test Event. Derwael, who turned 16 a few days after her injury, flew to Rio di Janeiro as an alternate for the team and trained with them leading up to the qualification session, but in the end was unable to join them.
In the end, the women who competed included two-time Olympian Gaelle Mys, two-time national champion Julie Croket, 2015 world all-around finalist Rune Hermans, two-time world all-around finalist Laura Waem, and new seniors Axelle Klinckaert and Senna Deriks, the latter of whom was the replacement for Derwael. 2015 national champion Cindy Vandenhole was the official alternate, and the team also had first-year senior Julie Meyers waiting in the wings.
With the good fortune of starting on vault, the Belgian women still had to deal with a nearly hour-long delay prior to competing after some issues with the power and generators on the lower level of the arena. They paid no mind to the drama, however, and started off with five excellent FTYs on vault, including Klinckaert’s typically solid and near-perfect effort scoring a 14.2.
Bars is always collectively the best rotation from the Belgians, where they have two super difficult routines (three if you include Derwael’s) in addition to the rest being generally quite clean. Both Waem and Deriks posted start values of 6.1 for scores of 14.2 and 14.333, respectively, with Deriks truly showing how valuable she was, as her score was the highest individual score of the day for the team (and she was originally the alternate!).
The women started beam with a fall from Croket, but immediately got things back on track with excellent hit performances from Hermans, Mys, Waem, and Klinckaert, and they finished strong on floor with five super memorable and polished sets, with Klinckaert again posting the highest score with a 13.866 for what’s known as her “frog routine,” with music and choreography reworked from one of the Belgian acro routines, though Klinckaert truly makes it her own with her immense performance ability that had the crowd on their feet by the end of her routine.
It wasn’t a perfect day for Belgium, and they don’t have the most difficult routines in their repertoire, but they are almost perfectly balanced across all four events and fought hard to have an incredibly solid day to qualify a full team to the Olympic Games for the first time since 1948.
What struck me most about the Belgian team was not how technically proficient they were, but how much heart they had both on the floor and in the stands, something that can be the difference between a good day and a bad day. Hours before the competition even started, the moment the doors to the arena opened for that final subdivision, the Belgian team’s fans and family members pushed into the arena in a giant parade of black, yellow, and red, waving flags, the national colors painted on their faces, chanting “TEAM BEL-GYM!” as they ran around the perimeter of the seating area prior to sitting down. They had eight flags hung alongside their section, and led the arena in cheers and chants during the long wait for the competition to begin.
When the team finally made its appearance, the fans went nuts, and that infectious energy and support without a doubt helped the gymnasts with their fight. In a way, it reminded me of the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series in 2013, coming into the season as an underdog team from the year prior but playing with passion and fire to help the city rebound after a terrorist attack killed three and injured hundreds. Faced with a similar situation with an attack on Belgian soil just one month prior to the test event, the Belgian gymnasts and their supporters brought light and hope back to their country in a dark time, especially after countless injuries and setbacks this quad made it seem like an impossible dream.
Team Belgium knew they had qualified before their final performer on floor, Axelle Klinckaert, went up to compete, but they saved their celebrations until Klinckaert’s score came in. Watching them savor that moment with the crying and screaming and flag-waving was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve witnessed in sports, treating their bronze medal qualifying finish like they’d just won Olympic gold because for them, this was the goal and they got it done in a tremendous fashion, with their families and non-competing teammates by their sides.
In addition to giving the injured Derwael an alternate spot so she could be in on the process, the Belgian federation actually flew Verschueren out to Brazil to experience the historic event in person. Though she wasn’t allowed out onto the floor, she did get to see her teammates after the meet ended, her reaction brilliantly captured by photographer An Vanderstraeten in this image below.
For Verschueren, the experience must have been bittersweet, as she was incredibly proud of her teammates but there’s always going to be that gnawing feeling inside knowing she can’t join them at the Olympic Games. But Verschueren was such a crucial member of the team this quad, lending her talents to so much of the nation’s success in 2015, without which they wouldn’t have been at the test event, period. While she won’t be putting a leotard back on anytime soon and isn’t part of the #GoBelGYM Olympic campaign this year, she is to this team what Christine Peng Peng Lee was to Canada in 2012 – a huge motivator and supporter that the team couldn’t do without.
With nine gymnasts fighting for the federation’s five team spots this summer, the same goes for the four who won’t end up making it. Official “Olympian” or not, the Belgian program is about so much more than the gymnasts on the floor. It’s a whole system involving every member of the federation believing in and supporting the Belgian women’s Olympic dream.
Article by Lauren Hopkins