Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard much about Mette Hulgaard of Denmark. Her country isn’t that well-known on the international scene, but when they are competing, Mette is always there.
The 27-year-old who received her college degree as a physical therapy student earlier this year, is an eight-time national all-around champion, has competed at many European and world championships throughout her career, and most recently has won the team silver at the 2014 Northern European Championships as well as the bronze medal on bars at this year’s Nordic Championships, held in Iceland earlier this month.
Mette, who trains at KG66 under 1992 Hungarian Olympian Bernadett Balazs (affectionately called Ditti) and Milan Udvaracz, started gymnastics at the age of three. After a few years, her coaches in Rødovre noticed a rare talent in Mette, and put her on the fast track to competitive gymnastics at the age of six. Now, 20 years later, she is one of Denmark’s best female gymnasts and has been for over a decade.
Her first national all-around title came in 2004, her first year as a senior, and she picked up another seven in the years that followed, most recently winning in 2014. She made her worlds debut in 2006, when her country hosted the competition in Aarhus. Her dream has always been to go to the Olympics, and in 2011, it looked like she actually had the routines that could help her qualify to the test event and from there, to the 2012 Olympic Games in London. But just three weeks before world championships in Tokyo, Mette, who had just turned 23, tore her ACL, effectively putting an end to her dreams.
“The injury took away most of my identity,” Mette said. “At the time I wasn’t going to school and my only focus was on training for worlds.” She continued training through the injury, coming into the gym a few times a week mostly because it helped her feel like she was still part of her beloved KG66 community. “It made the days feel not as long. It was good for me to get away from home and see everyone.”
Mette’s ACL injury physically limited her a great deal, and she soon realized there were certain skills she’d never be able to compete again. But her teammates and her coaches supported her through all of the rough patches and setbacks, and she says she came through it all much stronger mentally, helping her decide to continue her career into the next quad.
She approached 2013 with a healthy body and a positive outlook, working harder than ever to attempt to qualify for Rio 2016, and it seemed like it was paying off. Though she got off to a bit of a bumpy start with a rough beam set at Universiade that summer, Mette had her highest major international finish by two points at worlds in Antwerp, earning a 48.724 to finish 53rd in qualifications. It was an important step on her road to redemption, and made it worth it for her to continue her career.
The next season was marked by many ups and downs. She won the national all-around title in 2014, but then had errors at European Championships that held her back. She had a great performance at Northern European Championships that fall to finish eighth all-around with a 48.275 in addition to qualifying into three finals, placing eighth on vault, sixth on bars, and fourth on floor, but had mistakes on bars at worlds to finish 126th with a 46.94.
In 2015, four years after her injury that took her out of Olympic contention, Mette had to take a deep breath and hope her 20 years of training and competing would pay off. She got off to a bit of a bumpy start at Euros, finishing 58th in qualifications for the highest finish on her team but four points back from the cutoff for the all-around final. She looked a bit stronger at the inaugural European Games a month later, qualifying in 52nd to finish only ten spots back from reaching the all-around final, and again finishing best on her team to help them to a 22nd place finish. She continued training that season with her Olympic goal in mind, and though she lost the all-around title that year, she was still Denmark’s best shot at a test event spot.
But then, one week before the 2015 World Championships, Mette fractured her shin. For the second quad in a row, a season-ending injury would take Mette out of the Olympic qualification process, and the next in line, first-year senior Linnea Wang, only finished 135th in Glasgow, 33 spots away from a spot at the test event. Once again, the Olympics were not going to happen for Denmark’s artistic gymnasts.
Mette is back again this year, refusing to let her bad luck keep her down for long. While she couldn’t compete in the all-around at nationals this year due to her injury limiting her to just bars and beam, she had some of her best performances on both of these events in prelims to earn scores of 13.05 and 12.0. She won the bars gold with a 12.9 in the final, and then placed second on beam for another successful return after such a devastating finish to 2015.
A month after her bars title at home, Mette won bronze on the event at Nordic Championships, again sticking to just two events in prelims. She’ll continue on to next month’s European Championships alongside this year’s national all-around champion Victoria Gilberg, a new senior who has been looking especially strong on beam and floor.
The next quad should see a bit of a renaissance with the Danish team, with both Victoria Gilberg and current junior Marie Skammelsen looking especially strong and ready to help Mette carry the Danish team. There’s also Linnea Wang, though she just had a scary and unfortunate injury of her own, dislocating vertebrae in her neck following a fall on her Yurchenko full in training for nationals, though her parents and doctors are hopeful about her recovery. Though they missed out after close calls in 2012 and 2016, hopefully 2020 will finally bring some luck.
Despite the hardships that come as the nature of gymnastics, Mette is fortunate to have so many good people in her life helping her get through it all and credits them with being there for her. Her coaches and teammates are always there for her as she’s worked to achieve so much success throughout her long career, and she considers Ditti a mentor who has helped so much with her confidence and motivation. She also has an incredibly supportive mother, who she still lives with as she receives no financial support from the government as a gymnast, and a best friend in one of her longtime teammates Michelle Lauritsen, who just turned 28 and has competed on many international teams with Mette throughout the years, including last year’s European Games squad.
Mette wants to stay in the sport for as long as her body can handle it. “I take it one year at a time,” she said. “If I’m healthy, I don’t see a reason to stop. I always feel that I can keep learning more and more, not just in terms of skills, but also how to mentally compete.” Mette has put her heart and soul into her sport, and whether her Olympic dream ever comes true or not, she will always be remembered as a game-changer for the sport in Denmark.
Article by Lauren Hopkins