When I woke up this morning, the first thing I saw was Belgian Gymnastics Federation’s Facebook post sadly announcing the withdrawal of 16-year-old Axelle Klinckaert from their Olympic team.
While there have been many injuries taking girls out of team contention this year, Klinckaert is the first casualty in terms of those already on teams forced to step aside. The Belgian team was training in Toulouse, France when Klinckaert felt a sharp pain in her left knee that prevented her from training. The injury is not serious, but a doctor determined that she must miss three weeks of training, taking her recovery period right up to the start of the Olympic Games in the worst case of bad timing possible.
Rune Hermans, who earned a spot in the all-around final at worlds last year, will replace Klinckaert with Cindy Vandenhole and Julie Meyers moving into the first and second reserve spots. Hermans has much to offer the team, but the loss of Klinckaert – fourth in a field of 65 all-around gymnasts at the test event and capable of lending big scores on vault, beam, and floor – is still a huge blow to the team.
Klinckaert was most known in the gymnastics world for her fabulous performances on floor. Even when her difficulty wasn’t very strong, she attracted attention thanks to her wild and often funny routines, commanding the crowd with a presence that can’t be taught. As she got older, she tacked on big skills like a DTY vault, a standing arabian on beam, and a full-twisting double layout on floor, giving her incredible potential both as an individual finals contender as well as contributing so much to the team.
On the international scene, Klinckaert started showing promise early in 2014, when she was just 13. She lacked big difficulty and often made mistakes that kept her out of the hunt for medals, but bigger skills and consistency would come with time and several of her performances showed a glimpse of the gymnast she would someday become, including her gold medal-winning all-around performance at Belgian Championships and her qualification performance in the junior division of European Championships, which got her into the all-around, beam, and floor finals.
In her second and final year competing at the junior level, Klinckaert made a comeback from injury just in time to present herself as a huge threat at the European Youth Olympic Festival, where the Russians were expected to dominate. Klinckaert performed phenomenally in the all-around final to win the silver medal despite tying champion Daria Skrypnik‘s score of 55.75. Though Klinckaert had the better day with Skrypnik falling on beam, the tie-breaker drops the lowest score, which worked against Klinckaert as the Russian was able to get rid of her beam score to come out on top by two tenths.
Klinckaert got her revenge in event finals, however, with gold medal performances to defeat Skrypnik on both beam and floor, and along with teammate and good friend Nina Derwael, the Belgians flew home from Tbilisi with six medals, including team silver.
This competition put both girls on the map as Belgian’s two best gymnasts despite them not yet at the senior ranks, meaning they were not age-eligible to compete at last year’s world championships, though Belgium still managed to qualify a full team to the test event, where Derwael and Klinckaert were expected to help lead the team to their first Olympic berth in history. With worlds out of the picture, Klinckaert instead closed out her season and her short-but-sweet junior career to become the first Top Gym all-around champion from Belgium, where she also won the titles on vault and floor.
In 2016, Klinckaert has been a force of nature, beginning her senior career with the silver all-around medal at Gymnix, where she also became the floor champion. She won the all-around and medaled on all four events at the Belgian friendly meet against Romania and Germany in early April, and later on won the bronze all-around medal and gold on floor at the Dutch Championships, which featured the Belgian team as guests.
But individual accolades aside, the most important accomplishment of Klinckaert’s career was going up and hitting all four routines at the Olympic test event, where she was a crucial member of the team’s third-place finish, which landed them a spot at the Olympic Games. She came in this summer as a front-runner for the team, unveiling a new floor routine and big upgrades that made her a lock.
Klinckaert, who is from the Flemish city of Dendermonde, considered her test event teammate Julie Croket her idol. Four years ago, Croket was set to compete as Belgium’s sole female gymnast at the Olympic Games, but a knee injury of her own just weeks prior to leaving took her out. Now, Klinckaert finds herself in the same situation, ready and prepared to represent her country but knocked out with only 22 days to go.
As heartbreaking as these situations are, Klinckaert is not alone, and I hope she finds comfort and inspiration in Croket’s journey, which took her through another Olympic cycle and almost to a second shot at the Games at 22 (though sadly Julie dealt with multiple injuries this quad as well, and was sidelined again just days before Belgium’s team announcement this year).
Klinckaert is only 16 and still has an incredible future ahead, one that could include world medals and another chance in 2020. We wish her the best of luck in her recovery and hope to see her bright smile and personality shine through her gymnastics again soon.
We also wish the best of luck to Hermans, who has some big shoes to fill, but she is fantastic and has lots to offer the team in her own right, especially on beam and floor. And we hope all of Belgium’s Olympic team – Hermans, Derwael, Gaelle Mys, Senna Deriks, and Laura Waem – can get through this setback with strength, and perform their hearts out in Rio. Do it for Klinckaert.
Article by Lauren Hopkins