“Goedendag!” (good day) as they would say it in Brussels. This week our first destination is Belgium where we review Ilse Heylen’s career and her plans on the way to Rio de Janeiro.
If you think you have met the most dedicated person in your life before than read further down and it might change your opinion. Heylen is surely an exceptional role-model with an incredible discipline to her chosen sport, Judo!
By Szandra Szögedi
Starting from the 80s…”When I was young my parents forced us to practice a sport. At the age of 6, believe it or not, I started ballet, but it wasn’t really my thing. Than a year later I changed to gymnastics which I really liked. It was at same time when my sister started judo. I used to go and watch her training sessions and a little bit later I wanted to do the same sport as my sister. So at the age of 8 I started to do judo and never changed sport since, I love it too much.” – remembers the three times Olympian.
Yes, she has been forced to do sports but never been forced to be an Olympic Champion. Maybe that is part of her secret to her successes… Ilse explains how she ended up from ‘just doing judo’ to be standing on the Olympic podium: “I always had good results in judo from the moment I started with competitions, but for me it was always a hobby, just fun. At the age of 23 I was selected for the Olympic Games in Sydney, but because there was two Belgian athletes qualified in the same weight category (U48 kg), a choice had to be made. I was the Belgian number two at that time, so I did the whole preparation, but could not compete at the Games. That was actually the moment when I realised that I could make big results in judo; so I started to train even harder than before. 4 years later at the age of 27 I got my first contract as a full time judo athlete (BLOSO) and judo became not only a hobby and a sport, but also my job. It has been that way ever since.”
So age of 27 is when Ilse’s full time judo career began…the same age when others decide to quit. However, since that moment the Belgian judoka represented her country at each of the Mega-Event. On your way to your fourth Olympics..what does the term ‘Olympic Games’ mean to you? “Until the age of 23, the Olympic Games were an unreachable dream for me. At the age of 24 it became a dream to realise. At the age of 27, I won my Olympic medal and it was just like my most beautiful dream became true” – she explains.
Ilse will be on her way to her fourth Olympiad. Athens, Beijing, London…which was is the most memorable for you? “It has to be the Games of 2004, in Athens.
Winning an Olympic medal changed my life and indeed also my character completely” – she says. At the London 2012 Games the Belgian athlete was once again extremely close to take a spot on the podium. How did you deal with the loss of another Olympic medal? Can one Olympic medal (in this case Athens’ bronze) make up for life time? Ilse’s response: “People didn’t expect a good result from me in London because of my age and because of the draw I had. Becoming 5th at these Games was a great achievement and I got also a positive response from the Belgian press. Although I still think bronze could and should have been mine, all the positive thoughts I received took over the negative feelings. The positive reaction of the Belgian press and the Belgian people in general helped me a lot to deal with the fact that I missed out on my second Olympic medal.”
Athletes often fail to deliver or they just simply became demotivated after pursuing their dream and winning an Olympic medal at early stage of their career, eg.: at their first Olympics. It can also cause pressure on players of further medal expectation at the following Mega-Events. Success can lead players into many different ways, as we see it happening every fours years, it can have positive as well as negative impact. So, which way has it gone for Ilse? “Actually the answer to that question for me is quite simple. The love of judo and the pleasure on the tatami keeps me going, so I never had the fallback which some other players go through. For each and every Olympic Games or big judo event my goal is to create a perfect preparation and to be in a good shape on the day I am fighting in order to give my very best.
It was the case in Athens; while in Beijing I had to deal with an injury, but still managed to finish 7th, so it was not bad at all. In London I felt really good and only just missed out on the podium. That will stay one of my biggest regrets of my career, missing out on my second Olympic medal, but anyway… as I mentioned, all the positive feedback helped me to overcome and keep my head up. All in all, every big event is different, so I try to look forward as much as possible and focus on the next fight, on the next goal, without looking back.”
Olympic Medal, six European medal and tones of other international medals…your list of achievements is endless… which of your victories are the most precious to you and why?
Ilse: “Winning an Olympic medal is really up there, at the top. I will always remember the Olympic podium, especially in Athens, where the history of the Olympic started. My victory at the World Cup of Oberwart in 2011 also a very important moment in my career. I have had a serious knee injury and it was my first tournament after about eight months. Being able to prove to myself that ‘I could still do it’ left me with a great feeling. I also have to mention my first place at the Uzbekistan Grand Prix last year. Not only did I take 3 medals in 4 weeks time but it was my 44th big international medal. As a result of that, I beat Ulla Werbrouck’s record and became the Belgian judoka with the most international medals.”
Mentioning records…2013 was quite a year for the Ilse; she even draw a line for herself in the European judo history after winning two gold medal within two weeks, one at the Almaty GP and another at the Tashkent GP, and by that she became the oldest European female to win Grand Prix gold. Ilse recalled the memorable moments: “After the World Championship in Rio which went wrong; it felt good to prove the bad critics that have been made and it was great to be able show them as well as to myself that I was still in good shape and still able to win at high level tournaments.”
And this is not it! Qualifying for the Rio Olympics will mean that Ilse will be the oldest European female ever qualifying for four Games. Moreover, she will be the second oldest woman on earth to make it to the Mega-Event in Judo. This shows nothing more except her enormous and exceptional amount of dedication to the sport. What made you to decide to go ahead with the qualification for the Rio 2016 Games? “I still have to qualify, so this is not done yet… Also, I do not do judo just to try and beat some records. But somewhere in the middle of last year, me and my husband, Olivier Berghmans, who is also my coach, we talked about the idea and we decided to go ahead and try to qualify for Rio 2016. My love for judo and the pleasure on the tatami still too big to quit now!” – she explains.
2016… Have you set any target for yourself for the Rio Games?
“I just want to qualify first and then have the best possible preparation for the Games. Throughout the years I have learned that anything is possible in judo, so we will see…”
In case someone would not know, judo is divided into different weight categories and before each tournament there is something called ‘official weigh-in’ takes place. If the athlete fails to meet her/his weight category that leads to automatic disqualification from the tournament. A huge number of the judoka call the weigh-in as their first fight since the majority struggles and goes through enormous sacrifices to make weight. Ilse shows an incredible dedication in this area too. Four Olympics, which means 16 years in the same weight category… How do you manage to keep the same weight category for almost over two decades? “Like almost every other judo player, I have some weight difficulties. I even went up to -57 kg for almost one year. But I soon realised that I was ‘made’ for the -52 kg. As years gone by and I gained more experience, I learned to know my body and how it is functioning. I can say that the last few years getting to 52kg has been easier or rather less difficult than before. Nevertheless, reaching my competition weight remains, even for me, a struggle full of sacrifices” – describes the 2005 EC.
2014 will be a beginning of a new journey. New year, new goals. World Nb 8 shares her plans for the upcoming year: “The world ranking and the seeding system that the IJF elaborated, has become of such an importance that, in view of a good start of my Olympic qualification period, my first goal is to be as high as possible on the world ranking list at the beginning of the qualification period. Further of course try and gain as much ‘Olympic ranking points’ as possible. And of course, whilst doing this, enjoying judo all over the world!!” That is it for this year…. What will be the main focus during the journey of the next two years? “At the age of 36, nearly 37, my body will have the main focus. Avoid injury as much as possible and do quality training sessions instead of quantity ones. Good planning will be necessary but I can rely on Olivier for that matter” – she added.
Athens 2004 to Rio 2016… Loads have changed in the judo world, qualification system, rules and so on and so on. What do you think of the new rules? Ilse: “I think that throughout the years I have proven my flexibility. Being able to adapt my judo according to every new rule has not always been as easy as it might look like; but I have managed it quite well. I am convinced that all rule changes are made with the honest idea to make our sport look better, however, in the last years I think there have been too many changes. Furthermore I think that the recent change in bringing the women’s competition to 4 minutes and leaving the men at 5 minutes is not correct. Physical fitness simply is a part of judo. Men and women should be equal! But as usual we will comply and adapt…”
There is no doubt, but to agree that such an incredible judoka and exceptional role model as Ilse had and will inspire hundreds of future Olympians. To be dedicated to the sport for such a long time as much as she has been comes with enormous sacrifices. Of course it is a give and take situation, and yet, each athlete knows that one day it will be all over, when they have to settle for the realistic world. Seven times senior national champion has also plans once she leaves her competitive career: “In an ideal world Olivier and I become a team of coaches and we pass our experience onto players to help them to realise and to pursue their Olympic dream. That can be in Belgium or abroad.”
And for least but not last, Ilse told us about her three wishes:
“First of all, for myself and for all the people I love and cherish, happiness and a good health and this for as long as possible….
Secondly, even after my active career, I hope to keep enjoying judo and keep in touch with all my judo friends all over the world.
And finally, an Olympic medal in Rio would be nice…”
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