The Netherlands judo team is constantly churning out new talent, one of those is Yael VAN HEEMST. As a junior athlete, she was a finalist in both the European and World Championships, already a promising talent for the future of the senior team. As judo goes, there is always the potential of injury and unfortunately for the young judoka, she was taken off the tatami for the year, returning in August of 2023, taking an impressive 5th place in the Zagreb Grand Prix.
I think when you get injured badly, you can feel the difference, so I really questioned, could it be bad enough to mean it’s the end for me, how will it turn out? I was out for 10 months which of course is a long time and it’s taken a year before I felt comfortable in competition.
Dealing with the recovery of the injury itself isn’t necessarily the hardest part, with strong teams of coaches, physios and doctors to support in rehabilitation, for athletes, it can be a mental struggle to be kept off the tatami.
It was really weird, it was my first – and hopefully last – big injury, so I’ve never not done judo for such a long time. I am still at Papendal, so I was still studying and had my internship, I was still seeing my team mates and everything so I wasn’t completely out of it all. At the beginning they didn’t realise just how serious the injury was and had an MRI a month after, then once a shoulder specialist had seen it, they told me I needed it dealt with immediately and I was in the next day for an operation.
The physios and staff were straight to work with Van Heemst following the operation but it was important to have outside factors to focus on.
I was never such a good student as I was when I got this injury! [she laughs] I never missed a class, I passed every test, I realised how much easier it was with all of this extra time but I just missed judo so much. It became boring for me. I wasn’t attending camps, I missed out on Korea, and Mittersill last year and just wanted to be back so badly.
On her big return, it was a slightly strange welcome back to competition…
I actually cried before my first match! I had an absolute breakdown because it was a really weird mix of excitement and being scared. This wasn’t just another training session and I was worried it would happen again, you know the girls show no mercy in competition so I was worried, but after the first one I felt really good and just happy to be there.
Van Heemst then went on to take bronze medals in both the Prague European Open and U23 European Championships in Potsdam. It has been a slow and steady recovery, and last week prior to the start of the Mittersill OTC in Austria, she topped the podium during the Rotterdam International Open. Not only did she compete, but she was there as an official to assist with the organisation and running of the event.
I absolutely loved this event, it is my club back home, seeing the next generation and all the little ones was really good. Usually I’m at Papendal and not at the club so much so it really felt like I’d come home to be with everyone and my old coach. It was actually really nice to be at the table with the referees, to be able to talk to them and ask them questions. Fighting there was just for fun and to compete at home, was a nice way to start the year before coming here which I’m also really happy about.
After the traditional Mittersill OTC this week, Van Heemst will be returning to Papendal, with only a couple of weeks before her first tournament of 2024, and the premiere of the IJF World Judo Tour, the Portugal Grand Prix.
Author: Thea Cowen