Belgium’s gymnastics champion Nina Derwael, Belgian Sports Woman of the Year in 2018 and 2019, is making her bid for Olympic gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games.
The face of Belgian gymnastics is accompanied by three young gymnasts who will be making their first appearance at the Games from Sunday: Maellyse Brassart, Jutta Verkest and Lisa Vaelen.
Maellyse Brassart is the most experienced of the trio that will defend Belgium’s colours along with Derwael in the team event at the Olympics.
Derwael, double world champion on the parallel bars, was assured of a place on the Belgian team from the start, leaving the remaining three slots up for grabs at the trials. The competition for the remaining slots started out with 12 gymnasts, then 9, before the final team was selected.
“The atmosphere was always good. I think that helped us,” said Brassart, who studies for her Law exams between training sessions. “Many of us were at the same level. It wasn’t easy.”
Brassart, who was born in Woluwe but lives and trains in Ghent, only became certain of her place on the team at the last trial, the FIT Challenge. “Since then, I have a good feeling and it’s pleasant to be at the Games because I began 2021 with a knee operation. It wasn’t easy but I kept at it. I’m happy I made it.”
The postponement of the games by a year “was tough at first, because I had already made a decision for after the Games. I then had a big decision to make. I made it and I’m happy,” she added. She did not elaborate. “In the final analysis, the entire team is at a better level than if we’d had the Games last year,” she continued. “Personally, I was able to add a few routines to my exercises.”
Coach Marjorie Heuls feels all four are good enough to compete in the individual finals of the general competition, the Top 24, even if only two can take part.
Brassart feels her best chance is at the All-around.
The absence of spectators at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre does not phase her. “Gymnastics is one of the sports in which that absence will have the least impact,” she added. “When we are on the bars during our exercises we are focussed. That said, it’s always nice to have the public,” added the 20-year-old.
At 15, Jutta Verkest is the youngest member of the squad. (She turns 16 on 11 October.) A resident of Mechelen, she owes her selection to Derwael’s absence at the recent European championships in Bâle. Initially Belgium’s reserve athlete, she was sent in after Nina withdrew due to a foot injury.
Verkest was the third reserve for the all-around final, but she was added to the competition after another gymnast pulled out. Notified just one hour before the final started, she ultimately finished 10th, and then confirmed her potential.
“The postponement of the Games was positive for me,” said the teenager, who would not have been able to compete at the Olympics if they had been held in 2020, due to her young age. “I have come to gain experience with an eye to Paris in 2024 and to benefit to the maximum,” she added.
The other member is Lisa Vaelen, who will be 17 on 10 August. Her favourite event is the floor exercise, the only one done to the accompaniment of music, but she is best at both the floor and the uneven bars, she says. She, too, has Paris 2024 in her sights.
Like all the Belgian Olympians, the gymnasts have signed on the delegation’s mission: reaching the top 8. To get there, all four members of the Belgym Team will need to have a “perfect competition,” according to Marjorie Heuls. “That would be exceptional,” she added.
“We finished 10th in Stuttgart (at the 2019 World Championships, which won the team a berth in the Tokyo Games) and 12th in Rio (at the 2016 Olympics). We’ll have to remain at least in 10th place,” added coach Heuls.