A season of firsts

“Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goeth

Becoming a two time National Champion! Olympic Distance National Champs, August 2017

How to sum up the season so far… Incredible, unbelievable, powerful, … magical. A year ago, I made a really difficult decision. I had just come up on my 2 year anniversary working as an engineer, and I knew that I couldn’t continue balancing both sport and engineering. I liked using my engineering degree, but I also really liked triathlon. I was working an acceptable 20 hours a week, but I knew I had reached a point of maximum progression in the role and commitment I had. Any upward progress would have required more commitment and therefore more hours. Conversely, in my triathlon world, I was constantly injured, sick, or feeling over-trained. I wasn’t resting properly, I wasn’t recovering correctly, and I didn’t feel like I was giving everything I could to discover my potential.

In June 2016, I took a leave of absence of 7 weeks from my job, in order to go to Belgium, be closer to my (at that time new) coach Bart Decru, and see what it felt like to have a daily training partners. My first race was devastating. It was an ITU European Cup in Holten, and I finished close to last. I missed the front pack on the swim, had a dismal first transition, got dropped by a couple bike groups and well, let’s just say the run wasn’t pretty. I was jet-lagged, lonely, disappointed, but mostly just really embarrassed. Here I was, halfway across the world, all energy, no results. After a few pity parties, I told myself, well, it can only get better from here. And luckily it did. With every race, and even within training sessions, I matured, learned all that I could, and finished my European stay with my best result in 2016, a 5th place finish at Olympic Distance Belgian Championships in Izegem, Belgium. I didn’t win any races in Belgium; in fact, I didn’t even come close to a podium finish. I had no champagne showers, and no-one telling me I was particularly talented, just a burning desire within myself to see what more I could do.

T3 Win in Deinze, August 2017. Thank you Krist Vanmelle for the wonderful pictures.

With the full support of my better half Carl and my parents, I made the decision to leave my steady paycheck behind, live off my savings, and commit myself 100% to triathlon. My goal has always been to go to the Olympic Games, and I knew that in order to even come close to this, I had to see right now, not in a few years, if I was capable of making the progress necessary to get there. I subconsciously gave myself 1 year. I didn’t say it out loud, or put too much pressure on the year, but I knew, if I was still running 19-20 minutes in my 5K and 40 minutes or above in my 10k at the end of 2017, I probably would need to consider some other life choice.

I put my head down, had a LOT of emotional, mechanical, physical (and every other type of) help from Carl, and we did what we needed to do in the off-season

Carl in the Santa Cruz Mountains, January 2017

to get me stronger. In 2016, I was a really weak climber, so from January-March 2017, we went to the Santa Cruz mountains in California, and trained. In 2016, I had found that the longer I stayed in Belgium, the better my racing and training became. So in April 2017, we packed up our apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said goodbye to our dear friends and family, and made the big move to Belgium. We focused on rest, recovery, and consistency. We didn’t do everything right, but tried to do as much as we could, as well as we could.

In March, after my best winter of training yet, I had some knee pain. Knee pain is not something you want to mess with, so Bart and I made the right (*note* not easy) decision to take time off from running. 2 months later, I was able to start building up my running, but my confidence was really low. How could I start racing again, after not running for 2 months? How would I ever show improvement in my run, when I hadn’t trained it in two months?

The always classy, Sophie. A true sports(wo)man and a fierce competitor! Thanks for the wonderful picture Mario Vanacker.

We were on a training camp in Mallorca, and I called my dad in tears. I had just made the biggest commitment of my life: a permanent move across the world to pursue my athletic career. Except: I couldn’t even do that athletic career properly. I felt like a fraud, and I feared I would never be able show improvements from 2016. I told my dad that I felt like no-one believed in me. He stopped me right there. “Valerie, do you believe in yourself?” Well… that’s a good question. Honestly, at that moment, probably not. But there again, an important lesson. Did it really matter whether other people believed in me or not? At the end of the day, wasn’t it more important that I believe in myself? And maybe it was good to build up an edge, to have to prove myself, to give me that fire to stick to the plan, execute as well as I can, and let race day take care of itself. And well, let’s leave it at, thanks to this approach, Bart’s expertise, and my incredible support system, it’s been a season of firsts, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Thanks to all of the above, I’ve enjoyed the following “firsts” in 2017:

First time:

In total shock. First international win, ETU Wuustwezel August 2017. Thx Arnaud Dely


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