Belgium and the Netherlands have always been huge sporting rivals: Benelux neighbors who particularly don’t like each other on the football field.
Dylan Hoogerwerf (NED) Stijn Desmet (BEL) at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skatign Union (ISU)
So it’s unusual and refreshing to see the love-in that is taking place between the two nations’ Short Track Speed Skaters – who are now great friends and colleagues thanks to an elite programme agreed at federation level that has essentially put their racers on the same team.
Sjinkie Knegt (NED) with coach Jeroen Otter at the Winter Olympic Games 2014©Getty Images
The scheme was the brainchild of Netherlands discipline manager Wilf O’Reilly and head coach Jeroen Otter, in collaboration with Belgian international coach Pieter Gysel.
Wilf O'Reilly (GBR) at the Winter Olympic Games 1992©Getty Images
“When Jeroen was an international coach, rather than just affiliated to the Netherlands, he used to work with a number of the Belgian skaters, who are now coaches in Belgium, including Pieter,” explains O’Reilly.
Pieter Gysel (BEL) at the ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2010©AFP
“Jeroen coached Pieter for six or seven years, and got to know him extremely well. They worked very well together. I call Pieter the crazy professor, because he’s an engineer as a career, and he looks at things differently.”
With the Belgian federation looking at their set-up afresh thanks to a new president and chairman, they decided to approach the Netherlands with a view to co-operating and collaborating on their elite coaching.
Coach Jeroen Otter at the Winter Olympic Games 2018©Getty Images
The Dutch skaters would get the benefit of Gysel’s unique perspective, while the Belgians could use the exceptional training facility in Heerenveen, the Netherlands’ deep pool of excellent coaches – and the wisdom of Otter, regarded by many as the best Short Track Speed Skating coach in the world.
Petra Jaszapati (HUN) Ekaterina Efremenkova (RUS) Hanne Desmet (BEL) at the European Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
“We have trained together all year in Heerenveen, and it is going very well, they are treating us very nicely there,” explains Stijn.
Stijn Desmet (BEL) at the European Short Track Speed Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
“In Belgium it’s not really been possible to skate and compete at a high level. For us to compete at [ISU Short Track Speed Skating] World Cups, it was really necessary for us to go to another country, and Netherlands is great because they speak the same language, it’s close by, and they have really perfect coaches. We have been made to feel welcome and part of the team.”
O’Reilly stresses that this was a key part of the merger. “The important thing was that we didn’t make the Belgian skaters feel any different. When they came here, we said, ‘You are part of our team’. And they do think like that, and they all support each other. Rather than having lots of meetings about it, we just got on with it and did it – they came to Holland.”
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Dutch superstars like Suzanne Schulting and Sjinkie Knegt have welcomed them into the fold, says Stijn. “I have learned so much just from being around skaters like Sjinkie. It is great to have someone to show you where you should go, how you should do it. He’s been a great help.
Suzanne Schulting (NED) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (ITA) 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
“All the Dutch skaters have a great mentality in how they train, but they try to have fun at the same time. We eat together, go out together, at hotels we are together. It is helping me with my ambition, which is to get better each season and get some results.”
An improvement in their results already seems apparent, as the Desmets recorded their best seasons this year: Hanne was fifth in the 1500m at the ISU World Championships, fourth in the 1500m at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships, and fifth overall, while Stijn finished fifth in the 500m at the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships and fourth in 1000m at the Almaty ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating event.
“If you look at progression they’ve made so far, it’s been massive, and next year you’ll see an even bigger jump,” says O’Reilly. “They are getting great facilities and coaches, but Holland is also getting a lot out of this.
“I always think ‘wow’ about how Pieter looks at things. He’s looking at coaching from outside the box, and that is refreshing, it brings us another element. It is a win-win, because we get his experience, knowledge and his perspective.
“Jeroen and I are happy to share the way we do things. It’s an approach that we have that if we keep sharing the so-called ‘secrets’ of our success, then we are forced to come up with some new ones. It keeps us evolving. Credit should go to the [Dutch federation] KNSB, Belgian federation and the Flanders governing body, Sport Vlaanderen, for making this happen.”
Team Netherlands at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating (KAZ) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
Both federations are working towards a longer-term proposal that will take the partnership up to, and including, the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games.
There’s only the faintest suggestion of any internal rivalry. “Maybe there will be some fun when the football is on,” laughs Wilf.
All Stijn can add is: “We’ve always had a rivalry but it’s friendly. Belgians have a different accent which they make fun of sometimes, but we get along just fine. We are a team and want each other to do well.”
Should the Belgian skaters’ talents improve as much as some of the Netherlands’ racers have, don’t be surprised to see the country win its first major medals in the sport some time soon.