‘I’m in favor of more art in figure skating’

After a stunt medal at the WC, Loena Hendrickx sets new goals: ‘I want to be at the top for as long as possible, at least until the next Winter Games.’

Belgian sportswomen break one barrier after another. A Belgian who becomes Olympic champion in apparatus gymnastics? A countryman who takes Olympic gold twice in the heptathlon? Until a few years ago, it seemed like sports science fiction. Gymnastics and athletics are the domain of the major sporting nations with their mega budgets and their deep pool of sporting talent.

Loena Hendrickx also did such a seemingly impossible stunt in 2022. The figure skater from Arendonk won silver at the World Championships. There is a side comment to make: the Russians were missing at that World Cup. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian athletes are no longer welcome at major sports tournaments. It didn’t even go badly in figure skating, because Kamila Valieva, the now sixteen-year-old Russian star, has been caught doping. Russia is trying to prolong that case, to the dismay of the International Anti-Doping Federation.

That does not make Loena Hendrickx’s performance any less impressive. ‘No, but I have to admit that it makes a difference to me in terms of experience. A World Cup without the Russians means that you are not competing with the entire top of the world”, says 23-year-old Hendrickx. “But silver is silver, and if the Russians aren’t there, they owe it to themselves. It is now proven that they tried to cheat us. For me it was a shock. I have always assumed that my competitors played fair.’

Then you must have been the only one. Have you ever doubted the performance of the Russian skaters?

Luna Hendrickx: All the little young girls jumping like a gazelle, of course I thought it was a punishment. But I thought: those Russians are so teased that they can do more than anyone else. Apparently it was cheating and don’t tell me only Valijeva cheated. The Russians make up a team. The others were not captured, but they burned just as much for me.

It is about very young girls. The doping may have been forced upon them. Do you feel pity?

Hendrickx: I can’t imagine their lives very well. I do figure skating because I like it. It is hard work and many sacrifices, but I get satisfaction in return. Are the Russians in love with figure skating? Have they ever been? If you saw them at competitions, you would doubt it. I can’t say much about it because I don’t know those girls. The contact did not go further than “hello” or “congratulations”.

With the Russians involved, you knew the medals were gone. Today it is up to you whether you are on the podium or not. Does it add extra pressure?

Hendrickx: No, it only has positive sides. When the puzzle is correct, I can win a medal. The motivation only increases. You train in a different way when medals are at stake. And busy… A bad freestyle can happen to anyone, including me, but there’s no use worrying about it.

It’s a strange statement for someone as young as you, but that World Cup silver has already made your career successful.

Hendrickx: Maybe, but success tastes like more. Now that I’m fighting for the medals, I want to be at the top for as long as possible, at least until the next Winter Games.

An 18-year-old American competitor recently retired (Alysa Liu, bronze at the 2022 WC, ed.). She said: “I’ve had it, time to start the next chapter of my life.” I can’t understand you saying something like that, especially at that age. Where is the love for the sport then? Well, you can’t figure skate at half power. You have to exercise a lot, watch your diet, deal with disappointments. The fire must burn or you will not last.

Your brother and coach Jorik Hendrickx did not want you to go to the WC. Physically it was close.

Hendrickx: I had a tear in my groin, a very delicate injury for a figure skater. I could barely train for the WC and when I was on the ice it seemed like nothing. Jorik said: ‘What are you going there? Be happy for a tenth place?’ Moreover, it was not without risk, because that tear threatened to tear further with every jump or pirouette. It looked ugly behind the scenes. Raw bones from the sanding belt, blood, burst scabs. Now say figure skating is a sport for princesses. (laughs)

© Jelle Vermeersch

And yet it was true as soon as I stood on the ice. I had barely practiced, but my practice was so ingrained that I could almost do them in a trance. I didn’t feel any pressure because of that injury. I went for it, and if a tenth place was the highest possible, so be it. I could hardly believe that it finally yielded silver.

After the WC you had a hard time. Why?

Hendrickx: I tolerated the increased attention poorly. All the parties and celebrations… I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but it was a trial for me. The shy, insecure Luna was suddenly the center of attention. An elderly man came to ask for a picture like I was the biggest star in the world. I realize people put me on a pedestal because they think it’s amazing what I’ve achieved, but it made me uncomfortable. I’m just Luna.

Shy and insecure? Anyone watching you impress on the ice, full of action and charisma, wouldn’t expect it.

Hendrickx: When I skate, I’m a different person. There is no doubt about the ice cream. I am engrossed in my freestyle, forget everything and everyone and just enjoy. But next to work, I’m a timid type. It’s closer to my real personality, I think.

Your career was almost over before it started. You broke a vertebra when you were sixteen.

Hendrickx: It taught me to listen to my body. I rest faster than I would like as an ambitious athlete, and at the same time I feel when I can push further than others think is reasonable, as for example at the WC. It is valuable knowledge. In a way, I should be glad I learned that lesson so early in my career.

You are the favorite at the EC at the end of January.

Hendrickx: I know. It still feels crazy to say it, but I’m going for gold. I am a naturally humble person. Not to disappoint myself, to calculate, so to speak, that it could go wrong. Today it would be stupid to go to the EC with that attitude. Gold is within my reach. Point.

You’ve already skated those exercises flawlessly hundreds of times during training, but it has to come out perfectly in that one decisive moment. How hard is it?

Hendrickx: Figure skating is 30 percent training and 70 percent mental strength. Those jumps and pirouettes are all at the limit and I do them on ice. So something can always go wrong. If you can’t handle it mentally, you’ll never reach the top. Now it’s my strength, but I haven’t always been strong at it. I used to be a nervous wreck. Vomiting, crying, migraine attacks: I was a wreck before I stepped on the ice. I’ve learned that nerves are good if you channel them. Do I feel tense? Great, that adrenaline will drive me forward. There is no longer any doubt about the approach, and this gives peace of mind. I train hard, I do my best, I know I will give it my all. What more can you do but hope for the best?

© Jelle Vermeersch

The best athletes can easily leave disappointment behind.

Hendrickx: (nods) I also curse when I fall, especially at an important moment, but I can shut it down. In fact, it’s a clear choice: do you take your setbacks with you or use them as fuel to do better?

Figure skating is a jury sport. Does the best always win?

Hendrickx: None. You need to make a name for yourself before the judges take your freestyle for granted. Coming from a small country is a disadvantage. I had to fight my way to the top. Girls with a Russian or American flag next to their name are picked up faster because the juries assume that a Russian or an American must be good. Prejudices don’t just exist. Usually Russians and Americans are really good figure skaters. But not always.

For a long time I thought it was unfair that they didn’t see me. Now that makes me proud. I can say that I deserve it and that I did it all by myself.

You and your brother would have to figure it out on your own anyway. There was no framework in Belgium for an athlete who wants to succeed in figure skating.

Hendrickx: Jorik was the pioneer. I am lucky that he paved the way for me. He has reached the top of the world with training after school. People don’t realize how bad it was. Jorik wanted to protect me from such amateurism. He was looking for a top sports school for me in the Netherlands, where I could already train as a professional when I was thirteen.

I wish I had his motivation. Jorik was already very passionate as a skater, and now even more so as a coach. I’m more talented than him, but without an older brother who showed me that you have to work hard, I would never have been at this level.

Four years ago you were interviewed together in Crack. Jorik was so worried that you were digging a financial hole. To keep your head above water, you organized dinner parties and bingo nights.

Hendrickx: We are in better shape than then. Then we had to provide material and support for two skaters, which already makes a difference. Our budget is still modest and we have to think carefully about what we do. So not that dream internship in America, but an alternative in Europe, which we try to fit in just as well. But I don’t mind.

The dinner parties and bingo evenings have disappeared since corona. We then experienced how much time and energy goes into this. It is not ideal that you have to be part of it as a professional athlete, although I do not rule out that we will ever start again. Last year we held a crowdfunding: support Loena on her way to the Games.

At the Games you were supposed to speak with IOC President Thomas Bach. What is the story behind it?

Hendrickx: I don’t know that very well myself. Thomas Bach was looking for a figure skater to exchange ideas about the situation of the Russians. No idea how he ended up with me. I was waiting for him when I suddenly heard that he didn’t have time after all. Unfortunately. I suspect he would also talk about the age limit for figure skaters. It has since been introduced.

The minimum age to participate in professional competitions is raised to seventeen years. Why is that a good thing?

Hendrickx: Because figure skating with adult women is a different sport. You get in shape and are no longer a stick, like in your teenage years. But most of all, you start thinking about what you are doing. Teenage skaters are little robots that perform blindly. You can drill them up to and beyond the limit. Whoever goes the furthest in it scores the best. We have to get rid of that. It results in a healthier and, in my opinion, more beautiful sport when you leave out the teenagers.

Figure skating used to be an artistic discipline. It has changed under the impulse of the Russians, who took leaps that no one else dares to take. I’m in favor of more art in figure skating. The emphasis on the technical elements makes it less interesting. I also see that elegance in somewhat older figure skaters.

Is it also self-interest? Presentation and style are your strengths.

Hendrickx: I hear that a lot, but I don’t think I skate better than anyone else. Really, I can’t see it.

Are the quadruple jumps boasted by the Russians achievable for you? In that case, the next Olympic champion is known.

Hendrickx: In the summer I worked intensively on it, but I did not get further than three and a half jumps. I won’t be able to do half the round at the age of twenty-three. You have to learn something like this from an early age. It is also dangerous to train on it. If you don’t fully rotate, your foot will land in an odd position. Every time a snap on your ankle. My skate broke. Just to say how much pressure is put on that foot.

Luna Hendrickx

1999

born in Turnhout

2017

pro debut

2018

16. at the Pyeongchang Winter Games

2021

breaking her personal record at the Gran Premio d’Italia

2022

silver at the World Championships, 8th place at the Beijing Winter Games, wins the Angers Grand Prix

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