I participated in seven Olympic Games from Seoul 1988 to London 2012. I am currently the Vice President of the Belgium NOC and I was the Chair of the Athletes’ Commission in Belgium and also in the EOC from 2013 until 2017.
In 2017, I tried to become the ITTF President. I missed out by 15 votes so it was very, very close. It was a very interesting journey to meet people from all over the world, not only from the top level perspective as an athlete, but to try to understand the needs and difficulties from everywhere on the globe.
I am working as a consultant for my Table Tennis Federation and I’m an ambassador for four companies. I also do some exhibition matches, so sometimes I have free time and sometimes I’m very busy. Life is very good.
“You need to make the people around you believe it’s possible”
TABLE TENNIS WAS MY LIFE. IT IS STILL MY LIFE.
How it all began
My mother was pregnant with me when she won her Belgian table tennis title so I had no choice but to play. I started together with my brother when I was nearly nine. When I was 13 I played for the first time in the senior national team. I became Belgian Champion when I was 15. I stayed number one from 1985 until 2016. I made it to world number one in 1994 and again in 1996.
I’ve just retired from national competition a few months ago and on the international level I stopped in 2015.
So indeed table tennis was my life. It is still my life.
The hardest bit
Number one is believing in yourself, even when that’s against other people’s minds. Because when you start sport it’s so difficult to reach a high level. Only a few people are successful. Plus there’s the need to study, to earn money and all the other things that can make other people very suspicious – often they don’t trust or don’t believe in you.
So you have to believe first in yourself. And then you need to make the people around you believe it’s possible. This is hard, especially at the beginning. I think this is what is the most difficult thing about being an athlete.
Of course, after you are successful, it’s like it was automatic. But, of course, it was not. I’m just a normal human being like other people. If I did it, I believe anybody can do it if they work hard and believe in their dream.
What I’ve learned about being on the road
When you travel alone around the world it can be really hard. We’re not like a big soccer team where everything is prepared for you. When you travel alone in some countries, you have to take care. And, yes, sometimes you end up in some strange situations.
The most difficult part is when you are not successful. You are alone in your hotel room somewhere, but you still have to go on to the next competition. I understand how some athletes get depressed or go the wrong way, falling down, drinking, taking drugs, getting depressed. It’s hard.
The thing that kept me going was my motivation to be successful at the next competition. However much I was pissed off and hard on myself, I always wanted to try to be better at the next match.
YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE IN YOURSELF. AND THEN YOU NEED TO MAKE THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU BELIEVE IT’S POSSIBLE.