By Hiro Yoshida
Although Belgium’s Jorik and Loena Hendrickx are the only siblings competing in the singles events at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, their paths to South Korea took very different trajectories.
Competing at her very first World Championships in Helsinki, Finland in March 2017, Loena finished in an impressive 15th place overall to secure a spot for Belgium in the ladies’ event at the PyeongChang Olympics. However, there was heartbreak for her brother Jorik when he came up one place short of guaranteeing Belgium a place in the men’s event the following day.
“That moment in Helsinki I never want to feel that again,” Jorik recalled. “I was down. I was broken for two or three weeks after. It really took a while to find energy again.”
The final opportunity for Jorik to pick up a spot for Belgium at the Olympics came at the Nebelhorn Trophy in September 2017. He finished first in both segments of the event to comfortably achieve qualification for a second Olympics.
The Hendrickxs do not come from a skating family. Jorik initially started off playing ice hockey as their two elder brothers were involved in the sport. He later switched to figure skating. A few years later Loena was also bitten by the skating bug.
“It was because Jorik was skating already and I came always with my mom to watch him,” Loena said. “I think that is why I wanted to try it. I loved it and I still love it.”
Seven years older than his sister, Jorik could see she had potential from an early age, but not at the time the competitive drive to succeed. He encouraged her to make the most of her talent as best he could.
“I felt like I was pushing her a little bit because I knew she was talented,” Jorik said. “Around the ages of 12, 13, 14, she was just practising and having fun. It was not with this determination of wanting to be the best in the world. It was a bit too easy for her because she was very talented and won all the Belgian competitions. Once she started to do international competitions, she realised that she needed to up her game. I still helped her a lot organising and managing stuff. This year I stepped a little bit away. I let her grow as a person as well because you need a certain maturity to cope with the pressure in the skating world because it’s a tough world. I think she has proven in the last couple of years she really has willpower and really wants to do it.”
In 2014, Jorik made his Olympic debut in Sochi, Russia where he finished 16th. The following seasons were a struggle for him as he questioned whether he wanted to continue in the sport. However, his sister’s progression as a skater renewed his passion.
“After Sochi, I was done with skating,” he said. “I didn’t feel the motivation any more. Then I had knee surgery. I had decided to stop skating because I just wanted to go to school and have a normal life. Maybe go out on the weekends and have a holiday and go to the sun. But there was a voice in my head to say I can’t throw everything away that I was working for all those years.
“She came to the international scene and did the European Olympic Festival. I was there to witness it. It gave me a certain fire back. Maybe I can say the biggest motivation at that time was to share this experience with her and less about how much I loved skating. I worked hard to get over this injury. I stepped a little bit back from jumps and I approached it in a different way.”
The years leading up to this Olympic season were up and down for both skaters. In 2015, Loena achieved the minimum technical scores necessary to compete at both the European and World Championships that season alongside her brother. However, a spinal fracture injury meant that she missed out on this opportunity. It was Jorik’s turn to inspire his sister on her road back to fitness.
“The whole recovery took six or seven months,” Jorik said. “Once she pulled me out of this small depression where I didn’t want to skate any more she was down in a black hole. You don’t know what to do because your life is skating. I had that moment after my knee surgery – what the hell do I do all day? It was supposed to be an amazing season where we both competed at Europeans and Worlds, but it didn’t work out. I was alone at Europeans and Worlds.”
The brother and sister were determined that they were not going to repeat that experience no matter what happened. Even when injuries over the past twelve months threatened to derail their plans, the support they had in each other got them through some tough times.
“In May I had torn ligaments and I was unsure if I was going to compete at Nebelhorn Trophy, but I couldn’t let her go alone to PyeongChang,” Jorik said. “This was also a motivation. She was working hard, and her jumps were going well, but her body changed. Then she had this knee injury. We have had a lot of problems, but we can always cope to get back stronger and we can help each other in that process.”
“I told him I don’t want to go alone so you have to keep fighting,” Loena added. “In summer, he trained hard and I was very proud at Nebelhorn.”
At the 2018 European Championships in Moscow, Russia, they had contrasting fortunes again. Jorik was sitting in fifth after the short programme despite falling on a triple Axel. Unfortunately, his free skating was riddled with even more errors and he dropped down to tenth place overall. On the other hand, Loena popped a triple flip in her short, but rallied in the free with an almost flawless performance to climb from eighth to fifth place behind three Russian skaters and Carolina Kostner.
“I felt a bit sad after Worlds because she didn’t enjoy her qualification as much as she should have,” Jorik said. “This time I told her to enjoy this moment she was fifth at the European Championships. I didn’t perform well, but it’s two separate things.
“Of course, I am disappointed because this is not what I planned to do and wanted to do. Actually, the skate in Helsinki was much better than this. I never felt so disappointed, but I had 10 points more technically. This time I said to her enjoy this moment because you worked hard for it. It was a long process to get fit, to be here and then you performed that well.
“The development she did in the last few years is incredible because she could barely get air on jumps. The double jumps were two centimetres high. I knew she was talented and I knew she could do well on the international scene. That she would end up fifth at a European Championships is something that I thought she was capable of, but I didn’t consider that it would happen so fast.”
Carine Herrygers, who has coached both for their entire careers, has been an influential force in getting them to where there are now. In a country where there is a small pool of figure skating talent and experienced coaching, it has been a learning process for them all.
“I have grown as an athlete, but my coach has also grown as a coach,” Jorik said. “She learned a lot in the last few years and as a coach you develop on the journey your skater takes. I think my coach improved a lot and she got much better at her job, even better than she was before.”
Jorik is glad that he has been able to pass on the wisdom that he has picked up along the way to his sister who would be able to benefit from it.
“I didn’t do a triple jump when I was 15 years old. I’m a late bloomer because I never thought I would be at this level. I never assumed that I would be a European, World and Olympic competitor. Of course, I had those dreams when I was younger, but I didn’t train professionally until I was 18 years old. I was going to school full-time and I was training one hour each day, one hour and a half maximum. There was no structure in my training.
“I gave Loena the advice that she had to change schools, so she could practice a little more to be more consistent in her technique and to fine tune it at an earlier age. I tried to find a school for her and we found one in the Netherlands. I think it was a combination of working from a younger age as a more structured professional and the knowledge of my coach. I think that’s why she is a very good jumper and consistent because she had this package when she was younger.”
The closure of their local rink in Turnhout has means they now train on a temporary rink in a disused factory. While the facilities are a bit more rough and ready, it has enabled them to practice at a more consistent rate.
“It’s the second year we have a fixed schedule,” Jorik said. “Before I trained on the hours that were free. Sometimes I had no ice in the week, sometimes I had plenty of ice. It’s now better for both of us. We can plan in physio. We can plan in going to the gym and other activities. That was hard before because there was no structure. I think now it gives a certain calmness in our heads because we know those are the hours that we have, and they are fixed. Loena, with her previous injury, has been six days out of seven in the gym working on her body. You can see she’s strong compared to the beginning of the season and she’s in good shape. We have good hours now and I think we work very productively.”
For the past two seasons, they have worked with a Belgium-based choreographer Adam Solya. While many of his competitors at European and World level work with choreographers who are based overseas, Jorik feels that having his choreographer close at hand helps to keep his programmes fresh.
“It gives me a lot of freedom to give my own input into the programmes and for the steps and the transitions that it feels good for my body,” Jorik said. “With the previous choreographers with whom I worked, you worked two or three weeks a season and then you would go back to Belgium. I don’t have the financial budget to travel back to Canada or America to fine tune the programmes like other athletes do. Then the programme got empty and the sparkle disappeared. With Adam, as I said, I have a lot of freedom and we’re working together on the programme so it’s really a balance and giving each other support. We also work on the programme once a week.”
While Jorik has been to the Olympics before, almost everything entailed in competing in PyeongChang will be new to Loena.
“It’s her first long trip,” Jorik said. “She’s never been in a plane longer than three hours. Never been to America, never been to Asia. She will be there a long time because we only have one coach. She needs to stay almost two weeks in the Olympic Village.”
“We had to organise and look at the schedule,” Loena said.
“I think we can manage to stay in the village and do a very good training scheme,” Jorik added. “With training on the ice and a very intense one off the ice, she can make sure her body is in the same shape and she is still fit.”
This will be a very special event for the Hendrickx family as their mother will be travelling to South Korea to watch both compete for the first time at a global championship.
“She’s been to one European Championships, but it was in Bern, so she drove with someone in the morning and then she saw the short programme and then she stayed at a hotel for one night and went back,” Jorik said.
“In Sochi, we had a sponsor who wanted to give a thousand euros to bring my mom there, but she couldn’t find a travelling companion. I didn’t want to have this stress that my mom would be there. She doesn’t speak English. She has never travelled and just stayed in front of the TV because I would worry if she was OK.
This time round a family friend came to the rescue and offered to accompany Jorik and Loena’s mother to the Olympics. Even then, their mother was little bit reluctant due to the expense involved.
“My mom was hesitating because it’s a lot of money,” Jorik said. “The flight is a €1000. To stay there it’s expensive because there is five or six days between our events. Then we realised that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I decided with my sister that we will try to pay for her flights and hotel, but now we just need money for the tickets. The whole thing would cost €5000 just for twelve days so it’s insane. My parents have supported me especially in my skating, but they couldn’t afford it. They tried to invest as much as they could, but it was not a smart decision because it made them even more financially unstable.”
Funding for both of their skating expenses has been an ongoing issue over the years. Jorik has been heavily involved in pulling enough money together to ensure that both he and his sister could continue skating.
“I provided all this fundraising stuff for Loena because otherwise she couldn’t skate. She qualified for Olympics at our own expense. After Worlds, she was reimbursed with a little bit of the money. The flights she got back from Europeans and Worlds, but all the training leading towards this success was paid at our own expense. I think bigger countries athletes they can’t imagine this because they are supported from their federation from a young age. To get financial support she needed good results so that was a lot of pressure on her shoulders last season.”
While Loena wants to stay in for another four years, Jorik does not see himself taking on the challenge of another Olympics.
“It’s probably not my last season, but we will see after Worlds and how my motivation is,” he said. “We have to see what goals I want to set for myself. Of course, I would love to learn a quad and I’d love to be on the podium at Europeans, but we must be realistic. Another four years and I will be 30/31. I am struggling with many injuries, so I think it depends on how my body feels and how it can cope with this intense training. I have a certain talent, but I really must work very hard and put many hours into practice to feel ready and perform well compared to others. I have trained with others and I know I need to step up my game and I need to do double as much training as others because I’m very inconsistent with just triple jumps. I need to put a lot of work into these “easy” jumps. Probably it’s going to be my last Olympics. We will see also the government because if they say we don’t support you anymore it’s over. On my own financial support, I can’t do it.”
Once he signs off on his competitive skating career, Jorik would like to stay involved in the sport and help his sister in any way he can.
“I would love to be involved in her skating. It also depends on my career path because I have a degree in marketing and management. I know making a living out of skating in Belgium is hard. It can be a side job, but as a full-time job I think it is very hard. My coach is lucky because she has both of us, so she can work with us during the day. It’s up to Loena. I know I have knowledge and I can teach her some things, but I think her current team is very good and she is doing very well.”