Kaat van Daele: "Not even an hour has passed that I didn't train with passion."

January 14, 2014
By Mireille Geurts, assisted by Joy
Photos © Mireille Geurts, Joy, Anna Bertoloni, Kaat van Daele, Jorik Hendrickx

Interviewing a skater is not without risk. Imagine us, leaving the ice rink where we just had a nice, but again way too long chat, to find a completely empty shopping mall (in which the ice rink was located). We said goodbye and separated, Kaat with her fiancee, me with my photographer/ sister, only to find out that we could not leave the mall.. Luckily we found each other again, and together we sought help from the few employees still around. The Haagendaz employees sent us somewhere, where we encountered a cleaner who sent us in the other direction, and there we were 'running' from A to B to C back to B again, in the back alleys of a shopping mall. Eventually one person explained to us we could enter the first level of the parking garage, and then walk the way the cars ride to the lower levels, where our cars were parked.
Phew, at least we didn't have to spend the night in the mall or the ice rink! Blinking one more time with our car lights at each other (Kaat and her fiancee waited until we were safely out as well), we finally went our seperate ways.

Not just because of this experience, but also because of the content, this particular conversation stayed in my thoughts a long time. It was one of motivation, hope and determination, but also desperation, (lack of) confidence and expectations. It certainly wasn't the first time we chatted, and my guess is it won't be the last. Second time Belgian champion in the senior ladies Kaat van Daele has been around in the Belgian skating world for a long time. Since 2007 she has also been competing at international junior and senior competitions, but it took until 2012 for her to make it to the European Championships.

How were these first European Championships for you?
It was a very nice and unique experience for me. For years I have strived for it and this was my chance because we had two spots. And it was super! Of course now I would really like to go again, so that will be my new goal and I will be training for it. It was so amazing with the accreditation and how everything is arranged for the skaters. It is so different at the European Championships compared to the competitions I am used to.
I was actually quite scared. At competitions then, I normally jumped 2 triples and a double Axel; I didn't know how that would work out. But it worked out okay.  Thankfully I didn't feel 'not worthy' of being there. Of course there is a big difference between the lower and the higher groups, but the feeling during the competition was good.  And I made the prelimenary round, but then in the short program I was  incredibly nervous.

This was the second and last year that there were the so-called "preliminaries"; a qualification round for the non-placed skaters (based on results of the year before). They were to skate their free program and the best 10 went through to the actual competition. Making it through that qualification at your very first Europeans is not a small feat! Why were you so nervous after that for the short program?

I had said beforehand that probably the qualification from the short to the free program would be easier for me, than from the preliminary to the short program. This is because I do not jump that many triples. I knew I could skate a clean short program and then I'd be there, but then I got so incredibly nervous, the big competition, the athmosphere, the audience and in the warm up I had cold shivers and my hair was standing up straight. And then I did stupid stuff; before I knew it I was on my butt with the double axel and I sadly didn't make it to the free program.

Kaat has been second at her country’s nationals for a long time. In fact, several years ago when I spoke to her, she confided in me that she'd never expected to come first, because by the time her current rival quit (Isabelle Pieman, and she hasn't yet) she would probably have been surpassed by the young talent Ira Vannut. That explains why 2012 was her very first European Championship.

I have to say, before this I was never a consistent skater. I always had my ups and downs which resulted with me never able to hold on to the peak of my form.  Plus the talent of Ira you cannot deny. I never expected to score above her in any way.  It wasn't even my ambition, since she's always been so great and I really hope that all her injuries will heal and she will be healthy soon.

You have been 7 times second at Belgian Nationals? How do you stay motivated?

I think so (laughs) I am the eternal second, five times in senior, two times before that. It is incredible; will follow me around for eternity. How do I stay motivated? Knowing that I can do it in practice, knowing that I can bring it, but that mentally I have to handle things differently. Less nerves, less panic right before I have to skate, thinking that I should be able to do everything better. I know I can do it in practice, but not at the competition.
Actually the two  competitions I did after these Europeans, in Istanbul and Luxembourg were the only two I was able to keep that under control. I learned more than I ever did at a competition (at Euros), and then Luxembourgh was the icing on the cake. It was the end of the season - I didn't have to do a competition after it, so no pressure like that, nor from the federation, so I just calmly did it.... and it worked the best. Unbelievable.

Last season you got another chance to go to the Europeans, in Zagreb this time. How was your second European Championships compared to your first?

It was very different.  The first was for me one giant surprise. It was my first big competition so it was all a bit overwhelming. Since nerves bothered me so much I messed up in the short program and I didn't make it to the free program, I made it my goal to make it this time. When the short program went well, flawless, I was so relieved, it was a victory for me. I had goosebumbs when I was done. I achieved my goal, so I was happy. With the free program I couldn't  drop more in the results than 24th, so I just did what I could do [she ended up 18th].  And it was okay, it's what it was. I didn't think too much of it - just lived the experience and enjoyed it 100%. I hope I can do the same this year, though it is harder. Surpassing a goal is more difficult than reaching it for the first time.
I will try to keep calm and relaxed. It builds up, wanting to do better, you put more pressure on yourself etc, it is a vicious circle.

This brings up the question about having a mental coach. When I spoke to Kaat in the past about this, she said she didn't have one, simply because she couldn't afford it. At her Belgian Nationals in November, she told she now had one. What has changed?

Last year, as well as at the start of this year [Nebelhorn Trophy] I realised for some reason I have the problem of wanting to do all 12 elements in the free program perfectly and as soon as one element fails, I just give up. So the problem is psychological and I should work on that. I followed the advice of many people, including you, and since last week I have a mental coach, Anja van Gompel, who is also Jorik Hendrickx's mental coach. We only had one session so far, next week I have another one and we will build that up gradually. I do expect this will actually help me. Even just taking the decision lifted a weight off my shoulders.

Kaat has mentioned previously that she gets little support from the federation, so this news surprised me. Do they now pay for this and do you receive any support? Maybe you can describe your financial situation for us.

After last season my parents decided to stop paying for my skating because they supported me so many years. They do help out with hotels and such at competitions, because I cannot afford it all alone, but for anything else,  I have basically no budget.
I get no financial support from the federation aside from 4 weeks of ice time in the summer. But this is for the entire Belgian team. There are many skaters sharing the ice, so it is not ideal.
The European Championships does get paid for because I made the qualification, but I received a bill in 2012 to pay for a subcharge for the single room. I had a single room because Isabelle and I don't really get along, so we can't share a room, but I wouldn't have minded sharing my room with another skater.

But how about the Olympic program which is listed on the federation's website?

They used to have the Olympic program; they indeed supported Ira and Jorik with that. But Ira isn't skating competitions at the moment  - I have no idea if she quit or not - so she doesn't get any money. So I know there is money available, but they first want to see results. And personally, if you consider what I did last year, training only one hour per day, on my own money, with no choreographer or anything, yet I came 18th at the European Championships. But for them that isn't enough. I need to be in the top 8 to 12.
The Belgian Olympic Committee (BOIC) and Bloso, the Flemish sports agency, had said that if I qualified for the Olympics they would financially support me. This would be awesome, otherwise it just is not do-able anymore. If you want to keep improving you have to keep investing, and you can't keep doing that privately. 

And private sponsoring?

I have a sponsor pamphlet, we write to companies, but from the 30 mails you send, you get 30 mails back. Either they give an excuse because of the financial crisis, or they only do big projects or don’t work with individuals. I even tried my own city but no, they only support teams, so they support the volleyball, basketball and soccer team. You run into walls everywhere. There was also the Olympic budget from the ISU, approximately 5000 Euros for the person going to the Nebelhorn Trophy or the Olympics. I mailed the federation but I never got a response.  I have spent so much time on these kind of things: mails, phonecalls, meetings, but then I got so fed up with it; it drained me of my energy, so I decided to focus on my training instead.
I think I will also arrange some spaghetti evenings. (laughs)

(Laughs too) That is something  really Flemish; I think you have to explain that for our readers.

You rent a space, or you try to get a space sponsored, someone cooks a giant meal of spaghetti, in this case my mom, and then we are talking about kilos.  You make a poster and invitations so people come. These are mostly friends, family, people you know from skating. They pay for their entrance, then they can eat all the spaghetti they want and buy additional drinks, and this is how you gain some money you can use as an extra budget. I’ve never done it before. Last year before Worlds I sold some photos of myself.  I got some key chains sponsored from Samsonite which  I sold and with another small company who sponsored me twice for 150 euro,  I payed for my flights to Canada.

With all the times the Nebelhorn Trophy has been mentioned, let's now talk about it. This was the start of this season, and the last chance for all skaters to try to gain a spot for in the Olympics. Kaat was the one trying out for Belgium. Unfortunately this is not a good memory for Kaat, nor for us watching, as during and after the free program, we simply saw a dream getting crushed. This is not uncommon at this competition, it is just as hard for every skater not making it, but for the viewer, this is emotional as well. How did you experience this Kaat?

It is totally my fault I didn't make it, I know that for sure. I didn't have any expectations of the short program, I had no idea where I would end up in the ranking, or if the qualification for the Olympics would be reachable. I just knew I had to skate it clean, but I was very nervous before it. The short program actually went okay. Once I had my opening combination, Salchow- toe out of the way (which went well),  I was pretty secure about the rest. I did make a small mistake, a little turn after the Axel, but for the rest it was fine. And then I saw, 7th country.. Oy, now the Olympic qualification was suddenly reachable. And then the free program approached. As I explained before, they [BOIC,BLOSO] had told me I would get financial support if I qualified, which would truly make a big difference to me. Because, if I don't get any support I have to quit at the end of this season (gasps, swallows and continues).
I really do not want to quit, and that was also why I was so upset after the free. I immediately realised that I wouldn't get any support.  It wasn't even a realisation I wouldn't go to the Olympic Games, that came a bit later. Quite a disillusion.

I started very positively with the free program, although on the other hand it went by so fast I didn't even realise it. Then it was over and I was wondering what on earth happened.  I didn't even remember what I had done.  When I see the video of the competition, I can actually tell that I was mentally absent. But okay, it happened. So all I can do is to just continue training, and find my confidence again.

How did you go about finding your confidence and motivation after Nebelhorn?

I went home the next day and stayed home for a week, a week in which I didn’t see an ice rink. I did some other things; went out to dinner, did a few fun things, and it did me good. Then I came back and switched the button, accepted it happened and it is not the end of the world. There are still the European Championships and  the Worlds.  I still want to do those and I went back in. If I look back, of course it still hurts, and I think it always will, but life goes on. And I am somebody who thinks there will problably be other things in life that are just as beautiful, or more beautiful than experiencing the Olympic Games.

At Lombardia Trophy 2013 - She came in 8th place

I must say, I admire your determination and I would hate to see you quit after what you have achieved with so little so far. Did you recently talk to the BOIC, BLOSO or Belgian federation?  

We had a meeting after the Nebelhorn Trophy, of which the outcome was that I didn't qualify, so I wouldn't get any money. I asked if it was possible to at least get a little sum, like 500 euro per month, but nothing was possible. It would be nice if they could help with just free ice or some other facilities. I don't ask for huge sums, just a little bit.
I am still hoping a bit for support. I can still grow. I can add the flip and the Lutz, which do work in practice now, but just not good enough to put in a program yet. I hope they want to give me that chance, so I can continue for the next four years and keep growing; I want to give it my all. It's not like we have that much direct succession, not within these four years at least.  We do have Loena Hendrickx (in the photo with Kaat, in 2010), she is 14 I believe, so that would be possible within those four years, but it would be much better to create a team. Take for example two young talents and the veteran (me), support all and see who comes out on top for the next Olympics.
So that's what I would do, if I was the head of it all, but I am not. (laughs)

Sounds like a well thought through idea; not only financial support, but also having training buddies at your level in your own country can really help to push each other. Unfortunately this is not the situation as it is right now, but Kaat does have a good friend in Jorik Hendrickx, with whom she is at many shared competitions, right?

Yep, Jorik and I connect really well. It is very nice to train together. We were four weeks in Oberstdorf and then I drove back home with him. I asked if I could train on the ice hours he had, and that was okay, so I did that. When I am down, he really picks me up and I try to motivate him when he is down. And that is how it should be. In the end, if you do not have a training-mate within your own discipline, you need to find that somewhere else. If he does a run-through of his free program during practice I of course do mine as well. You don't want to do less than the other! We also do the off-ice training together. For me in Oberstdorf, to do off-ice training after 3 hours on the ice was really a lot, but he pulls me through it. That really helped and now I will continue that.

So you do not train completely in Oberstdorf?

No, partially there, and partially here. The combination is perfect; here I have the mental aspect I don't have there, and there I have the facilities I don't have here. I train with Karel Fajfr, and the advantage of that is that he gives group lessons.  So for me three hours practice with him costs the same as one hour of practice here. I have a small appartment there I can rent on monthly basis.

Sounds nice to really have your own space. I have known Kaat for a long time (since 2006) and we have discussed many things, but this is one question I have never asked her. How did you start skating?

(Laughs) I was 6/7 years old and in the summer I always went to multiple camps. A week to horse camp, theater camp, athletic, volleyball, figure skating, you can think up the weirdest things and I went to it.  But that one week of figure skating I really, really enjoyed. Apparantly they put me on the ice and I immediately skated to the other side, although I had never been on the ice before. So I started to ask my mother if I could skate, but I was swimming at the time and they felt I should do one thing at a time.  So I had to finish that first and then I could start with something else. But with swimming, I kept getting stomach or ear ache, just because I didn't want to swim anymore, so they signed me up for a 'Bambino-course' of Silvie de Rijcke. She spoke to my parents, telling them I had talent and encouraged them to let me have private lessons once a week. Which was okay, but they didn't want me to skate in any competitions, they wanted it to stay just fun. But I really wanted to, I wanted to wear such a cute dress and 'make up' and be with all my friends. We talked my parents into it, for just one time and then I really enjoyed my first competition; I wanted to do better the next time, and on and on. Neverending story.

Indeed, and here we are, many years later at the Belgian Championships 2014. Before the medal ceremony Kaat told us she had just changed her free program, from Cirque du Soleil to Morgenstimmung from Edvard Grieg in that same week. Why?

I did four competitions this season and all four competitions I executed a good short program and a bad free program, sometimes even completely messed up. So we started wondering what could be wrong. If it was the jumps, it should go wrong in the short program as well and in training they go okay. So I started to think about the music, about it being too heavy at certain moments; I let myself get carried away too much. So we aimed to find something that was a bit slower. We only had a day to come up with something else. On the road back from the Warsaw Cup in the car, Vera (Kaat's coach), Jorik and I listened to all the music that we had on our mobile phones.  In the end we had about four songs, listened again and then tried to deem which would work at such short notice.
Then [four days before actually skating the free] we choreographed the program in about an hour’s time; on Wednesday I practiced it in 2 parts, because I also still have to practice my short, and then today I had to skate it in competion. My goal was to skate better than in the Warsaw Cup  last week and that's what I did, so I am moderately satisfied.
Last week I only did one great loop, and that was it. (laughs)

With whom did you make the choreo?

With my coach, Vera Vandecavye. For time and financial reasons, and in the end as skater you feel the most secure with your natural movements. Today it was still partially improvised, as my step sequence was for the most part with my back to the judges, so I had to adjust that, but I didn't have time to practice that yet. In the end we still have to work on it, of course, and build it up, so it gets better and better.

It looked good and she became the 2014 Belgian Champion. In the past, Kaat has uttered some critisism on how the Belgian Championships was organised; how is that going now?

This year is much better, we are in a really nice ice rink, where the people (audience) actually sit in the rink and not in the cafe.  The only thing that could be better is we are now in a huge shopping center ; you enter here and nobody knows that there is a national championship going on.  There isn't a sign in the shopping center anywhere. They should just put up a big photo or arrow or whatever. So shopping people get curious and wander in and they might enjoy it. And who knows, they might visit again next year.

This girl should go into PR or marketing! However, we do know she has worked as an optician in the past. Is that still the case?

No. The problem is that the most work there is on Saturdays.  I have many competitons on Saturdays, so then I can't work. In the summer for 4 weeks I am away on training camp, so then it ends up being too difficult for them to fit that in.
The work as optician ended in 2012, because my boss had her baby during the European Championships, so she wanted me to fill in. But I had said from the start, if I can go to Europeans, I will. So naturally, she hired someone else who could work full time.

Yes, Europeans. Since she is the Belgian Champion of this year and secures her place in Budapest for Europeans 2014. So let's ask the obvious question, what is your goal there?

Last year I went with the goal to qualify for the free program. To then end up 18th, was way above my goal, so awesome. This year my goal is to do better, how much better I can't define, every championships is different, the circumstances, the level.  I do the best I can. Much depends on the short program; if it is flawless you come quite far, but with one mistake it is a problem, especially at such a big competition.

And your confidence, is it there?

Yes.. and no. In general yes, but if like right now I had four competitions in a row where the free program went bad, it is low again. But then I watch the videos of the 2012 and 2013 Europeans and that really gives me a boost.  Now I have a bit of a harder time, but I will try to keep on fighting. Not a day has gone by without me being happy to be on the ice, not even an hour has passed that I didn't train with passion. So yes, I'm having one hundred percent of fun, every time  and I hope it stays that way. The most important thing for me is that skating gives me joy. It enriches my life, lots of things will stay with me forever.

That is wonderfully said. I wish with all my heart that you will find some support Kaat, so you can continue with your passion. Naturally we at Absolute Skating wish you all the best at the European Championships in Budapest and of course for the rest of the season as well. Maybe there will be (half) a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

Update 26 February 2014: Kaat is raising funds to be able to go to the World Championships. Click here for more info!


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