It has been a stellar 12 months for 23-year-old Belgian Nicky van Rossem, one of 39 Young Ambassadors at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games. With a WADA-funded anti-doping study behind her, the sports research assistant and part-time hurdling coach has her sights set on making a difference through sport.
“It was never about going (to Lillehammer) and that being it. I want to stay in the Olympic movement, it really changed my life,” van Rossem said.
Twelve months later the Belgian is research assistant in the sport, psychology and mental support department at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, a national level athletics coach and a wannabe participant in the IOC’s Young Ambassadors’+ programme. The detail of her day job offers an illuminating insight into how van Rossem’s enterprising mind works.
“My main project last year was about the decision process, why athletes dope – the deterrents and the incentives,” she explained.
Timely and incisive, the study was funded by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the anti-doping body in Flanders, Belgium. It was here that van Rossem’s past as a top amateur athlete and present as a high level coach set her apart from many academics.
“I used my network of athletes, coaches and experts to interview,” said van Rossem, whose former training partner Anne Zagre reached the semi-finals of the 100m hurdles at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
A one-time top 15 ranked hurdler for her age group in Belgium, van Rossem is charmingly unabashed about where her true passion has always resided.
“I was an athlete but I have to be honest, school came in first place for me,” said van Rossem. “My level was OK just doing two training sessions a week but when I went to university it was 16 hours per week and I had to make a decision: university or be a ‘real’ athlete.”
Hurdling’s loss was academia’s gain. Some intensive studies followed, including a thesis on the skills athletes need to combine school and sport, and an analysis for the Belgian National Olympic Committee (COIB) revealing what the top eight finishers in a handful of events (including the heptathlon, decathlon and judo) at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games did outside of sport between the ages of 16-18 years old.
It is little surprise COIB put her forward for the role of Young Ambassador at last year’s Youth Olympic Games. The experience in Lillehammer helped solidify the young Belgian’s goals.
“I have the motivation to create a better world through sport. I believe in the Olympic values, I am convinced by excellence, respect and friendship,” she said, before adding, “But not only excellence in results but in the holistic approach.”
Her role as the link between the IOC and the Learn & Share Programme at the Lillehammer Games was ideal.
“It was a perfect match for me to create the link between the research, the academic knowledge and to guide real athletes,”van Rossem said.
The close, friendly atmosphere of the Games helped make an unforgettable impression.
“For me the cosy Games were perfect. For example, I said hi to Molly Schaus (twice Olympic Games silver medal winning hockey player for USA and an Athlete Role Model at Lillehammer 2016) and one of my athletes (hockey player Chinouk Van Calster) said ‘oh my God, you know her?’ So I introduced her to Molly,” van Rossem said.
“Chinouk was really motivated by Molly. She explained how she developed as an athlete, but also other areas, like how she approached moving away from home and what she thinks of when she faces a penalty.”
It has been a natural step for van Rossem, who now coaches promising hurdlers at a Brussels sports club, to remain in touch with many of the young Belgians who competed at Lillehammer 2016. Just a few weeks ago snowboarder Stef Vandeweyer chatted to van Rossem on the eve of his first World Cup event.
Seemingly never still, van Rossem’s next objective is to get funding through the IOC’s Young Ambassador+ gold level programme. This will enable her to take the knowledge she has garnered from her WADA-supported doping study direct to athletes themselves.
“They (athletes) are not often informed. They just get told what is on the list and what is not on the list. I think it is an opportunity to create a more informal, friendly atmosphere to talk about doping,” van Rossem said.All of which sounds logical, proactive and frankly inspiring, much like van Rossem herself.