In our latest Health fitness article Jellen Monsieur talks to former professional gymnast Laura Waem about the highs and lows of competitive gymnastics.
Laura Waem (24) achieved a life-long dream of qualifying for the Olympic Games. However, in a gymnastics career riddled with injuries, she ultimately decided to retire at the age of 20 to focus on her pharmaceutical sciences degree. Rio 2016 – the big dream Laura Waem attended her first gymnastics training along with her sister when she was two and a half years old. Waem immediately liked the sport’s competitive nature, and became inspired when she saw Belgian gymnast Aagje Vanwalleghem perform at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. “Watching professional gymnasts perform, I wanted to follow in their footsteps. Knowing that they were able to get to the Olympic Games inspired me to try and do the same. But I didn’t know that qualifying for the Olympic Games would demand so much of me and my body.”
Aged ten, Waem started training professionally in Dendermonde. After completing a two-year gymnastics preparation programme, she trained at the top sport academy in Ghent. She trained 30 hours per week for more than ten years. “Training for two hours before and three after school, I lived an extremely focused and dedicated life. Every year I had only two weeks off during summer and a few days during the Christmas period. Holidays didn’t feel relaxing, because I often did gymnastics camps during my weeks off school,” she told Together. Fast forward nine years and Waem was trying to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the last Olympics gymnastics test event in Rio with her teammates Gaëlle Mys, Rune Hermans and Senna Deriks. The Aquece Rio test event [preliminary competition] was the last chance to qualify for the Olympic Games: “We were able to become one of the last four countries to earn our spot for Rio. Most of the pressure fell away, because for the first time we were among the 12 countries that qualified for the team competition in Rio. We were not able to proceed to get to the team finals, but I wasn’t disappointed: I already achieved my dream of performing at the Olympic Games.”
One injury too many Waem often suffered from injuries during her career. Her injuries included a cartilage lesion on both elbows until she was twelve and constant foot injuries. “After Rio, I had surgery on my right foot. I didn’t want injuries to hold me back from performing at the highest level. I still had that drive to get one more good result before I ended my professional career.”
But due to having become accustomed to a high pain threshold, later in 2016 Waem contracted an Achilles tendon rupture during a training session. “I was feeling stiffness in my calf when I was practising my floor routine. I asked my trainer if I could stop, because the pain was getting too much, but he told me to tough it out and perform my routine on a tumbling track. When I asked a second time, he told me to practise once again, and that ended up being fatal for my career.”
The injury made Waem realise that she did not want to do the work to get back to her best level this time. She had already come back from a severe injury a few times in her career, but as she no longer possessed a clear goal, Waem decided to do a full rehabilitation for the last time, before ending her career and focusing on her studies.
“This wasn’t the only reason I decided to leave gymnastics,” she told Together. “Immediately after Rio I was expected to do the same routines, the same hard training sessions as before the Olympics. The combination of this and the heavy workload from my pharmaceutical sciences master’s degree was too much: I realised I was no longer as motivated to train as hard as I did before.” Waem officially retired in December 2017. “During my first exam period, I told my coaches that I no longer wanted to return after my Achilles tendon injury. I felt relieved after I spoke with them.”
Waem’s favourite gymnastics disciplines were the balance beam and the uneven bars, because she was able to improve and learn quickly when performing these disciplines. This resulted in her consistently performing at a high level of difficulty in tournaments and getting good results. Another highlight in her career was Waem’s first world championship in 2013 – when she qualified for the all-round finals and performed in all four gymnastic divisions for women: vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise.
“I will always remember the feeling gymnastics gave me when I learned something new,” she says. “To be able to do and share something with teammates for almost ten years has been one of the best times of my life.”
Enjoying life But Waem admits that she does not miss gymnastics at the moment. “Every day I had this urgency to do my best. I was not allowed to have bad days and I was drilled from a young age to never make mistakes and always do better. I still push myself to succeed in my studies, but no longer having other people pressurising me allows me to enjoy life more.” For now, Waem is not interested in competitive sports and remains focused on her studies. Currently, she is still deciding what to do after she graduates. She is planning to attend a pharma fair in March to explore her possibilities, but for now Waem still feels a bit unbalanced. “In another six months, I will have finished my degree. I really want to go on a long holiday after my studies. I really missed not being able to travel during my career. I hope to travel to many places in future and work in a job that I enjoy,” Waem points out. “As for living abroad, right now I want to remain in Belgium. However, the pharmaceutical industry is large, so who knows where I will end up?”