Belgium is a small country in Western Europe that is more known for chocolate than for figure skating. Cycling, soccer and tennis are far more popular sports, but the indefatigable Kevin van der Perren has drawn attention to figure skating by winning the country’s first medals at the European Championships in 50 years.
Now with Ira Vannut, Belgium suddenly also has a female skater that left a strong impression in her senior-level debut this year.
Vannut, an athletic, blond girl from Alken in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, first did well on the Junior circuit this past season. She was ranked fourth in the event in Austria and became the first Belgian female skater to medal in the Junior Grand Prix when she claimed the bronze at the Pokal der Blauen Schwerter in Dresden, Germany, last fall.
“I really didn’t expect it, because last year I was 11th and 12th (in the JGP),” Vannut said. “I was much better this season and I improved a lot. I’m really glad that I got a medal now, because there were really strong competitors.” she added.
The Belgian skater easily then took her first National title at the senior level and was selected to represent her country at the European Championships in Bern, Switzerland. There, she had to go through the Preliminary Round and turned a few heads by placing first. Vannut followed up with solid performances in the short and free programs to finish seventh in her debut at Europeans.
“My first goal at Europeans was just to make it through the qualifying round and then I won,” the teenager said with a happy smile. “I didn’t expect that. Then I had a really good short program and was 10th, and I hadn’t expected that either. I just had hoped to make the top 24.”
Vannut’s season continued with Junior Worlds where she came in 10th – a major improvement from her 22nd place in 2010. Finally she concluded her season at Worlds in Moscow, Russia, where she ranked 19th in her debut, and once again realized her goal to reach the Final.
“The most important experience for me was to see the other skaters (at Worlds), how athletic they are and how kind,” the teenager summed up.
It has been a tough season for the 16-year-old as she had to compete in the Preliminary Round in all three Championships, but she gave consistent performances.
The season was also a learning experience for Vannut. The skater was duly impressed by her famous competitors at the major events.
“I learned that I shouldn’t be nervous and I was looking up to the other skaters that I’ve seen only on TV before,” she shared.
Her role models in skating are van der Perren and his wife Jenna McCorkell – another experienced competitor that trains at the same rink in Belgium.
“In the beginning I was like, ‘Oh, I can stand on the (same) ice with Jenna and Kevin!’ said Vannut. “Now it’s a little bit more normal for me.”
But at practices at the big competitions she felt she always has to give way to the others and show a lot of respect to her well known competitors.
“I keep thinking that I have to go out of the way of the other people because they have done more than me. Like, she is better than me, she is higher ranked than me,” Vannut explained. “If someone is better than you, you need to go out of the way and if someone is at the same level, you need to look a little bit and that is my rule. If someone’s music is on you always need to go out of the way, even if little children are doing their program.”
Other skaters she looks up to are Mao Asada and Yuna Kim. From her looks, technical ability, and skating style, the Belgian skater reminds of a young Irina Slutskaya. Her eyes lit up when the interviewer told her that.
“Yes, Irina Slutskaya was a big idol of mine,” said Vannut. “I recognize myself in her.”
Like the two-time World Champion, Vannut has a triple Lutz-triple loop in her arsenal. She has been landing it in practice.
“I can do it, but I’m not strong enough to do it every time,” she admitted.
Vannut also remains very critical about herself.
“Right after I skated, I’m always not so happy, and after a while I’m happy,” she admitted. “When I skated, I have the feeling it was really bad and only when I watch the video later I think that it wasn’t so bad.”
“I’m critical of myself,” Vannut continued. “Also in training, that’s not really a good trait of me. It takes me down, I take myself down. It is really good for improving, but sometimes I overdo it and this is too much.”
The skater credits her improvements this season to changes in her training.
“The intensity is a lot higher, and I do more jumps, too,” she explained. “I waste less time standing at the boards and drinking water, but I keep going in practice.”
Vannut describes skating as “my thing”. She got hooked right away when she went to a public session with her mother as a four or five-year-old.
“I just didn’t get off the ice,” recalled Vannut with a smile. “I skated for like three hours on a public session, three hours one after the other. I couldn’t stop. I was always skating and I always found somebody to talk to and I was eating ice cream. I really liked it at the beginning and I still do.”
Soon, her grandmother put her in a skating club where she took lessons.
“I don’t like any other sport as much,” revealed Vannut. “I played tennis and I also did ballet.”
Vannut practiced ballet for three to four years until she was 14, but couldn’t combine it with skating on the long term because of the conflicting schedules.
“When I was little I always wanted to be a ballerina,” the athlete said, “but I liked skating much more. In ballet, you need to be really small, and I don’t think I have the body for ballet. I have more the body of a skater, more powerful. Ballet is a little bit too classic (for me).”
In the beginning, the skater was mostly attracted to figure skating by the jumps.
“I didn’t like steps,” Vannut admitted. “I was so bad at it and I didn’t like to practice it when I was little. I also didn’t like gliding, but it’s better now and it will get better. I’ll work hard on it.”
Coach Silvie de Rijcke registered that with a smile.
“She was a stubborn girl who hated steps,” agreed the coach. “That was my first impression, but I like her character. She has a fighting spirit. When I saw her in competitions when she was younger, she always wanted to be the first on the ice. Still, I don’t know if you noticed, but she still wants to be the first on the ice. That didn’t change. She always wanted to be the best, that was her attitude.”
Vannut describes herself as really shy off the ice.
“In normal life, I put myself on the second spot, but not on the ice,” she said firmly. “The ice is my thing and I feel strong on the ice.”
De Rijcke sees her student’s character as one of her strongest points.
“She is really tough,” de Rijcke noted. “She works very hard and that makes her progress so much. That’s her strongest point. She is also mentally strong, she can do the competitions. She is very consistent.”
At the same time, however, her stubbornness can also be a weakness.
“She sometimes needs to put things into perspective,” the coach analyzed. “After each competition she is looking at the negatives first, but that’s in the beginning and later it is getting better. Sometimes she needs to relax a little more, as well in practice. She doesn’t need to set the bar so high every time.”
Away from the rink, Vannut is a high school student and will graduate in 2012. Her school offers a special program for athletes with less hours for studying and 12 hours for her sport. She also is allowed to miss some days of school in order to attend competitions. At school, she has no special preference for any subject.
“It’s pretty much the same for everything,” the 16-year-old said. “When I was younger, I didn’t like mathematics, but now I like it more because it’s just thinking. I don’t like so much the pure learning.”
Vannut trains twice a day for two hours a day on the ice and four hours on Saturday. Off the ice she is doing athletic training, running and conditioning. When there is no ice in Belgium during the summer, the coach and student go to Oberstdorf in Germany for three weeks, as well as other places. This summer Vannut will attend training camps in Jaca, Spain and Dübendorf, Switzerland aside from Oberstdorf.
At the same time, the training conditions in Belgium have improved in the past years.
“Kevin (van der Perren) opens the gate a bit for that,” de Rijcke said. “It is thanks to him of course, he put the spotlight on us. Now the government is listening also to figure skating because of him. That’s also good for her. I have the impression since this season that they really want to help her, give her ice, and so on. It is still not easy, but it is getting better.”
For the upcoming season, de Rijcke is planning to have two new programs for her student that she has been coaching for six seasons.
“We’ll go again for two new programs because she developed that much in one season again,” revealed de Rijcke. “You see that her component score is lower, so we have to work on that and that includes also two new programs.”
Vannut has been working with German choreographer Iwo Svec, but also wants to use Belgian ballet choreographers now for the first time. She already has a new short program to Spanish music and will start working now on a new long program.
“We have some really good people in Belgium who also want to work with her, and see it as a challenge to work on the expression and all that,” de Rijcke noted.
Vannut is looking forward to the next season and hopes that it will bring her closer to her goals in the sport.
“I just want to participate in the Winter Olympic Games,” she revealed. “I hope for a medal of course. I first wanted to compete at Europeans and then Worlds, maybe a medal at the Youth Olympics. Doing Europeans and Worlds is really like a little part of my dream coming true this year and I’m really happy.”
“I think if I will skate well, I will go further and further and become better and better,” she continued. “It’s not like that I’m going to stop when I win a medal at Europeans. I like skating and I hope I will do like Kevin! He is already 27, but his body is really, really strong. I don’t know if my body will be strong enough to do it for so long.”
Coach de Rijcke considers Vannut to be one of her most talented students.
“I think in Europe she can be in a good position in the future,” said the coach. “I think she has the capacity to get very far. We know that we have to work on the choreography side now. She also knows. She is a jumper, but she is also a girl and a woman and that is something we need to work on in the future.”
Chances are good that Ira Vannut will make her point in the history of Belgian figure skating like her role model Kevin van der Perren did.