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11/03/2014 13:00
Golden couple to lead Belgium at 2014 World Champs
2014 FIVB Volleyball World Championship - Men & Women

Luxembourg, March 11, 2014. After 36 years, Belgium’s national teams will be both participating in the Final Round of the FIVB Volleyball World Championship. The “Yellow Tigers” and the “Red Dragons” as they are nicknamed claimed their ticket to Italy and Poland 2014 in January as they topped the charts of their respective qualifiers held in Lodz and Paris. Pieter Verhees and Laura Heyrman are among the players who contributed to the achievement of this historic feat. They share the same passion for Volleyball; they both play as middle-blockers; they are young, tall, and strong. They are the “golden couple” of Belgian Volleyball, on and off the court.

Success starts early

Laura’s success story started already in 2009, by the time she was only 16. Well before the “Yellow Tigers” were born, together with her national team she wrote history by winning gold at the Youth European Championship in Rotterdam and then went on to seize bronze at the World Champs held that same year in Thailand. “I still remember very well the bronze medal match we played with Turkey at the World Champs. We were trailing 0:2 in sets and our opponents were comfortably leading also in the third set,” Laura recalls. “They were that sure they were going to win bronze that almost all of their starting players were sitting on the bench and just waited for the last rally to start their celebrations. But we kept on fighting for every single point and in the end we won the match at the tie-break. That was just amazing!”   

Pieter – a gentle giant who stands at 205 cm – was not less successful in his teens: “While playing for the youth national team I also won a bronze medal at the European Championship back in 2007 and that same year we finished sixth at the World Championship. That was the first time that any Belgian national team had travelled back home with a medal and then the girls achieved an even more impressive result a couple of years later. Back then I was following their results but not as closely as I have been doing since I got to know Laura,” Pieter jokes. “As you can understand, we laid the foundations for the development of our national teams already some years ago: we had very good coaches at our Volleyball school in Vilvoorde, we worked very hard and we pulled together a group of talented players, so that explains where our present success comes from.”

International breakthrough in 2013

As Belgium won bronze at the European Championship last September, the core of the team was represented by the same girls who had written history with their European gold in 2009. That achievement is therefore even more remarkable because most of the players in the group – including Laura who will turn 21 this year – are still very young. “I think our main asset is the mentality. We always keep on fighting for every point,” Heyrman explains. “Many of us started attending the Volleyball school at a very young age and have improved day after day. I was invited to join the senior national team for the first time three years ago when I was about to turn 17. We spent the whole summer working all together because we knew we still had a long way to go in order to compete with the best teams in Europe. Since then, we have continued the same way. We are a small country and therefore we do not have 25 top players to choose from to compose the national team. Sometimes this makes it heavier for us but at the same time it helps build up a sense of unity and cohesion in the group.”

As for the men’s national team, their international breakthrough came last summer as the “Red Dragons” won the European League after sweeping 14 consecutive matches before they impressed at the European Championship beating Italy in the prelims. “Our national team is a blend of youth and experience,” Pieter Verhees explains. “We have spent the last couple of summer seasons all together, with the same players. Last year many of us went to play in Maaseik and Roeselare, i.e. the top teams in our country who regularly participate in the CEV Volleyball Champions League, or decided to move abroad to play in Italy, France, or Poland. This way we could get more experience and the opportunity to play at the highest level, also internationally. Right now we have the perfect mix of young and experienced players. This way we could also beat some Volleyball heavyweights like Italy or France!”

European success

After winning bronze at last year’s European Championship in Berlin, the “Yellow Tigers” turned into some kind of national heroines. “After that the image and perception of Volleyball has changed completely in our country,” Laura recounts. “There is a lot more interest also from the press. Volleyball was rather unknown in Belgium but right now we are getting more exposure and visibility. A lot of people who did not watch a Volleyball game before have come to see me and said that our team is just amazing. I am happy with that but I always like to think that we can do even better.”

After beating Italy in the prelims, the “Red Dragons” ended their European campaign in the 1/4 finals as they lost to Serbia. Pieter is not jealous of Laura’s success but would love to win a medal in 2015: “Of course I was really happy for my girlfriend and also for the women’s national team when they won bronze. After they came back home with a medal, we all hoped we could achieve the same. However, we also got to feel the pressure. We believed in our chances even though we knew that to make the semis was a hard task,” Pieter recalls. “After we lost to Serbia I had mixed feelings: we were very close to make the Final Four and possibly achieve the same feat of our women’s national team but we also ended the tournament in a good position so that we are already qualified for the next edition in 2015. We have made huge steps forward though not as quickly as the women have done, however the goal for the next European Championship is definitely to come back home with a medal around our neck!”

Back to the World Champs after 36 years

Even though Belgium had won European bronze in September, only a few could expect the “Yellow Tigers” would claim the World Champs qualifier in Lodz that easily. Especially their 3:0 victory in the last and deciding game with Poland was quite sensational. “We could only dream about this victory but we are so fond and passionate of our sport that we kept on fighting in order to achieve our goal,” Heyrman says. “After the game we spent the evening at the hotel all together and somehow tried to realize and understand what all had happened to us. Some Belgian fans who attended the game also came to the hotel to celebrate with us.”

On the other hand, the “Red Dragons” swept all of their matches at the qualifier held in Paris to get the right to compete at the World Championship for the first time in 36 years. “Our first game with Spain went pretty easy even though before the tournament we did not know what to expect from this team. Next was the match with Belarus, an opponent we already knew from the European Championship. We did not have it easy but in the end we brought home another three points from that game as well. We then had to take on France and we knew well before the start of the tournament that this was the hardest nut to crack. However, we started strong and already after the first set we got the feeling we would win and that we were on the process to write history for Belgian Volleyball,” the 24-year old Verhees recalls. “By the score of 2:1, we did not know if we were already qualified or had to win the game; some players said we had already booked our ticket to the World Championship, some others were not that sure about what they had heard. So we went out to play strong also in the fourth set. In the end we won only at the tie-break but I can barely describe the way we felt after our country qualified to the World Championship for the first time in 36 years!”  

The memories from that day, January 5, will accompany Pieter and Laura for a long time. “Even though Laura’s last game in Poland started after the end of our match with France, I could not speak to her before the actions got started in Lodz. I was busy celebrating our victory and qualification to the World Championship,” Pieter jokes. “Anyway, before the start of our respective matches, we spoke to each other and pumped each other up! After the game with France, I went back to the hotel and followed on the Internet the live scoring of the match that Belgium and Poland were playing in Lodz. Quite understandably I was following all this with much attention and could hardly hide my nervousness.”

2014 World Champs: goals and expectations

What can the “Yellow Tigers” and the “Red Dragons” reasonably achieve when they compete at the World Championship later this summer? “I think we have a very tough Pool,” Heyrman says after the DOL held yesterday in Parma. “However, I think we can make it to the second round because Azerbaijan and one of the teams from NORCECA are within our reach. I think we shall set our sight on the second phase; it will be hard to achieve this goal but not impossible.”

The “Red Dragons” know they are going to cross their ways with Italy, Iran, France, plus two teams from NORCECA. “It depends on which teams from that Confederation will qualify but anyway it is a very strong Pool,” Pieter stresses. “This time Italy and France will not underestimate us. I think we can go for fourth place in the Pool and then everything is possible in the next round. Our biggest challenge will be to make it through the first round!”

Another last thing that Pieter and Laura share: they both are currently playing in Italy where Verhees is already spending his second season with Andreoli LATINA – and just made the final of the CEV Volleyball Challenge Cup – while Heyrman moved to Liu Jo Volley MODENA last September.
“I am having a good time in this country” Laura admits. “It is always a little scary when you move to some place you don’t know and where everything is new: the language, the culture, the food, the local habits, the lifestyle, etc. On top of this you leave everything behind, including your family and boyfriend. Anyway, my experience in Italy has been great so far. I love playing for this club in Modena, I like both the staff and the other players. The Italian lifestyle is making me a different and more positive person. As for the language, I am still trying to learn a bit every day and since a few weeks things have gone better.”
“I am really happy with the decision I made to move to Italy even though at the beginning it was not that easy,” Pieter recounts. “However, after a certain time you adjust to a different environment and I really like the Italian way of life!”

Though they are still young and more success is to come, is there any message this young couple would like to send out to the next generation of Volleyball players in their home country? “I am always ready to share my experiences and thoughts, but in the end it is up to every player and person to decide what they want to do with their lives,” Laura says. Pieter, on the other hand, is quite clear in what he wants to advocate: “If you think you are ready to play at a higher level, do not rule out the possibility to move abroad because you will get the chance to play against very good players and this way you can go beyond your limits every single day. You will always try to emulate the best ones and will learn a lot from them.”

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