Mon, Aug 01, 2016 - Page 12 News List

RIO DE JANEIRO OLYMPICS: Belgian decathlete beats cancer, heads to Rio


Belgium’s Thomas Van der Plaetsen celebrates after winning the gold medal in the men’s decathlon at the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam on July 7.

Photo: AP

At the lowest point, when chemotherapy had turned Thomas Van der Plaetsen bald and weak at 23, even his brother, coach and biggest fan, Michael, thought chances for a comeback were minuscule. Now, barely a year and a half later, he is heading to the Rio Olympics as the European decathlon champion — and with a full head of hair.

Failing to get close to the medal stand at the Olympics will not feel anything like losing gold. Just being back among the best, participating in the 10-event competition that crowns the “world’s greatest athlete,” is already his biggest victory of all.

“It was a long road back,” the Belgian said. “If I can reach and convince only one person to stay positive in such a situation, I will take that as a victory.”

Even if life had already given him a few knocks — he lost his father to cancer at 20 — he was well on the way up in 2014 when he won a bronze medal at the world indoor championships.

Then, early that fall, he got a letter at home from anti-doping authorities.

It was notification that he had an abnormal test for the human chorionic gonadotropin hormone, which usually indicates doping in athletes. Before he had time to wrap his head around it, Belgian media had caught wind of the test and rumors were rife that yet another athlete was not what he promised to be.

However, Thomas Van der Plaetsen knew he had not doped and sought another explanation. It led him to testicular cancer.

For a man and athlete, both options were shocking, likely career-ending and life-changing. Yet, as a doping suspect, it forced him to make his illness, so utterly personal, a public issue within days.

“It was extremely painful,” he said. “To be put at the stake at such short notice when I could not defend myself is totally wrong.”

However, there was little time to dwell on being wronged.

There was an operation to remove the tumor and sapping sessions of chemotherapy to endure.

Three months later, he made his first appearance as an athlete again when he received Belgium’s “Golden Spike” as best athlete for his bronze at the world indoors the previous March. It already seemed a lifetime ago.

Sheer on willpower, he decided to make a comeback.

This is where his brother, Michael Van der Plaetsen, came in. Not any coach can push a recovering cancer patient, but when it is your brother, things are different.

Michael Van der Plaetsen took him on training camp in South Africa. They set out with little medical guidance, but one defining motto: “You cannot train on self-pity.”

“You cannot moan and complain about it all the time,” Michael Van der Plaetsen said in an interview with The Associated Press. “You need to forget and look ahead. Look for the little victories in life. It is the only way forward.”

Still, it was painful enough early on. What looked like a simple warm-up left him exhausted. A good day would be followed by two bad days.

With 10 running, jumping and throwing events, there was always something to cloud his mind. If it was not the javelin, it could be the 100m.

He knew that the days when he could improve on sheer athleticism alone were gone.

“I was real tough on him, but he knew he had to get moving again,” Michael Van der Plaetsen said.

Thomas Van der Plaetsen realized he had to fundamentally change to survive.

“The most important lesson is that I took a huge leap when it comes to skills,” Thomas Van der Plaetsen said, honing his technical talents to make up for loss of raw power.

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