Photos by Halux Visions
‘YOU DO WONDER SOMETIMES: HOW FAR COULD I HAVE BEEN IF I DID GET MORE FUNDING?'
Imagine… The night before you have to perform, you sleep on a hard couch, and try to twist yourself into positions to get some sleep. Meanwhile you stare at the ceiling, the hours pass by, and competition-time gets closer and closer. Or you share a room with four other athletes and one of them snores all night. This is not the ideal scenario before an important performance, right?
It’s the story of Isabelle Hanssen from Nijmegen, The Netherlands. She is 25 years old and her life is all about skiing. She was hooked on skiing ever since her holiday on the slopes of Val Thorens at 11 years old. Once back in the Dutch lowlands she started going to indoor ski facilities. The difference with the real slopes is huge of course. Indoor you are down within seconds.
Her snowboarding sister encouraged her to keep coming to the indoor ski hall. Since the slopes inside were too short, Isabelle started working on tricks. Over and over again she trained on perfectioning them. When she turned 15 years old, she joined a freestyle clinic. Where you learn how to jump ramps and slide on rails. She found her passion, and did not mind the long trips on public transport three to four times a week to get to the ski hall. “From that moment onward she knew it: this is it for me!”
Isabelle has lots of persistence and a great talent. In the halfpipe she is already internationally known. That Isabelle ended up in the freestyle-halfpipe discipline is more a coincidence than a conscious choice. “When I was sixteen I could not ski because I had a cruciate ligament injury. Someone suggested that I could also make up for the lost winter in New Zealand. And that’s what I did.”
In New Zealand Isabelle joined the slopestyle competition. A discipline in which you ski down a course including a variety of obstacles such as rails, jumps and other terrain park features. One of the competitions was cancelled. “They told us we would not get our money back, but we could join the halfpipe event instead. That’s what I did. And thought: this is really cool!”
As of that moment Isabelle was taking on the halfpipe. When she heard that her discipline was also to become Olympic, she knew for sure she wanted to go for her sport. Taking part of the Sotsji Olympics in 2014 came to soon for her. She did meet all the international requirements, but not the Dutch requirements to be part of the selection.
In hindsight not so surprising, most of the competition had a full staff around them. Including a coach, physiotherapist, fitness trainer, ski-waxer, team manager, some even have their own cooks... and Isabelle, she was by herself. She had no financial support from the Dutch Ski Federation and she had to figure out how to get along with a little bit of sponsor money. During tournaments all the arrangements asked a lot of Isabelle’s multitasking skills. While all of her competing colleagues were in the gym getting ready for the real deal, she was the only athlete participating in the meeting with coaches and managers, because she was her own manager. Her nights during these competitions were spend on someone's couch as there was no money for a hotel. Then in the morning, after a long walk she would arrive on the slope for the big event, renting a car was also out of her reach. “I did everything to be able to be part of tournaments, even if that meant I had to sleep on a couch.”
The next frustration
Qualifying for PyeongChang 2018 was her next goal after missing out on the Olympics in 2014. She got herself a loan to have a serious go at this mission. “I did everything to succeed in my goal to go. I started eating more consciously, no alcohol, got more sponsors and had better places to sleep. Yes, I did notice a good nightrest helped my ski-performances, haha.”
But the problems were also getting more serious. Even though there was a bit more money, real guidance was missing. Which still meant she was the only athlete in the competition without a coach. At the test event a year before the games, she realized: this is simply impossible.
“I wanted to get my skis waxed, and ended up with a Korean waxer, because I did not have someone to do this for me. Well, this was quite a communication challenge, and you really need to get the wax right. Afterwards I ran to the coaches meeting. Everything just went wrong, it was too much, and the competition didn’t even start yet…”
At the test event she noticed a distinctive increase in her competitors’ level - who did have an entire staff around them. And thus also the Olympic games of PyeongChang were out of her reach. “This was really frustrating, I knew I could do so much better”
And yet again, we learned and grew. The games of 2022 in Beijing form the next mission for Isabelle. Who by now also expanded her social reach extensively. With more than 100,000 followers on Instagram she has created a solid base. (Instagram: isabellehanssen). This gives Isabelle a better chance to fund her passion and talent, and shows the extensive power of social media on a sports career. “I realized in time that creating my own channels are more and more important. Skiing is not a very popular sport on tv in the Netherlands, but with my own reach now, I am more interesting for sponsors. And the more money I get, the more I can invest in skiing.”
A long way to catch up with the competition
Isabelle is currently completely focussed on training and not on tournaments. That way she doesn’t have to travel around the world for a bit and can seriously focus on her performance and personal development. She now contracted a coach, part-time on this budget. It’s a start, but still quite a long way to catch up with her competition with regards to support.
“I just spent two weeks in a halfpipe training camp in France. It costs a lot of money for me, although this was relatively cheap. Other teams book these trips as if it's nothing. That really does make a big difference. With more funding I can do the same.”
“Every year gets more expensive and when I start participating in tournaments, again the costs will double. I don't want to constantly think about how I will pay the next season. I already got this far by myself, that is quite unique. Meanwhile you wonder: where would I have been if I would have had more funding?”
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