As if heptathletes don’t have enough on their plate already, Noor Vidts (25) decided to take up a study in bioscience engineering on top of that. Her status as student athlete she received from the University and her own perseverance make that combination feasible. And it doesn’t stop there: after her silver medal at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in March, Vidts surprised sports aficionados across Belgium again last summer, with an unexpected fourth place at the Olympics in Tokyo.
“Radiant”, “candid”, “endearing smile”: these are some of the epithets commentators used to describe Noor Vidts during the Olympics, and which we immediately recognise when she talks to us shortly after her Olympic experience. Well, there is a lot to be happy about: an excellent tournament, a whole series of personal bests, and a wonderful fourth place in the overall ranking of the heptathlon. “If someone had told me beforehand that I would finish this high, I would have laughed heartily”, says Noor Vidts.
Now it is time to enjoy the Olympic afterglow and the many notes of appreciation. “I have received congratulations from my master’s thesis supervisor and from student association LBK, among others”, she says. Her fellow students follow her sporting performances closely. “When I participated at the World Championships in Doha two years ago, the competition was shown on a big screen in the student bar: that was really nice.”
Having it both ways
Sports and studies have been intertwined in Noor Vidts’s life for many years, and there are similarities between the two. When father Vidts enrolled his seven-year-old daughter in an athletics club, she discovered that she liked doing all the disciplines. “And it has stayed that way: I have never felt the need to choose”, she says. “Until I was eighteen, I even played basketball on top of that.” Vidts had that same mindset when she had to decide what to study. “I liked all the science subjects in secondary school. So I chose bioscience engineering because it is a very broad programme: you have all those sciences.”
Meanwhile, Vidts has almost finished her studies: she only has her master’s thesis left this year. Along the way, she discovered where her interests lie: “I am taking a master’s programme in ‘Human Health Engineering’: I noticed that plants and animals don’t interest me quite as much as the human body. The programme also shares much common ground with sports. My master’s thesis will discuss the exercise load for sprint kayakers, for example.”
‘Human Health Engineering’ is moreover a domain that offers advantages for her own sports career. “We had classes on anatomy, for example: then you really get to know your body. I can join in the conversation now when I’m lying on the treatment table at the physio (laughs). An engineer also develops problem-solving skills. That comes in handy in sports, for example when we can’t do everything we had planned to do during training. Then you have to improvise.” The latter is, in any case, an essential skill for an athlete studying at university. “It is a tough combo indeed”, laughs Vidts. “Fortunately, perseverance and punctuality are two of my strengths, which helps.”
This study programme teaches you problem-solving skills. That comes in handy in sports.
The student athlete status of KU Leuven is an additional aid. It gives students practising sports at a high level the flexibility to combine their student career with the much-needed training and competition hours. Past academic year, Noor Vidts was one of the 76 athletes with an A-status, which allowed her to count on a large package of study and exam accommodations, as well as have access to the University sports facilities. “That status has been a great help throughout my studies, for example because I could postpone exams if they took place during a competition period. And in the first years, I could switch groups for the practicals, so I didn’t have to miss training.”
Having access to the indoor athletics hall and power room of the University Sports Centre is also a plus. “It’s crucial to have a good training spot so close to my campus”, says Vidts.
On cloud nine
At the beginning of last year, the COVID-19 pandemic upset just about everyone’s plans, including those of athletes: a whole series of competitions was cancelled. “When the Olympic Games were postponed, that was a blow of course”, says Vidts. “But I soon thought: ‘Okay, next year I will be another year older and stronger.’”
That turned out to be true. A first highlight was the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Torun, Poland: she crushed her record in the pentathlon and stood next to golden Nafi Thiam on the podium with a silver medal around her neck. “I had gone to those European Championships with a good feeling, but without great expectations. That performance gave me a huge boost. I was on cloud nine for a while.”
And yet, the ambitions for the heptathlon at the Olympic Games stayed modest. Tokyo would foremost be a first introduction to the Olympics, with a view to the future. It surpassed all expectations. When Vidts was still in the running for a medal halfway through the race, she surprised not only the Belgian sports enthusiasts, but also herself. Reason enough to be beaming with joy. “I always really enjoy a heptathlon, but if you’re at the Olympics and everything goes so well...”
Vidts set her personal best in no fewer than five disciplines and improved her total score with more than 300 points, to a total of 6,571. “I was especially pleased with my performance in the javelin throw, not an easy event for me”, she says. “The 40-metre line seemed unattainable for a long time, but in Tokyo, I finally reached it (laughs).”
A medal was close, but it wasn’t in the cards. “I gave it my all during the closing 800 metres to reach the podium, but I knew it would be difficult. I am not disappointed at all; pride is the prevailing feeling. A fourth place was beyond my wildest dreams.”
Vidts has great admiration for Nafi Thiam, who successfully defended her Olympic title: “To pull that off, under so much pressure, is extremely difficult. Nafi is a unique talent, but she is also very sweet. During such a heptathlon, we talk about all sorts of stuff in between events. Sometimes there is a language barrier between us though, that’s something we both need to work on (laughs).”
A fourth place was beyond my wildest dreams.
Peaking in Paris
The fact that Vidts could share her Olympic experience with a fellow student and good friend made it extra special. Heleen Nauwelaers plays for the Belgian Cats, who stranded in the quarter-finals of the basketball tournament after a thriller against Japan. “We started our studies in bioscience engineering together, and she recently graduated. It was very special to participate in the same Olympics. When I arrived at the Belgian base camp in Mito, Heleen had just left for the Olympic village, but she had left me a note: so sweet. We managed to see each other later on.”
“It was such a shame that my family couldn’t be there, though. My parents have always supported me, and they deserved to be there. Tokyo is also much more exotic than Paris, where the Olympics of 2024 will take place.”
Her parents may well witness a top performance of their daughter in the French capital. “I have had a taste of the Olympics for the first time now, and I will take that experience with me to Paris. I will be 28 then: you can put up your best performances in the heptathlon at that age. If I am going to pin down a specific ambition or medal? No, I would rather not. I just want to keep improving myself. We’ll see where that gets me (laughs).”
Of course, Vidts does set goals for herself, both in sports and in life tout court. “In any case, I would like to do something besides sports after I graduate as a bioscience engineer. Perhaps additional studies, or else a job of two or three half days, that would be ideal. And once my sports career is over, I would like to work as a sports engineer. I still have to find out for myself what that will involve exactly (laughs).”