Nina Derwael entered the women’s uneven bars final at the 2018 World Championships in Doha as the top qualifier.
She’d already achieved history for her country as the only woman to win a World Gymnastics Championships medal for Belgium, a bronze on the bars a year prior.
An expanding resume meant that Derwael entered as a favorite in Doha. She had qualified first and had the highest score in the all-around final, adding a level of expectation that Derwael had not yet faced in her career.
From the outside, it could have seemed that the gold medal was hers to lose. From her perspective, those good results in the days leading to the final only added to her confidence.
“I think it helped me to have had good routines before because now I could have a lot of confidence in my routines,” Derwael said, speaking to Olympic Channel after the final.
That confidence was on full display as she executed her trademark high-flying routine, as she flies high above the high bar and transitions between the bars with effortless grace. She stuck the dismount to the delight of a massive Belgium cheering section – her close friends and family, who had made the trip to see this moment.
“It’s just all a dream come true. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have any words for it,” she said. “It’s just incredible.”
The one to beat
With that win in Doha, her transformation from ‘challenger’ to ‘one to beat’ was complete.
Now, wherever Derwael goes, she’s the favorite. The expected winner. Gold medals placed upon her neck in the minds of fans and journalists alike before the first routines have even begun.
That’s what made fall off the uneven bars during the apparatus finals of the European Games in late June so surprising.
Derwael insists that being the one to beat has not changed her approach.
“For me, it hasn’t changed that much,” she told Olympic Channel. “I think mentally for me, the most important thing for me is that I do a good exercise.”
Her uneven bars disappointment fueled her in Minsk, where she came back to take gold on the balance beam.
“I was really sad about bars, but I was mostly mad at myself,” Derwael admitted. “I think being mad helped me a lot for beam to be a little more aggressive. I really wanted to end on a high note. I’m really happy that I was able to do that.”
Olympic dreams waiting
Derwael competed in Rio 2016 in her first year as a senior competitor. Her bars were impressive but she missed the final, finishing 12th in the qualification round.
That experience and her recent successes are fueling her as she nears Tokyo 2020, where she has the potential to win Belgium’s first-ever Olympic gold in artistic gymnastics.
“If you told a few years ago, after Rio, that I would do all these amazing things, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Derwael said. “I really would have thought you were crazy.”
Those amazing and crazy things including having an element named in her honor (along with Great Britain’s Georgia-Mae Fenton), and taking gold medals at the European Championships, European Games and, of course, the World Championships.
That leaves just one more major goal left.
“I’m still working hard for that Olympic dream,” she said.
Rise of a nation
Derwael hopes to share that dream with her teammates. When Belgium qualified a full team to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, it was the first time the nation had achieved that feat since 1948.
The U.S., Russian and Chinese women have already qualified full teams to Tokyo by virtue of their medal-podium finishes in 2018. In Stuttgart, the top nine non-qualified teams will earn their berths to next summer’s Olympic Games.
In Doha, Belgium finished 11th and would have qualified.
“I think we’ve developed a lot over the last few years, and we’re still developing.” Derwael said. “Everyone is working really hard.”
Derwael says that Belgian gymnastics has established a training system that will allow the country to continue their rise, pointing to her compatriots’ impressive fifth place finish at the 2019 Junior World Gymnastics Championships.
“We were fifth as a team, which is amazing,” she said of the result. “The little girls did so well, so I’m really happy for them. I think it’s just the beginning.”
Fitting analysis from the woman who might just be the beginning of a rich Belgian tradition.