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Aug 18 2023

Belgian Para-Archers shoot their way to the finals

In their bright yellow shirts, the two para-archers from the Belgian team are easily distinguishable. Ruben Vanhollebeke en Katleen Meurrens are a couple. And they are in the finals of the European Para Championships.

He holds two world titles, is the reigning European champion, and holds all the world records in his category. Thursday, he added another remarkable achievement: he set the new world record here at the European Para Championships in Rotterdam. The name of this blind archer is Ruben Vanhollebeke.

For her, it’s her second European Championship. Saturday, she will shoot for the gold medal for the first time at a European Championship. Her name is Kathleen Meurrens. “I have worked very hard to be here”, she says about the journey to Rotterdam. “That’s true”, the coach adds quietly from the background. Meurrens continues: “I am very proud of where I come from. The hard work has been absolutely worth it.’’

Did the calf really drown?

Even though Ruben Vanhollebeke already holds numerous titles, winning remains special. “We always want to stay the best. There are always ups and downs”, explains Vanhollebeke. “There are moments when everything goes as you think it should. And there are moments when you think, ‘Oh no, what have I done?'” This even applies to really good shots. “Sometimes, a shot is very good, but your balance or alignment wasn’t that great.” This is why the archer continues to search for areas of improvement in his own performance. His goal is to balance the highs and lows, to become the most consistent archer possible. “And of course”, he chuckles, “you also want to keep doing your best for all the sponsors and keep scoring as well as possible.’’

Thursday’s world record came completely unexpectedly. Vanhollebeke and his coach laugh when asked about it. The archer tells: “I actually didn’t want to listen to the two second-to-last points because I didn’t want to know.” He had walked away and listened to his phone a bit further away. “Then you come back and start shooting again. That’s when I shot three fives.” In his mind, he had already accepted that it wouldn’t amount to anything. Then he shot a seven and an eight. “I told the coach, ‘The calf drowned,’ as we say”, Vanhollebeke recalls the memory from Thursday.

“Then he told me to shoot a ten and we would see.” The ten didn’t happen, but the blind archer followed with a nine. With the scoring, they end up at the top. The counter tells him he’s one point short of the world record, which stands at 497. At that moment, it clicks for Vanhollebeke. He tells the counter that to his knowledge, the record is 494. This needs to be checked. The archer turns out to be right. “Yes, I effectively pushed the world record up by two points.” Thanks in part to this score, Ruben Vanhollebeke is in the final of his category (VI) Saturday.

‘’That was really great. Especially at a European Championship. It’s quite different from doing something like this at a local competition”, the athlete and coach both find the unexpected nature of this record to be especially enjoyable. “I’ve known him for nearly twenty years now”, Vanhollebeke points to his coach, “I haven’t seen him cry often, but this time it was close.” They both laugh.

Another Belgian Final

Meurrens also shot her way into the final of her category (V23). “It’s an honor for me to be able to stand on the podium. It’s the first time for me.” This adds an extra layer of excitement to the athlete’s journey. “I’m shooting for gold, after all.” She looks ahead to the next match. “I’m letting go and taking it as it comes. Piran is a good shot, but I’m a good shot too. Still, you’re always mindful of the the other person.’’

This means that two Belgians are in a para-archery final. The two archers are also a couple. Does that change anything about the experience of such an event? Meurrens explains: “It’s really nice for us to be here as a couple and experience it together. When both of you do something and you both enjoy it immensely, it’s an extra motivation to discuss matches together.” They discuss everything about the sport. “Even when things aren’t going well, you need to talk about it. It can be difficult, but it works well for us.’’

From the parking lot to Hotel New York

So far, all the para-archery has taken place outside at Rotterdam Ahoy. This led to many other sports being close by, which was a nice bonus. Vanhollebeke shares: “We also watched a few other sports, or well, listened, in my case. It’s nice that we can do that.” And that’s not all they appreciate about this event. “It also brings more audience to our sport”, says Meurrens. Vanhollebeke adds: “It gives other people with disabilities the opportunity to experience different sports and try them out. It’s a great chance to promote blind archery to more people. The sport is and remains really cool.’’

After Friday, all the para-archery competitions will move. The parking lot of Ahoy will be replaced by Kop van Zuid. Both athletes see this change differently. Vanhollebeke isn’t too bothered: “I don’t think it matters to me. Whether we’re here or at Kop van Zuid, we just need to do our best, enjoy ourselves, and try to shoot well and execute every arrow correctly. Although I don’t know the difference so far, of course.’’

Kathleen Meurrens sees it differently. “It’s also nice to be on a podium in a beautiful location among tall buildings”, she explains. “In general, archery ranges aren’t located in the most beautiful places.” As for their preparation for the final, the different location doesn’t change anything for both athletes. It all boils down to “just doing your best,” no matter where they are.

However, Meurrens hopes for a full crowd at Hotel New York tomorrow. “Having more people there does provide more motivation. When there are people cheering for me, for Ruben, or just in general, it’s always more enjoyable than when there’s no one in the stands.’’

Kathleen Meurrens’ final is Saturday at 14:25 at Kop van Zuid. Ruben Vanhollebeke shoots in the morning. His gold medal match starts at 09:45 in the same location. Admission is free.

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