Tom Vanhove: Rising to the top 

Belgium Men's goalball team celebrate their bronze medal victory at the the 2018 World Championships held in Malmo, Sweden
Belgium Men's goalball team celebrate their bronze medal victory at the the 2018 World Championships held in Malmo, Sweden

At the helm of the Belgian Bulls's success, captain Tom Vanhove aims to continue their winning streak through to the Paralympic Games

After missing out on Rio 2016, the Belgian men's goalball team are now set to return to the Paralympic stage in Tokyo next year.

The Belgian Bulls have had a long history in the Paralympic Games - having competed at Montreal 1976, Arnhem 1980, Beijing 2008 and London 2012 - but have never reached the top of the podium before.

However, in recent years, the team have finally experienced some successes on the international stage. In 2017, they earned their first bronze medal at the 2017 European Championship - followed by another bronze at the 2018 IBSA World Championships where they beat Lithuania.

For Tom Vanhove, captain for the Belgian Bulls, that moment alone proved how far the team have come.

"It was an exceptional tournament for us. Lithuania is one of the best teams in the world, and they still are. [But] we know we could get a good result because we had bronze in the European Champions so we know we've made progress," he told the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) during the One Year to Go Instagram Live event.

Vanhove explained why the team have been on an upward trajectory over the past three years.

"We are not the biggest country - we don't have always the most skilled players maybe but we are learning. We are already [here] a long time in the game and every time [we're] learning a bit more, trying new tactics, trying new defense and playing together a lot," he said.

"Coaching has gotten better, we also have our federation that gave us to have more tournaments. The sport got professional."

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Good morning Dumbbells! 💪 🇧🇪

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Team as family

Vanhove has been with the national team since 2006 but had only been able to take part in London 2012 where he competed alongside his twin brother Bruno.

However next year, there could be a total of three Vanhoves who might star in Tokyo 2020 with brother Ame also joining the ranks of the Belgian national team.

It may look like a family venture but there is nothing really strange about this set up, according to Tom.

"I don't think about that when I am on the court. [Having my brothers] - it's special but on the other end it is not special at all. Family and our friends, our [teammates] - they are sort of family."

"That's also the reason why you stay in the team because you are good friends. Friendship [means having] a good atmosphere in the team and it gets people get to a higher level too."

Even though Vanhove considers the team his family, it is still quite unique in the sporting world to find three brothers in one team.

The Vanhoves all have varying degrees of vision impairment which made them eligible to play the Para sport. However on court, it's a game that treats all vision impairments equally.

"Everyone is blindfolded to get every visual disability on the same level. You have classes [varying degrees of impairment] but they play together," Vanhove said.

Goalball for the world

Vanhove wants to see goalball get the spotlight it deserves.

"In 2012, goalball was not even broadcast in the Paralympics, I found it a pity," he said. "Parents came over and family, but people who stayed at home [who couldn't watch] was a bummer.

"The coverage got better, but I think goalball can still get to a higher level. We can know [that] it will be broadcast [for Tokyo 2020]."

He hopes that the coverage at the Paralympics will help increase the popularity of the sport back home to find the next generation of players, especially now that recruitment is challenging with no special schools to find players.

And Vanhove has a plan: "You need to get more people liking the game and getting involved in the game, [get them interested] to train harder to get to a certain level."

Ultimately he wants people to know that goalball is an exciting sport - one that stands out in the Paralympic Games.

"It is the only game in Paralympics who doesn't have a link to an Olympic sport."

"It is a game with three persons [on court] who need to defend a nine metre wide goal.

"In 10 seconds the ball needs to cross the middle line. You can't stay there for half a minute and wait for the ball to be thrown."

And what brings that level of excitement is the speed and the unpredictability of the game.

"In goalball - it can change every second. Every throw can be goal, so everything can switch from one moment to the other."

Navigating a new reality

For now, Vanhove is busy doing some light training at home whilst also juggling family and part-time work in IT - he is still not paid to play goalball professionally.

This set up doesn't deter Vanhove for now, but he has been navigating this new reality of not being to play and train with the team the way they used to.

"From period to period it wasn't easy. You didn't leave your house. It wasn’t summer yet, so there are days I train or not [train]."

What he misses most are the social interactions that happen when playing in a team.

"I am social. I like to be with a team - that motivates me to get back in the shape I was in 2018," he said.

"It's the group - [it's] one of the best motivators. That's why I chose team sports. And for the rest, it's also my family, daughter and wife."

With the postponement of the Games, Vanhove knows what challenges it bears for the team.

"It can turn out good but we need to stay focussed longer," he said. "That's why we took some months [off] and that's why we are starting in August to have our first sessions again and hope to have team competitions, maybe a Belgian league in October and maybe other international games."

But Vanhove also wants to remain realistic.

"It depends on what the virus [will do]. In a different world, we need to take it into account and try to stay focussed."

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Action photo by @ibsagoalball #wcg2018

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