On the occasion of Safe Sport Day celebrated world-wide on 8 August, the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation (GEF, the Foundation) is thrilled to announce Aagje Vanwalleghem as the new athletes’ representative on its Council. Born in Brazil and raised in Belgium, Aagje is a former elite gymnast who won several World Cup medals and the first ever Belgian gymnastics medal at a European Championship. She was also a finalist at the Olympic Games in Athens 2004. A survivor herself, Aagje uses her experience to promote ethics in gymnastics through several important roles. She works as a child and youth resilience coach, and gives keynote speeches focusing on mental resilience, agility, teamwork, diversity and finding your purpose. On the Council she now succeeds Ivana Hong who provided the crucial athletes’ viewpoint to the Foundation in its initial years.
We caught up with Aagje to talk about about her background, her motivation to get involved with the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation, her current activities in the field of safe sport, and her views on the athletes’ role in supporting positive change in sport.
What does the appointment to the GEF Council mean to you?
It is a great honour for me that the GEF contacted me a few months ago, took the time to listen carefully to my story and asked me if I would be interested in serving on their Council as an athletes’ representative. It’s good to feel I am trusted and accepted by the GEF for this important mandate for the next 4 years.
What was your motivation to get involved with the GEF’s mission and work?
I accept this appointment with all my heart. If I can be one of the many links of the chain through which athletes, coaches, officials and other members of the gymnastics community feel helped by the GEF, feel more confident about themselves through a listening ear or conversation, see a bright spot in difficult periods and if we can help them to get back on track to pursue their goals and dreams, or support them in their question or concern - then the reason why I was appointed as a GEF Council member will have been successful.
I think it is crucial that an organisation like the GEF exists. This ensures that gymnasts, coaches and officials always have an international point of contact when they cannot be sufficiently supported, guided or helped at a national level. The FIG is the most highly regarded and respected body in gymnastics, so I consider it a huge honour to be a part of their independent ethics unit in the coming years to take integrity within gymnastics world-wide to the next level.
How are you still in touch with active gymnasts?
As a member of the expert committee on ethics within gymnastics in my region of Flanders, set up by our minister of sport Ben Weyts, I keep a close eye on this theme together with my fellow expert members. I am therefore in contact with former Belgian and international gymnasts as well as current gymnasts, coaches, and the gymnasts' entourage. This way I stay informed of the progress within the sport of gymnastics compared to previous years, but I also know the current pain points – which are action points for today and the future.
During the past three years, a dozen of former gymnastics colleagues including myself were acting as whistle-blowers against unethical behaviour within the sport of gymnastics which was not always easy and sometimes made me stagger. I carry gymnastics very deep in my heart. It is a sport that dominated my entire activities for more than 20 years. It is a beautiful sport and I cherish it immensely. As one of the pioneers in Belgian gymnastics and first Olympic finalist and European medallist in Belgian gymnastics history, I have experienced wonderful moments which I will cherish for a lifetime. I learned life lessons that I can use at work and in my daily activities and then share them with the people around me. Teamwork, respect, resilience, dealing with setbacks, setting goals, dealing with diverse personalities, cultures and so on - it all comes your way in sports. That’s great! But gymnastics left scars, too. Me, too, I am a survivor. I don't wish anyone to feel bad physically, mentally, or emotionally for a long time or too frequently. It's a sad, dark place. A place you want to get out of as soon as possible to be your full, energetic self again. And you can't get there alone. You need people around you who help, support, advise and guide you. I would like to offer that support together with the GEF to everyone who considers gymnastics to be of paramount importance.
From your experience, how can athletes help initiate positive change in sport in general and regarding the serious issue of abuse in sport in particular?
By speaking up, athletes really do initiate positive change in sport. Daring to say no. No to abuse, no to unethical behaviour. And daring to say yes. Yes, to yourself. And always keep communicating: with a fellow gymnast, a trainer, your parents - it doesn't matter who, as long as they are people you trust and you can vent your heart to. Asking for help or advice to others is perfectly okay and if you have the courage and energy to report transgressive behaviour to someone specific or a reporting line, my advice would be to certainly do so. It can make a difference. Abuse in sport has attracted attention world-wide and the threshold for reporting transgressive behaviour has already decreased in recent years. Facilitating reporting remains something that we must focus on in the coming years. In addition, prevention, guidance, but also sanctions are necessary to ban transgressive behaviour from sport in general.
Tell us more about your current activities to promote safe sport!
I act as a keynote speaker, sharing my experience with mental resilience, agility, teamwork, diversity and finding your purpose. In addition, I got trained as a child and youth resilience coach and work with young people to help them discover their strengths, learn how to use them, and how to become even more resilient and agile in this very demanding and rapidly changing society. Of course I have a little preference working with young sport talents.
I also wrote a book: 'Veerkracht’, which means ‘resilience’ in Flemish and was published in 2016. It was a personal project to unfold my life story and motivate people to persevere and pursue their goals. I think that we, people in the world of sport, need to be aware of our social responsibility role. We are examples for the world out there. And especially for the children. We owe it to them. As a happily married mother of a girl of 9 and a boy of 6 I feel strongly about this.
Professionally, I am also not too far from that space and have been working as a corporate wellbeing consultant for more than five years now. We aim to guide companies to develop and integrate a sustainable wellbeing policy based on our knowledge and expertise. Again, in this role I can benefit a lot from my experiences during my gymnastics career.