Belgium’s Mandy Dammekens has always been tough.
A footballer since the age of five, she played with the boys until she was 13, when she joined a women’s team for two years. Then she fell in love.
“In 1999, I discovered cycling,” said Dammekens. “That was it, I was hooked.”
A few years before, Dammekens watched the Paris Brest Paris on TV and knew she wanted to participate someday in the 1250-kilometer race.
For the next two years, Dammekens competed on the road on her bike as well as in athletics - for eight years, she was a very successful track and cross-country runner. When she was only 17, she joined the Belgium Army as an officier à dînant, and it wasn’t long before she was recognized for her athletic prowess. Two years later, in 2004, Dammekens was asked by one of her military instructors to represent Belgium in a triathlon that was to be held in Germany.
“I told him, ‘I don’t know how to swim,’” said Dammekens. “But my instructor told me, ‘Listen. You roll well. You run well. And you have to represent Belgium in Germany. You will be fine. I believe in you.’”
With these words, Dammekens found the courage to begin something new. The race included a 400-meter swim, a 20K bike, and a 5K run.
“I came out of the water last,” said Dammekens. “But I decided to just keep going and do my best. I kept picking people off, one by one, on the bike and the run. And despite a very bad swim, I won my first race.’”
Dammekens decided if this was how her first race went, then maybe it was a sign. She joined a triathlon club and began training in earnest. By 2007, she achieved one of her goals and competed in the Paris Brest Paris and was the youngest female competitor that year at the age of 22.
Soon after, Dammekens got her start in mountain biking much the same way as she discovered triathlon - a military colleague signed her up for the Belgium Military Mountain Bike Championship in 2010.
“I was afraid because it was a very technical course,” said Dammekens, “But I loved it. The technical aspect of mountain biking was so challenging. Because of the constant change of terrain – especially the descents – one must always be attentive and not make mistakes. It made me feel very alive.”
It wasn’t long before Dammekens put all of her favorite aspects of sport together and tried an XTERRA in 2011 and quickly demonstrated her talent.
In 2015, she was second in her age group at XTERRA France and qualified for the XTERRA World Championship, where she finished second in the 30-34 age group. The following year, she was the first overall female at XTERRA South Africa and second in her age group at XTERRA Belgium. In 2017, she was the age group champ at XTERRA Greece and second at XTERRA Switzerland. Last year, Dammekens won her age group at XTERRA Belgium, but most impressive, was fourth overall female in a very competitive field.
“I realized that being in the woods was what I was looking for,” said Dammekens. “I prefer to spend time on my bike in nature rather than on long, straight lines on the macadam.”
This year at XTERRA Belgium on June 8th, Dammekens was the first overall female amateur, and the resulted vaulted her into the elite ranks. Once again, she used her proven strategy: survive the swim, move up through the bike, and then run like hell.
“The current was very strong because of the wind,” said Dammekens, after the race. “Swimming is really just not my thing, so there were a lot of strokes that were lost. I had a good start beside another Belgian athlete I know very well, but on the first buoy, I got stuck in the ropes and lost the pack I was in. I did my best and managed to close the gap, but still, I was in a hurry to get out of the water and to get on my bike.”
On the bike, Dammekens caught up with her competitors in her typical fashion but wasn’t aware of her place in the pack.
“I biked and ran as hard as I could, but still, I had no idea I was the first amateur,” she said. “I didn’t discover this until I crossed the finish line, where it was quite a sensation. What was more, is that the race was in my hometown of Namur and my friends and family were there. To cross this finish line with everyone cheering and congratulating me? It was exceptional.”
All told, Dammekens trains between 12 and 20 hours a week, depending on her work schedule with the military.
Most mornings, she’s up at six to feed her dog and then herself. Afterwards, the two head out on a morning walk, and then Dammekens will ride 30 kilometers into work. Usually, she will find time to swim or run on her lunch hour.
In the evenings, she spends time with friends or gets in more training at the Qualitriteam, which is her triathlon club. Qualitriteam is also a youth club, and even though Dammekens spends her days instructing young soldiers in sports and fitness, she also finds time to help train kids and teenagers as well.
“I love to see kids evolve in triathlon,” said Dammekens. “To see them rise to the challenge of a race and perform is so great. We do our best to help them improve and also have fun by practicing this beautiful sport.”
For Dammekens, to see people continue their training on their own, just because they love it, is reward enough for her.
“My days are long, and after I coach or get my own workout in, I return home to dinner, shower, and a well-deserved rest. A perfect day would include lots of friends over and a good, homemade pumpkin gratin for dinner.”
When she’s not training, Dammekens surrounds herself with family and friends, although she admits sometimes she has to take them to races with her in order to spend time with them.
“I am close to my family and have great friends,” said Dammekens. “Although they often tell me, I never stop.”