Five Questions for Olympic Athlete and YFU Alumna Lieslot Decroix
Belgian-born Lieselot Decroix is a world-class cyclist, an Olympic athlete, and a YFU alumna. During her program year, she lived with the Steve and Sandra Roach family of Deephaven, MN, attended Minnetonka High School, and won the 2006 Minnesota State Road Race Championship. Since 2006, Lieselot has returned to Europe and begun a career in professional cycling.
YFU USA recently caught up with Lieselot as she was preparing for the Road Cycling World Championship in Mendriso, Switzerland. Click here to read about how she was able to maintain her performance level while on program in Minnesota, her stay at the Beijing Olympic Village and tour of the Forbidden City, and how her YFU experience has changed her life.
As a serious cyclist, how did you maintain your performance level while on program in Minnesota?
When I decided to go to the US as a foreign exchange student, I knew that my cycling would be at a lower level for a year. At that time (I was 18), cycling was a hobby. I really liked it, but I wasn't professional. Being a foreign exchange student in the US was a big dream for me even though I knew the US wasn't the best country for cycling. I took my racing-bike with me, so even if I wouldn't have a chance to do any races, at least I could ride my bike for training. When I arrived in the US, I started looking for cycling teams on the internet. I found a women's team, "Velo Bella" that has a team in every state and one pro-team nationwide.
During the winter, it was always snowing, so I trained inside on rollers and went with some Velo-Bella teammates down to Texas for training. In April, there were some smaller races inMinnesota, but the level was not so high; I won a couple races and then I raced with the men. In May, the pro-team manager contacted me and asked me if I wanted to do some big stage races in Oregon! For me, this was a great chance to race on a high level (for the first time in my life, I raced with professionals) and to see the west coast! After this race, I did some more races with the pro-team before returning to Belgium...I spent two weeks in California, two weeks in Bent and one week in Vancouver, Canada! Everybody thought that going to the US would mean the end of my cycling career, but instead, it started over there!
What was your most memorable experience during the Beijing 2008 Olympics?
Staying in the Olympic village was a great experience. Athletes from all over the world, from all different sports, all different cultures ... are there with the same goal! As long as you have to compete, you're so focused that you can't enjoy this overwhelming feeling, but after I finished my road race, I started realizing how lucky I was to be there. The night before the men's road race, I was sitting at dinner next to the Spanish team and talked to them. The next day, the guy I was talking with became an Olympic champion.
Also, when I visited the Forbidden City, all the Chinese people admired us (the Olympic athletes) like we were gods! I didn't have to wait in line, I could go eat for free, people wanted my signature...while I just wanted to see the Forbidden City!
How did your YFU experience influence your Olympic experience?
At the Olympic village there was such a mix of different nationalities and cultures. At the Olympics I remembered my year in the US because there I also experienced so many different cultures and different habits. What other people do is not weird - it's just different! I saw that I was a lot more open to other athletes from different countries than some other people who were just on their own. On the other hand, I had some difficulties with the Chinese culture; the European culture is different with the American one, but the difference with the Chinese is shocking. I tried to remind myself that I had to be open to cultural differences, but some things I just couldn't accept. For example, there was a Chinese man standing at the front door of the apartment 24 hours a day, while we could easily open the door ourselves. When I offered him a chair so he could sit a bit, he was almost angry that I had asked him!
What advice do you have for serious athletes who are considering a summer, semester, or year abroad?
If it's a dream to go, go for it! If you really want something, you can look for chances to do what you want and create the chances yourself. You have to show people that you are really motivated and show them that you know what you want! Even if you can't do the same sport as you want to, or on the level you want to, it's only one year out of a lifetime and you will learn so much more.
In what unexpected way did your YFU experience affect your life and the decisions you’ve made since finishing your program year?
By doing the YFU-year, I learned not to stereotype other cultures, and I became much more independent. When I got the chance to sign on with the Cervelo cycling team (my current team, ranked #1 in the world), I did it immediately – even though it's an international team based in Switzerland with no other Belgians. Other people might have maybe thought a lot about it because you are far away from home and you can't speak your native language, but for me, it was no big deal...I went to the US for one year without knowing any more and I had the best year of my life! I learned in the US that I love traveling and experiencing new cultures, and through cycling, I can go anywhere in the world, which is awesome! I made great -everlasting- friendships in the US and that's why now I go back to visit friends and family!
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