Destined to become a professional field hockey player from an early age, world champion and Olympic silver medalist Tom Boon has carried the torch for the sport and his family, which has passed through generations. Pivotal to Belgium regaining its place as one of the best teams in the world, Tom has never wavered from his passion for the sport and his focus on Tokyo 2020, now just 1.5 years away. With Cowboy, he gains precious time cycling in between training sessions; always a smooth ride, he saves his sweat for the playing field. We joined Tom for one of his recent rides.
When did you first get into field hockey?
I started playing hockey because my whole family plays it. My mom, my uncles, my big sisters, my grandparents. So it was quite natural that I started. My mother was still playing after I was born so I watched her quite a lot, same with my sisters and uncles. I've been around hockey fields all my life.
Did you ever fight against the family tradition? Or was it a no-brainer for you too?
I was fascinated with it, and was so motivated by the sport, so I was just happy to play.
When did you become a professional?
At the age of 18. I had the choice to play for the national team, which I of course accepted. I left my studies, which I wasn't too good at, so the choice was not too difficult. I had dreamed about it since I was a kid to make hockey into a career.
Is there a club team you're a part of?
Racing Club Brussels. I also played two years abroad in Holland, which in my point of view is the best competition in the world.
I was going to ask who your biggest rival is. It would be the Netherlands then?
For nationals, yes. But now we are ranked #1 for the first time. Just freshly world champions (in 2018).
Is there a big hockey culture in Belgium?
Yes, now there is. When I started playing hockey 25 years ago, it was a really small, family sport. I think the big shift was the Beijing Olympics in 2008—the first time Belgium qualified since '72 I think. [Editor's note: Belgium placed ninth in the '76 Olympics, then experienced a six decade drought until Beijing.] It was a big achievement. I wasn't playing then, I joined after the Olympics. But since then it was popular. By winning an Olympic silver medal in Rio and world championship two years later, hockey has become a big sport here.
You do a fair amount with kids in Belgium. You run a hockey camp, correct?
I started my first hockey camp in 2015. I had always wanted to create something I wish I could have done when I was a kid—A nice hockey camp, good teachers, a lot of material. Just to try to give the kids what hockey brought me. The most valuable lesson is by having fun and experiencing the joy of hockey, so they become more involved and get better and better. I started it with two of my best friends, now we are with five employees. It's become bigger and bigger.
How often does it run?
We have about 35 camps a year, during the school holidays. One week long camps, in Belgium, France, Germany at the moment.
When is your next biggest competition you're preparing for?
The European Championships in Belgium. We lost in the finals in 2017 to the Netherlands. So we're looking forward to a rematch.
I bet plenty of kids from your camps cheering you on!
Yeah, we are the official side event of the Europeans. We're going to run a camp on the pitch, not too far from where the event is.
Switching gears a bit, Cowboy. How did you first come across the bike? What attracted you to it?
I was having brunch nearby the shop, and a lot of people were testing it. I thought it looked pretty cool, and I really wanted to try it.
That first moment when you tried the bike. What'd you think? I thought it was amazing. The first pedal, you just push forward, straight away I loved it.
How long have you been riding it? About five or six months.
When you are in Brussels, what is your typical ride? At the moment, it's to go from point A to B. About three to four times a week to go to trainings and appointments.
Not too much exploring, then? Not really. But that's why I love it. I had a bike before, but because Brussels is not really fast. With all the hills, I'd arrive my appointments really sweaty and I felt uncomfortable. At that moment I really wished I had an electric bike.
Has Cowboy caught on among your teammates? Everyone wants to try it of course. Some of my friends ordered theirs too. Everyone is loving it.
When in your life did you most feel like a Cowboy? A moment when you were the most free? When I was 18. I decided to stop my studies to live for my passion which was quite a big risk at the moment because hockey was still really small. It wasn't a big sport, not a lot of money, so the risk was quite high. At that time I thought, 'It's part of my life, it's what I want to do. And the best way to achieve my dreams is to quit now to give everything for hockey.' Which I did. Ten years later, when I look back, everything I've done I'm really proud of. I've been playing 270 games for Belgium, took a silver in the Europeans, one Olympic medal, world champion… I'm not sure I would have achieved all those things if I hadn't decided to take that leap. That was the biggest choice I've had to make in my life.
Have there been any hiccups along the way? Any setbacks?
Not really anything big. Mostly little injuries at the wrong times. Five weeks before the Olympic Games in London 2012, in the last tournament I broke my hand. I had to have a surgery with a month of recovery. Not good when you can't train the most important month of the year before the Olympics. I was lucky, I was playing not too bad before my injury so the coach still selected me. The first game I played after my surgery was the first game of the Olympics. Then, the last practice game in Rio (the 2016 Olympics), last practice game against Germany I pulled my hamstring. And the first game was four days later. If the injured player is put out for reserve, he has to go back home.
How were you able to push through? You just played through the pain?
No, you can't. The coach decided to play with one player less the three first games and he kept me on the team. Which I think was the first time in the Olympics, a team playing with one player less.
Wow, and you guys still ended up winning the silver medal.
Well you play with 11 (on the field). So we were 15 instead of 16. You just get a bit more time because you have fewer rotations. It's still manageable. I basically worked with the physio every day to make my way back. Which I succeeded and in the end, we won the silver medal, which was pretty big. I had never been injured before, so that was pretty unlucky being twice injured before the Olympic games.
When you're not in training, or traveling, what's your typical off day in Brussels?
I wish it could be all days [laughter]. I don't have a lot of time, and I try to do as much as I can to train and then recover.
A favorite spot in Brussels?
I like to have a normal social life for an athlete, out with friends. Mostly around Flagey.
What's that like?
For me, it's the best neighborhood in Brussels near where I live. Nice places to chill.
Is Cowboy ever involved when you're just hanging out?
Yes of course, especially in the summer. It's really relaxing to just go there, to just arrive with your bike.
Besides arriving fast and sweat free, what keeps you riding with Cowboy?
It's also safer, the lights are good. There's a lot of traffic here. It also looks cool. Just everything, really.
What is your next Cowboy move? Anything in the works?
To be honest, the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which we are hoping to reach. A lot is working toward that dream. I'm going to be 30 soon. I think the Cowboy move is to just keep going, to put more effort into it. Because it takes more when you're 30 than when you're 22. So yeah, to reach our dream, to work for it, and to enjoy the journey as much as the results. I think that's the most important thing: to enjoy the journey. Then you want to do more, you feel happy, you always want to be better.