Thomas van der Plaetsen at the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu (© Getty Images)
It is the letter that all athletes hope they never receive.
When Belgian decathlete Thomas van der Plaetsen was notified in October last year that he had failed an out-of-competition doping control, he was utterly devastated. He knew he was not guilty but was facing the uphill task of convincing everybody of his innocence.
“I was shocked,” said the 24-year-old. “As an athlete, you just never ever want to receive a letter like the one I got. I was mostly worried that I was now in a position where I knew I hadn’t taken any doping but didn’t know how I could defend myself against a false positive doping result.”
The results of the test indicated an abnormal result – the presence of human chorionic gonadotropin – as opposed to a positive doping control. But when he discovered the cause of the abnormal results, the news was even more crushing than the letter he had received just days earlier.
Doctors found that Van der Plaetsen had testicular cancer.
“Both pieces of news have almost the same dramatic impact but on different aspects of your life,” he said. “As a professional athlete, failing a doping test could mean the end of your career. But receiving the news you have cancer means your life as you know it is over.”
And so began a whirlwind few weeks in which Van der Plaetsen underwent surgery to remove the tumour and then began a course of chemotherapy as a preventative measure to reduce the chances of the cancer returning.
Coming off the back of a successful year in which he took the bronze medal in the heptathlon at the 2014 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Sopot with a national record of 6259 and was named the Belgian athlete of the year, Van der Plaetsen was keen to maintain that momentum and resume training as soon as possible in order to be able to compete at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015. But he was entering the unknown.
“There is little to no experience of elite athletes receiving chemotherapy and trying to get back in shape as soon as possible,” said Van der Plaetsen. “My doctors could give me little advice and left it to my own judgement for when to return to the track for serious training.”
He knew the road back to full fitness would be a difficult one, but he hadn’t quite anticipated just how much the treatment had taken out of him. Not long after completing the course of chemotherapy, he went down to the track and was only able to jog one lap. He describes it as the lowest moment of the past year.
“The first sessions were very slow, with little work and a lot of rest,” said Van der Plaetsen. “I just took it little by little and even then I was very tired and stiff after every session.”
During those first few weeks, the World Championships seemed to be a distant goal, almost unreachable. But bit by bit, Van der Plaetsen’s strength was improving and the rust was being shaken off.
He returned to competition on 27 May 2015, almost six months exactly since completing the course of chemotherapy, and cleared 2.08m in the high jump. Although it was nine centimetres shy of his PB, it was better than his season opener in that event in 2013, the year in which he set his decathlon PB of 8255.
“It was very cool to be back on the track, but on the other hand it was tough to be in competition and unable to perform as well as I’m used to in the past,” he said.
With a few more competitions under his belt, Van der Plaetsen felt ready to contest his first decathlon of the year. He could have chosen a low-key competition, but instead he headed to the Korean city of Gwangju to defend his World University Games title.
“I really wanted to be back this summer, but my preparation was very tough so I wasn’t sure if I could make it,” he said.
In Gwangju, Van der Plaetsen only moved into the lead after the sixth event, but was then bumped back down after the discus. A 5.20m clearance in the pole vault helped him regain the lead, but he had a margin of just 52 points as he lined up for the final event, the 1500m.
Less than five minutes later, Van der Plaetsen crossed the finish line and was announced the winner.
Coming as it did just nine months after his diagnosis, his score of 7952 was his lowest tally for five years, but that mattered little to Van der Plaetsen, given all that he had been through.
“My 100m and long jump were pretty weak so in the beginning I had some doubts about the whole situation, but in the shot put I managed a decent result and that got me into the competition. After the pole vault, I knew I was going to win.
“I now feel stronger and more determined than ever,” said Van der Plaetsen. “I realise now that it doesn’t always have to go perfectly in preparation, I’m still capable of performing well in competition.”
Injury ruled Van der Plaetsen out of the 2012 season, so he now hopes to finally make his Olympic debut in Rio next year. But first up is next month’s World Championships in the Chinese capital.
“It had always been my aim to be back at a decent level by the time the World Championships come round,” said Van der Plaetsen, who is coached by his older brother Michael and is managed by his sister Helena. “I also want to reach the Olympic qualifying standard as soon as possible.
“My cancer treatment has not changed any of my goals, but I try to take things step by step. You cannot go from chemotherapy and immediately jump to an Olympic level; you have to trust the process and believe that you will be ready by the time the Olympic Games come around.”
Fortunately for Van der Plaetsen, he achieved the qualification standard for the 2015 World Championships with his score of 8184 in Gotzis last year. It means he is now looking forward to what will be his third World Championships.
But he looks back on his two previous experiences at the event with mixed emotions.
In many ways, 2011 was a breakthrough year for Van der Plaetsen. He twice broke the Belgian indoor heptathlon record at the start of the year, then he won the European under-23 title in Ostrava later that summer, smashing through the 8000-point barrier for the first time with a national record of 8157.
During that competition, however, Van der Plaetsen’s father Luc was diagnosed with terminal stage pancreatic cancer. One month later, while Van der Plaetsen was already in Daegu, ready to compete at his first IAAF World Championships, his father passed away just six days before the decathlon was due to start.
Aware of what may happen, before travelling to Korea Van der Plaetsen had been told by his father that whatever happens, he should still compete at the championships. So, with a black ribbon pinned to his vest, that is what Van der Plaetsen did.
He finished 13th with 8069, the second-best score of his career up to that point and just 88 points shy of his personal best.
Two years later in Moscow, he finished two places lower than he did in Daegu, but produced a lifetime best score of 8255.
“My father was a psychiatrist,” explained Van der Plaetsen. “His legacy is not so much the physical talent that is in my DNA, but the mental strength he instilled in me. That has helped me overcome the many challenges I have faced in recent years.”
With those challenges behind him, Van der Plaetsen can now focus on doing what he does best. Compared to what he has been through over the past year, tackling 10 disciplines in the most gruelling of athletics events will now seem like a breeze.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF