By Dylan Manfre
There are large expectations placed on 17 and 18-year-old high school seniors to plan their lives after graduation. Most choose to attend college; a smaller handful attend college in a different country; an even smaller percentage play college athletics. Sophomore field hockey goalkeeper Lena Vandam is doing all three.
Vandam’s journey began in Brasschaat, Belgium, the place she called home for 17 years and where most of her immediate family still lives. Vandam described the experience like a documentary.
“I remember last year feeling like I was in a movie because you don’t realize the decision you’ve made until you’re actually living through it,” Vandam said. “You graduate high school, everything’s super exciting, that summer is weird because you’re making all these big life decisions and you just kind of do it.”
Curiosity to learn American culture kept her at ease with her decision. Vandam referred to the popular Michael Jordan quote, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” because it was important that she gave college and her new life a chance.
“You see your friends and everyone you know stay back home and do a program you’re familiar with,” she said. “I’m doing something that I don’t really know how to do. You really have to set your own example.”
Vandam would soon make a friend whom she has more in common with than just athletics. Sophomore midfielder Marion Waterkeyn’s hometown, Antwerp, Belgium, is eight miles from where Vandam grew up. The two never knew each other until they committed to Rider. Once they met, an inseparable bond was created.
“I didn’t know her up until I came here — we met once in Belgium because we knew we were going to go to the same college, but we didn’t naturally meet, which is weird because we only live 10 minutes apart in Belgium,” Vandam said, smiling. “She’s one of my best friends, and I can go to her about anything. She has that little feeling of home. I’m happy to have her here because we get along so well and it’s funny to see that happening on the other side of the world.”
Their connection hasn’t gone unnoticed. Assistant Coach Dan Hussong, recalled an off-the-field moment from Vandam and Waterkeyn’s first weeks on campus.
“Marion is zany just like Lena is,” Hussong said. “They’re free spirits. They can make anything a fun time. One of the first things they did when they were here was [buy] bikes and spray paint them blue and pink. Everyone on campus knows their bikes. That’s just the way they are. That’s what they do in Belgium.”
Vandam never thought twice about biking around campus, even if it’s not what the average Rider student does.
“You [all] would consider [Rider] a small campus but, for us, we’re like ‘This is big so we’re going to need something to get us from one place to the other,’ and, in Belgium, we bike everywhere,” she said.
Vandam laughed as she recalled the project.
“I guess it’s a combination of our two characters,” said Vandam. “We went to Walmart,got these bikes and we saw the spray paint and were like ‘Alright, let’s do this.’ That’s definitely something [that’s] really funny because that was in the beginning. I didn’t even know her that well.”
Waterkeyn was equally surprised when she discovered her future teammate lived so close. She believed it happened for a reason.
“We live so far away from home and we landed in the same place; it’s a crazy coincidence,” Waterkeyn said. “We probably met before but without knowing each other or paying attention to each other.”
Waterkeyn didn’t rule out the possibility of having faced Vandam as an opponent at some point in her life.
“It’s difficult because she’s a keeper so she’s always wearing her pads, and I don’t really remember keepers’ faces because of their masks, but we probably played against each other when we were small kids,” Waterkeyn said.
Since it’s tough for them to go back home for a weekend, they spend their time attending a multitude of on-campus events, taking spontaneous trips to New York City and hanging out with friends.
“Anytime there is something to do, we always try to do it,” Waterkeyn said. “Even if it’s the most random thing ever, we still go.”
During the recruiting process, Head Coach Lori Hussong preached to the future standout goalkeeper that she was going to have a well-rounded experience at Rider.
“We had some really nice conversations, Dan [Hussong] and I, via Skype just talking to her. [I showed] her that this is a very competitive program but, at the same time, she’s going to get the best of both worlds,” Lori Hussong said. “She’s going to get a great education. It’s not all about hockey, it’s about having a good education, having a good social life and being able to be a regular college student at points and I think that played a role in her decision to come here.”
Growing up, Vandam’s life revolved around athletics. She played speedball, soccer, which is popular in Belgium, and did gymnastics, but she was drawn to field hockey and “started playing rather late for Belgian kids,” she said.
Vandam attended summer field hockey camps where she was first exposed to the goalkeeper position. From there, she flourished into the athlete she is today.
Vandam never expected she would play Division I field hockey.
In Belgium, playing sports post-high school was obscure, according to Vandam. With a little over a year and a half under her belt, she began to realize what she signed up for.
“I envisioned myself for a while playing at the international level, playing with the Belgian national team,” said Vandam. “I didn’t really know what I was going to expect playing [field hockey,] but now that I’ve done one-and-a-half years of it, I know what the big deal is about.”
The rise of Vandam’s career in her short time at Rider is remarkable. She was the 2017 MAAC Co-Goalkeeper of the Year, which she shared with Sacred Heart’s Hailey Power, compiled nine shutouts, allowed five or more goals twice in her career and set a new career-high in saves with 15 against Virginia Commonwealth. She was also named the MAAC Defensive Player of the Week three times this season.
In the season opener against Drexel, Vandam allowed a career-high eight goals. She’s yet to allow more than four goals since. Being her own biggest critic is something Vandam admires about herself, holding herself to a high standard.
“I always try to be arrogant to myself so, if something happens, I’m going to be like ‘What’s this all about? You’re so good; you’re so much better — just show them,’ so that really gets me into being ambitious and sports-related. I stay humbled by that too,” Vandam said. “Even if I know I can’t really do something or it’s going to be hard, I’ll be like ‘So, why don’t you just try it?’ If it’s something that I failed at, in the end, it’s like ‘At least I tried.’ That’s kind of how I like to live my life and what I think is a good virtue.