Deborah Wouters, Belgian SUP Tour Champion: SUP racing against chronic health condition

There are far more layers to the stories we cover about exceptional people in our sport. It’s the talent, the grind, the grit, the conviction, hard work and determination that go into play of becoming an elite SUP athlete. But there are also mental and physical battles that are being faced silently, out of the spotlight of the sport’s triumphs and losses.

As we’re publishing this article, Deborah Wouters, Belgian SUP Champion, has been in and out of the hospital, having just undergone a major surgery while she’s managing her chronic health condition which is a rare blood disorder.

In the run up to the final stop of the Belgian SUP Tour (BST), SUP4Life on the 17 December held in Ghent, Belgium, we caught up with Deborah who was determined to complete the entire Tour (twelve races) but her health condition has put an abrupt stop to it. Staying true to her mantra, “Je peux, je veux et je vais le faire” (“I can, I want to and I will do it”)!, she shares her inspiring story.

Hi Deborah, welcome to TotalSUP! How did you discover the sport of stand-up paddling and when did you decide to start competing?

Aloha! Thank you for this great opportunity! It all started three and a half years ago during a heat wave in July. My first assistance dog, a golden retriever named Loulou, was crazy about water and one evening I came across paddleboarding with your pup. From the ages of 11 to 26, I was heavily competitive in equestrian sports at a national and international level. Due to health reasons I had to stop abruptly… Yet the competitive spirit has remained alive in me and I decided to participate in my very first, real SUP competition – the Belgian Long Distance Championship – on the 12 June in 2022. Without any expectations I became the Belgian Champion among the Elite women SUP athletes. This great victory gave me so many positive vibes that I decided to give it my all and see what is still physically possible and push my limits. My motto is “Je peux, je veux et je vais le faire” (“I can, I want to and I will do it”)! 

What does the paddleboarding and SUP racing scene look like in Belgium?

In Belgium we have a Belgian SUP Tour (BST), founded by Vincent Claeskens, with different types of competitions that are accessible to everyone. We also have the Belgian Championships Ultra Long Distance (ULD), Long Distance (LD), Technical Race (TR) and Sprint. During each Belgian SUP Tour competition you can earn points that add to the BST ranking at the end of the year. For many, this is an extra incentive to participate in as many competitions as possible.

You have an amazing Belgian SUP Tour (BST) Track record, what makes this SUP racing tournament special?

This year I had set a number of goals. My first goal was to perform well at the various Belgian Championships, I always want to improve myself. The Belgian Championship Ultra Long Distance race was my first big challenge as I was really not used to paddle such long distances, so it was quite a serious physical challenge. Despite all expectations, I achieved a nice second place and became the Vice Champion. During the Belgian Championship Long Distance race I encountered myself and struggled with severe hypoglycaemia after the first few kilometers. Successfully pushing myself to the finish line, I was forced to come to terms with underperforming and dealing with my own limitations. My main focus was on the Belgian Championship Technical Race and Sprints.

I was able to win the Belgian Champion title in both disciplines which I am very proud of! My second goal was to participate in all Belgian SUP Tour (BST) competitions this year. Not only did it seem like a nice goal but it was also a good test to find out which disciplines I like the most and want to focus on in the upcoming years. Unfortunately, I will be out of action for a number of weeks due to a major surgery and will not be able to participate in the very last BST competition, SUP4Life, of this year in Ghent. So, I have to say bye bye to achieve my last goal… which is certainly okay and not a shame! Life is full of ups and downs, sometimes you need to let things go and focus on new goals.

You’re a high-ranked pro SUP athlete actively competing but also dealing with a rare blood disease. I hope you don’t mind us asking about it…

I don’t, but it’s not the first thing I would bring up in conversation. Unfortunately, people make up their mind very quickly and give me certain labels. I rather not participate in that and keep an open mind for conversation. Everyone has some kind of baggage that they carry with them, medical or otherwise. You have to respect each other and that’s why I really appreciate it when people have a question or an assumption about me and they just come up to me and ask me in person. Honesty is the best policy.

Indeed, I have a rare congenital blood disorder that was discovered in 2016 after I spent three weeks in ICU with osteomyelitis (life-threatening bone infection). As a child I was so ill that in one year I spent more time in hospital than I could go to school. It wasn’t a happy childhood… you know how tough children can be on each other. Since then I have been receiving plasma weekly, this is donor filtered human blood to supplement the deficiencies in my blood that my body does not produce itself. Without this plasma I would end up living in danger of serious fatal infections which my body can’t fight off. The treatment is for life so it becomes a part of it.

How does your condition impact your top-level sport ambitions and day-to-day training?

I am very grateful to receive this treatment. Although there is also the flip side of the coin… The first three days after receiving plasma I am very nauseous, I vomit a lot and I feel tired very quickly. On those days I try not to go outside much because I don’t want people to see me like that. One of the side effects is sudden  hypoglycaemia, a drop in blood sugar levels. This can cause blurred or tunnel vision, muscle spasms, numbness or in the worst cases even loss of consciousness. This does entail some risks when participating in water sports, which is why I now paddle with a sensor that constantly measures my blood sugar levels and can trigger alarm in time.

Training with a blood disorder is quite difficult. In turn my body uses calories pretty inefficiently and I get tired pretty fast and have substantial recovery needs. Complaining about it isn’t going to solve it so I rather keep it in the background and go through life like a normal person. Many of my fellow SUP colleagues and friends do not know. On the outside you don’t see any disability and this has its pros and cons. I always plan my weeks well so that when I go paddling, I don’t have to do anything else that day and I can distribute my energy well. After a competition I always have to recover for a few days.

People often look at me strangely because I always have someone there to help me, this is certainly not because I am lazy or want to take it easy! For example, help before and after the race (such as carrying my board and ensuring that my equipment is in order) means a lot to me, so that I can save my energy. Giving up is not in my dictionary, but sometimes it is wise to listen to your body, I have learned that this is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Although that doesn’t always work out well because of my stubborn self ha, ha!

What’s the driving force for you in the sport of stand-up paddleboarding? What makes it unique for you?

As I mentioned before, I’m very competitive, I like to challenge and improve myself. I will never compare myself to others and always look at my own performance after a competition. Regardless of which position I finish, I’m satisfied when I have a good feeling and I think my times and performance are good. It’s a motivation to try to do even better next time. At certain times I end up in a valley where I really can’t do anything and paddling doesn’t feel good. This is really a very frustrating feeling, your mind tells you to work but your body doesn’t cooperate. I’ve had to learn to accept such moments and try to look on the positive side of things.

Humour is one of those things, there’s nothing like a good laugh! I sometimes dare to make bad jokes when I’m not feeling well or when something isn’t going well. Self-mockery is also part of the coping process. I am certainly very proud when I look back and see what I have already achieved at the SUP competitions over the past year and a half! It just feels really nice to be able to compete with the elite athletes and forget everything else for a while. It feels liberating not to be pushed into a certain box.

What advice do you have for aspiring paddlers looking to enter the competitive side of the sport?

Enjoy! Have fun! It’s not about being the best. The point is to have fun and push your limits. You should paddle for yourself, not for others. Success isn’t always winning or being on the podium, sometimes it’s just not giving up. It’s normal to be stressed before a competition or at the starting line. But once you’re paddling you should try to get into a flow, that flow that gives you a kick and makes you smile from behind your ears! I always say “don’t compare yourself to others – be your own competition”.

What can we expect at the last stop event of the 2023 BST?

The last stop of the 2023 BST will take place on Sunday, 17 December in the heart of Ghent. It is a unique race that brings everyone together in the run-up to Christmas and the holidays. In the morning the 12th race of the Belgian SUP Tour (BST) will take place for both amateur and elite participants. In the afternoon there is a Christmas parade that is open to everyone: experienced paddlers and amateurs alike, including beginners and less able athletes. A Christmas costume is essential!

This event is dedicated to SUP4Life, a charity initiative to contribute to the Warmest Week. This solidarity action is organized annually in the week before Christmas to motivate people to organize a fundraising campaign for charities. All proceeds from SUP4Life are donated through the King Baudouin Foundation, empowering organizations and citizens committed to a better society. Both the morning race and the Christmas parade pass through the beautiful city of Ghent. The day ends with the Awards Ceremony where the final classification of the Belgian SUP Tour (BST) is announced. The 2024 BST programme will also be announced. Everyone is welcome to this warm day full of love and friendship!

What are your SUP plans?

Right now, I want to focus on a good recovery. I hope that I can start the year well in January and start building up slowly. From there I will have to see what is possible for 2024. I would like to further focus on Long Distance, ocean races, technical races and sprints, as the Ultra Long Distance formats are physically too demanding. Of course, everyone has dreams, these provide extra motivation.

My dream is to one day be able to participate in the European Championship or World Championship, regardless of my results and finishing position. The atmosphere and experience seem priceless to me and will make a beautiful, lifelong memory. I am absolutely aware that I will not end up at the top, but I’m sure I’ll have a lot of fun! I recently became a proud Restube Ambassador. I want to fill this position with heart and soul in the upcoming year because I find safety on the water very important, especially with my health condition! This will be a major focus for me in 2024. Safety (and fun) first!

Thank you for sharing your inspiring story Deborah and we can’t wait for our SUP paths to cross!

SUP4Life will take place on Sunday, 17 December in Ghent, Belgium.

To find out more about the Belgian SUP Tour (BST), visit

Follow Belgian SUP Tour on Facebook and Instagram

Follow Deborah Wouters on Instagram 

*Images courtesy of Deborah Wouters

About the Author

Anna Nadolna

Anna is the Founder of SUPer Whale, a Cambridge(UK!)-based emerging watersports brand and a stand-up paddleboarding community. She is a certified SUP Flat Water Instructor accredited by International Surfing Association (ISA). Anna is also a digital marketing, storytelling aficionado and a growth hacking enthusiast.

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