From Cleats to Ergs: Ward Lemmelijn's rise to World Indoor Rowing Champ

Ami Kucharek

Written by , Head of Communication on

Ward Lemmelijn after his world championship title in Indoor Rowing

Ward Lemmelijn did it again. He secured the title of Indoor Rowing World Champion 2024 in the Men’s 23-39 2000m races with an impressive time of 5:43.2. However, had you asked Ward in high school what his future in sports would look like, he’d never put his bet on indoor rowing.

Read this EXR Blog article to get to know the Belgian world champion of indoor rowing and find out how Ward Lemmelijn’s athletic career started with soccer, YouTube tutorials, and a broken boat.

One could describe Ward Lemmelijn’s early days in indoor rowing with one word: random. Or was it destiny that led him to become Belgium’s most successful indoor rower? “With regards to my physique, I lucked out. My genes gifted me with a great VO2max and with 1.95 meters, I’m tall as well”, the reigning world indoor rowing champion explains. “Reaching high-performance levels is a lot of hard work, too. I train twice a day. This always includes a rowing session and some weight training, cycling, or more rowing after I get home from my full-time job as a P.E. teacher.”

Ward rows on this RP3 rowing machine and uses EXR for his training.

The rowing machine is Ward’s main training tool.

The athletic career of Ward Lemmelijn started in professional soccer where he played both in the Netherlands and Belgium. However, when his team dissolved, he was left without a club. Luckily, he had a calling. At a college event, he was challenged to row a 2k on the RowErg. Ward confesses: “I never sat on an ergometer before.” Without knowing anything about indoor rowing, Ward broke the school record by 10 seconds with a solid 6:16. Following this surprise, it was just logical to sign up for the Belgian Indoor Rowing Championships which were held just a week later. To everyone’s amazement, Ward won with a time of 6:08 and became the Belgian Indoor Rowing Champion of 2018.

I still get goosebumps when I rewatch the race.

Ward Lemmelijn, looking back at the virtual WRICH

After booking his first successes, Ward set his sights on the next stage: competing at the World Indoor Rowing Championships (WRICH) in Los Angeles. “I’ve never driven more than 2 hours away from home which is basically just across the border to the Netherlands,” Ward recalls. “My trip to the States for my first World Rowing Indoor Championships was like a fun vacation with friends. But at its end, I had to participate in a world championship which was a bit crazy.” The trip paid off and Ward returned to Belgium with a gold medal. And the year after, he again brought home a championship title, this time from Paris.

During the pandemic, the WRICH were held virtually. “The WRICH 2021 were a big event in my home town. My family and all of my friends were there to support me. During my race, I sat in front of everyone, all alone, but 700 people were screaming for me and spurring me on. I set a new personal record that day and I still get goosebumps when I rewatch the race,” Ward explains.

Ward raced in front of 700 people in his home town Tienen.

All of his greatest supporters came to cheer Ward on at the WRICH 2021. (Copyright: Branko Minnart)

Indoor rowing is an essential part of every rower’s training. Whereas most rowers begin their careers on the water and then often develop a hate-love relationship with the rowing machine, Ward started on the erg. “I like how you’re responsible for your own results in indoor rowing. Unlike in soccer, you can only blame yourself for bad results. This also works the other way: you get motivated by seeing how far you can push yourself. Ergs don’t lie. For my indoor rowing training, I use my RP3 and EXR. The app adapts to my fitness so it’s always challenging enough to enjoy a good workout but not overtrain.”

Ward uses EXR to prepare for his indoor rowing competitions.

Ward uses EXR to prepare for his indoor rowing competitions.

A passion for sports runs in Ward’s family. His sister is a volleyball player and his younger yet taller brother Lode Lemmelijn just took up indoor rowing as well. “Although my brother is more than 2 meters tall and really fit, I’m not afraid that he’ll catch up. I don’t like it when people outperform me, but if it’s my brother, it’s alright“, Ward explains with a big smile on his face. The Lemmelijn brothers both participated at the World Rowing Indoor Championships 2024 in Prague. Lode came in 6th and Ward secured his title as World Champion once again.

Looking back at his track record, it’s obvious that Ward is an athlete who always aims higher. And every top athlete has an Olympic dream. However, indoor rowing isn’t an Olympic discipline (yet). This obstacle made him tackle another endeavor: rowing on the water. There was just a small problem: a lack of rowing clubs nearby. Without rowing boats provided by a club and without a coach, he took it upon himself to organize an unmaintained, wooden boat from 1980 and drag it to the neighborhood lake.

I watched a YouTube video to learn how to scull.

Ward Lemmelijn, talking about his first steps in rowing

Ward remembers his DIY training vividly: “To prepare, I watched a YouTube video to learn how to scull. And of course, I failed and flipped over many times. Unfortunately, when I finally managed to row at a decent pace, the boat broke because it was so old.” Ward now follows professional rowing training with actual racing shells. He is now many steps closer to competing at the Olympic Games.


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