Luxembourg women in sport: 8 portraits for 8th March (I)

To celebrate International Women's Day, which takes place on 8th March in many countries across the world, we'll admire the feats of eight sportswomen from Luxembourg. We will revisit their past exploits, as well as their current achievements, and shine a light on their inspirational role for a whole new generation of girls who are starting out on their sporting careers and fighting against stereotypes and discrimination. In this first article, we will focus on the careers of Lory Koster, Ni Xia Lian, Norma Zambon and Sandra Schwinninger. In a second article, we'll turn the spotlight onto the achievements of Christine Majerus, Amy Thompson, Patrizia Van der Weken and Lena Rocca.

Lory Koster (1902-1999), the first woman to participate in the Olympic Games

At the age of 22, Lory Koster took part in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games, thus becoming the first Luxembourg sportswoman to represent her country in the Olympic Games. She competed in swimming, in the 200m breaststroke. In the qualifiers, she finished second in her heat and then sixth in the final, clocking a time of 3min 39s.

However, Lory's talents were not just limited to sport. She was the youngest of five siblings, all of whom had music in their genes, a gift that was passed down from their grandfather, Ferdinand Hoebich, who was the first conductor of the Luxembourg military band. She studied music at the Conservatoire de la Ville de Luxembourg and then continued her education in Brussels, where she became an accomplished cellist, pianist and saxophonist. In Belgium, she played in the women's ensemble The Stars Ladies Orchestra and, in the 1950s, she became a member of the Grand Orchestre Symphonique de Radio Luxembourg, now known as the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

A pioneering spirit - a truly family affair

Lory Koster is the sister of another Luxembourgish pioneer, the composer Lou Koster. When they were young, they played music to accompany silent films together and also performed in swimming pools!

Lory Koster, sportswoman and musician, plays in the Stars Ladies Orchestra.
© Source: Melusina Press (University of Luxembourg). CC BY-SA 4.0.

Ni Xia Lian (1963-), the oldest table tennis player in Olympic history

Ni Xia Lian became world table tennis champion in 1983. At the time, she was 20 years old and competed for the Chinese national team. She represented China, where she was born, until 1989, and then she switched allegiances to Luxembourg in 1991. After having competed in in five Olympic Games (Sydney 2000, Beijing 2008, London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020), 24 world championships and 18 European championships, it is difficult to summarise her exploits: her accolades include two times World champion, three times European champion and bronze medallist at the 2019 European Games.

Ni Xia Lian has not rested on her laurels; she continues to push the boundaries of sporting excellence. Not only did she become the oldest female table tennis player in Olympic history following her participation in Tokyo 2020, but she has also maintained her place in the world top 50 ranking. At the end of January 2024, she was ranked 41st according to the International Table Tennis Federation, at the age of 60! She is yet to confirm her participation at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

Ni Xia Lian, the most senior female table tennis player in Olympic history.
© Comité olympique et sportif luxembourgeois (COSL)

A gift from the sky

Ni Xia Lian has a book dedicated to her personal life and professional career: "Ni Xialian, le don du ciel". Born in Shanghai, she has lived in Luxembourg for more than 30 years. She is an exceptional player and loving mother who has quite naturally become Luxembourg's ambassador to the world.

Norma Zambon (1978-), from winning medals in volleyball to tackling gender equality in sport

After the 2023 edition of the Games of the Small States of Europe, Luxembourg currently ranks third in the all-time medals table, and Norma Zambon has contributed her fair share of medals over many years. The women's national volleyball team in which she plays won five medals between 2005 and 2013, including gold in Monaco in 2007.

Norma Zambon started playing indoor volleyball at the age of 16. Her sports teacher at the Lycée Hubert Clément introduced her to the sport, which she enjoyed mainly for its team spirit: "Even if top players are decisive for the game, without a consistent team performance, their playing strength will fade away," she remarked. At the age of 26, she took up beach volleyball, which "was and remains a big family". Even though she is a member of the national team, she never devoted herself to it professionally. She played volleyball from 1996 to 2008 and beach volleyball from 2005 to 2013. Since then, she has been in charge of the Beach Volleyball Commission of the Luxembourg Federation of Volleyball and currently holds the position of Chairwoman.

Her commitment to sport did not end when she retired. Since 2009, she has been in charge of the sports department in Esch-sur-Alzette and is involved in developing two key initiatives for promoting gender equality in sport. Firstly, the "Gender Equality in Sport" charter, which was launched in March 2023, and has now been signed by 25 of the city's sports associations. Secondly, the Integration through sports project, a city-led initiative offering sporting activities exclusively for women and girls, including boxing, the Street Defense System and Krav Maga.

In her free time...

Not many people know that Norma Zambon loves to crochet in her spare time. Crochet is a craft technique that involves using a hooked needle to create chains, hats, scarves and blankets. Needless to say, these objects simply blossom in her hands!

Norma Zambon, President of the Luxembourg Volleyball Federation.
© Fédération luxembourgeoise de volleyball (FLVB)

Sandra Schwinninger (1981-), the fearless para-swimmer

"Each day of my life is a challenge... and I love it!", exclaims Sandra Schwinninger. She suffers from ataxia which affects the free movement of her arms and legs, and causes significant balance problems. She began training to swim in 2018, at the age of 37, when she completed her rehabilitation at the Rehazenter and after a year's membership of the Back2Sport association. "Swimming allows me to feel free, because in the water I don't need help to move around".

In competitions, she competes in three disciplines: breaststroke, freestyle and backstroke. In May 2023, at the German International Para-Swimming Championships, she completed a personal best time in breaststroke, clocking 1:20.48 min for the 50m and 2:59.48 min for the 100m. At the International Swimming Festival for People with Disabilities in December 2023 in Zagreb, she beat her record again in the 100m breaststroke with a time of 2:56.03 min. These results do not guarantee her a place at the Paris 2024 Paralympics, but she is already working towards her next objective: the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 2028.

Sandra Schwinninger took part in the "I'mPOSSIBLE" project, under the auspices of the Luxembourg Paralympic Committee, which aims to promote inclusion in and through sport, specifically among children aged 6 to 12. She also volunteers at the Back2Sport association.

Sandra Schwinninger at the German International Para-Swimming Championships 2023 (Berlin).
© Source: Sandra Schwinninger

A little anecdote

Sandra Schwinninger is the mother of three children aged 2, 10 and 14, and her family means everything to her. When they were extended their house, Sandra climbed onto the roof while it was still under construction. This might seem very risky for a person with no balance, but it was, in fact, a moment of pure joy for her. Accompanied by her husband, Micha, she shouted "hello!" down to her neighbours! "I've learnt that in life you have to dare to do things, otherwise you'll never achieve anything".