PONTOON INTERVIEWS A UNIQUE CHARACTER IN THE TRIATHLON WORLD. VIDAL SHARES WITH US HIS VISION OF ELITE TRIATHLON AS AN ARTISTIC PROCESS THAT GOES BEYOND STATS AND THE TANGIBLE.
By Alberto Trillo | Photos: courtesy of Laurent Vidal
[Click here to read Spanish and Galician]
A year ago, Laurent Vidal’s heart, between uncontrolled electrical impulses, trod the fine line between the present and past of his existence. Two days later, he came out of the induced coma to awaken to a new, muddled and different reality.
A year on, the panic of that day has been transformed into a sense of calm and acceptance of the situation. The doctors have not yet deciphered his beating enigma and Laurent remains (as they say in French) “without the right” to return to competition.
The (51%) Frenchman from Sète is still fighting for a life in the open air, enjoying nature and being alive. He has thrown himself into his role as a coach. These “little details that I didn’t appreciate before” give meaning to his daily work alongside his partner, Kiwi triathlete Andrea Hewitt. With her he is looking ahead to his involvement in the next Olympics, this time as a coach representing New Zealand (his other 49%).
Meanwhile, Laurent Vidal has not lost hope that one day he might experience what he loves most again: competition. He doesn’t think about it, but the dream is still there.
Laurent, how’s your recovery going?
Everything is fine, but I don’t have permission to compete again yet. I can exercise normally and lead a healthy life, but without competing. I’m well and have a normal life. What happened a year ago, if it happens when you’re young, it changes the way you see life. It takes on another meaning. You begin to appreciate insignificant things like having a coffee or going for a walk.
Do you still hope to return to elite racing?
I don’t ask myself that question anymore. Since a year ago I haven’t been able to; they won’t let me. I accept it and... yes I’d like to, true, but I have no regrets about my sporting career until that day. I’ve given everything I can and I’m at peace. I was looking for perfection; I got up every day because I wanted to be the world number one and I did everything I could to complete my sporting masterpiece. At least I was able to compete in two Olympic Games, in which I gave my best. But it’s true that I was eager to be in Rio. Now it’s up to me to determine my future; that’s the way it is.
Day to day, how do you cope with not being able to race?
Well, the reality is that I’m an optimist. In other words, I’m able to put things into perspective, despite everything. I lead a normal life; I can do quite a lot of exercise and all I can’t do is get up every morning aiming to be the best in the world. Apart from that, I have new motivations that stimulate me and make me learn. Really, the worst thing about all this is that I didn’t choose it. But I’d like to think that if this has happened, it’s for a reason. Basically, I believe in my fate.
What I miss most is the competition, that’s obvious. I was born competitive and what brought me to triathlon was the competition. I liked training 30 or 35 hours a week in order to be the best that I could be. Without competition I wouldn’t have done sport at this level, that’s for sure.
You’ll be at Rio 2016 as a coach with Andrea Hewitt. How do you think you’ll feel when you’re there watching the men’s race?
[He hesitates for a moment] The men’s race in Rio will be difficult to watch. Or perhaps not, because I accept my situation. Last year I found it difficult to watch the first races when I thought I could’ve been there, but at the same time it’s also true that I had been there for the last ten years... That’s life; you just have to accept it. I’ll be in Rio as a coach. That will be my role: to help Andrea have her best possible race.
What moment are you most proud of in your sporting career?
It’s not a moment as such, but the process of learning to be the best, believing I could be the best in the world and not being able to complain about anything, because I did the best I could. In my life, my biggest source of pride is having found Andrea.
How do you see yourself in the near future?
As a coach, which is what I do, and as someone who’s passionate about triathlon. Now I have Rio in perspective and it’s a great adventure that motivates me a lot. I know why I’m going there and why I want to do it. I believe that my experience as an athlete can help a lot; I’ve learned from my mistakes, I’ve achieved results after a long process that ended with my fifth place in the Olympics. In that I see something that I can contribute, although, what makes the difference is the athletes’ ability to learn.
You say “training and competing is an art”. What do you mean by that?
I believe that, to begin with, almost all of us are very similar at a physiological level. That’s why training and competition are an art, because they must be done with intuition. In elite sport, you have to feel what you do; you have to have a special sensitivity. Unfortunately, nowadays, with all the technology we have at our disposal, we always try to turn things that are barely tangible into stats.
When you feel strong, it’s impossible to explain it with stats; it’s something that goes deeper than that. In other words, there’s nothing rational about arriving at an Olympic starting line and believing you’re going to win and that you’re in the best shape of your life. It’s a feeling, something you learn... It’s like when an artist paints and knows that the painting will convey something, even without knowing how to explain why. There are emotions, feelings and attitudes at the top level. You have to understand yourself, your body, how to look after yourself... to go further, that’s what determines excellence.
In this art, why is it important to prioritise the process over the result?
We’re always judged by the result, but the reality is that the result and performance don’t happen by chance; rather, they are the logical consequence of what we do day to day. If you focus on the result, there’s no room in the day to day to carry out the process that leads to the result.
When things are done well, the result always comes, even if it takes longer for one person than another, or more changes have to be made during the process. As they say in English, you have to allow yourself to say “not yet”. You have to give yourself time to perform to your best and, along the way, understand that you have to be happy day to day in order to achieve the results.
Let’s assume this process begins now and ends at Rio 2016. What role do the races play?
If you want to hit peak form on that day, not a week earlier or later, you have to know yourself and understand all the factors that can have an effect. That’s why competitions are a way to control all this uncertainty surrounding performance, to know your weaknesses and deal with them. With all the pressure of the Olympics, on the day you have to have as many of these factors under control as possible.
First you have to get there. In the case of the French guys, there will be huge competition for the three spots. Why does France have such strength in depth among the men?
For 15 years, France has had the best triathlon circuit outside of the World Series. The youngsters can face the best in the world there and understand what it means to compete at that level. For many years the Federation has had a great programme for spotting talent. We’ve also raised the bar for the rest, leaving it pretty high with our results at London 2012 [David Hauss 4th, Laurent Vidal 5th]. The triathletes train in their own environment in order to develop. Finally, expectations are very high. But above all, they’re very strong; we’re talking about five or six athletes who could be in the top eight on any given day. That’s no easy thing...
And what about the women? Why are they not at the same level?
I don’t know; it’s difficult to explain. At any rate, being eighth or fifth in the world isn’t trivial; it’s very difficult. We have to understand that. There are a lot of athletes with potential, but they have to be able to bring together all the factors to get to the top.
Do you think women are affected by the fact that becoming a pro triathlete is mostly done with the support of the army in France?
No. There are a lot of girls in the army and I don’t think it matters. In fact, I think France is one of the best countries for support, whether institutional or from teams or sponsors. I see what’s happening in New Zealand and it’s totally different. Until she achieved great results in the World Cup, Andrea had to work while she trained. Yes, it’s unbelievable, but that’s how it was. So there may be an exceptional generation of men overshadowing the women, but that doesn’t mean there are no women doing well; you just have to see what Jessica Harrison or Emmie Charayron did... it’s just a matter of time. I’m hopeful.
How do you see the future of triathlon? Is the WTS sustainable and beneficial for the sport?
Every athlete is unique, no two athletes are the same. That’s why there are very few triathletes today who can aspire to compete in a World Series and maintain that standard throughout the year. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for the rest. You just have to look at the example of the best triathlete of all time, Emma Snowsill, who didn’t race much but won everything she raced.
It’s true there are ten races this year, but only six count. You have to know how to choose and have a good strategy. For instance, Andrea [Hewitt] was third last year in the world series without doing the maximum number of races.
So this format’s better than the world championship in one day...
Well, it’s true that the fact that the world champion isn’t a one-day competition takes away some of the magic of the sport for triathletes... but triathlon has evolved this way, just as the Tour de France lasts 21 days, and you have to be the best in that format – there’s no other.
It’s also true that many athletes now have support throughout the year, while before they only had it on the day of the world championship... In any case, among those in the know the final is still the final and it has special value. But it makes no sense criticise the ITU for setting up a series like this. That’s what the ITU is there for, to develop the sport, not to do business, and that’s what it’s doing.
Laurent, thank you so much for sharing your vision of triathlon and your philosophy with Pontoon.
Thank you, and congratulations on your website.
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