The Frenchman speaks to Pontoon on his return to the elite after a slump that began with the frustration of finishing fourth in the London Olympics and which could have ended his career prematurely
Photos: David Hauss | Adolf Boluda | Catarina Axelsson | ITU
“I pulled off a perfect race, I had no complaints. But even so... I was fourth. And even now when I think about that day it hurts. I finished fourth and that will stay with me for the rest of my life: the first to finish without a medal,” David admits bitterly to Pontoon almost three years after the Olympic triathlon in London.
He ran the 10 km in 29:49 to finish with the only bitter chocolate that exists: fourth place. The same bitter chocolate tasted by other legends of the sport like Greg Bennet and Javier Gómez Noya. “The goal was the medal, the medal,” David repeats on a loop.
To reach the pontoon in London, David had focused all his effort and dedication on preparations that were “ideal, step-by-step and injury-free”, and he had a very clear goal: “the medal”. He was aware that to beat the Brownlees and Gómez Noya he would have to wait for a slip-up on their part. Finally, an unpredictable race saw the fantastic three taking triathlon to a new level. Not even Jonathan’s penalty proved to be the “misstep” that would open the doors to the podium.
However, David had climbed as high as he could. Very high. From there, without knowing it, he leapt into the void of dissatisfaction and fell into the dark abyss of demotivation. “I began to feel a lack of motivation. I would get up in the morning and couldn’t understand why I had to go and train.”
He soon understood that his body needed rest. He took a breather and shelved the season. He married Melanie, also elite triathlete, and he tried to enjoy the moment.
He returned to training in the 2013 pre-season. In a 10 km race in La Réunion, he passed out at km 9. He was totally unconscious. “I took that as a sign that my body was telling me it had to rest and that I had to take some time for myself”. The Frenchman decided that he would take almost a sabbatical year in 2013, a similar decision to the one made by a fellow countryman of his, Olivier Marceau, after Sydney 2000, one which would bear fruit in the next Olympic cycle.
To end 2013, David undertook the trail of the ‘Grande Traversée’ and finished second. He was happy but suffered an injury to his adductors. He continued to train, downplaying the significance of injury, “because I thought it would go away”.
His head was still not working; he was hungry for stimulation. “I decided to join Joel Filiol’s group because I was no longer capable of training by myself.” He enlisted in a quality group, with a coach at his disposal, but he soon realised that he had become “a machine”. He went out to train every day with Mario Mola and Joao Silva, without asking too many questions about his desire. He just trained. It was his job, full stop. “I thought that the more I shut myself away, the stronger I would be”.
David had sought motivation in the group, but he only found the inertia of a shared routine that was a physical obligation but was not enough to drive his willpower and ignite his desire to compete. Triathlon “is not just any old job. You have to be ambitious, otherwise it doesn’t work”.
He went into the early races tired. And injured. His adductors still had not recovered. He withdrew in the WTS in Auckland. He returned to France, and on the advice of a specialist, decided to have surgery. And turn a new leaf.
“I decided to leave Filiol’s group. The training wasn’t right for me. I needed to feel in control of my own preparation and to do something more individualised like I had done up until London. I had to start listening to my body”. At this point, Melanie became pregnant, another thing that made it difficult to reconcile his life with group training.
A change in philosophy
He had surgery in Saint-Raphaël and did his rehabilitation in Switzerland through the summer. There, David finally realised that he had to “change my philosophy” and see triathlon as a “source of satisfaction but free of pressure”, and surrounded only by your own people who are there to “help and not pressure you”. It is about “feeling that you live in an environment that does not suffocate you with triathlon. I realised that I had to go out to train for the enjoyment of it, and not out of obligation.”
Since then, “I’ve been able to build things that have given my life balance, to start again from a better position.” These include another experience that was a turning point: becoming a father. “Priorities change. Training is no longer the most important thing and, nonetheless, it gives you extra strength and direction”.
“In short, I’ve achieved a balance with my wife and baby which is what drives me to continue until Rio”.
The road to Rio
He quickly recovered his form and achieved good results in late 2014, such as runner-up in the French championship and some good World Cup races, scoring points and climbing back up the ranking.
This pre-season, he didn’t train “too much”. David has learned that the body “has an incredible memory. With experience and age, you can be very competitive without so much training. I know myself very well”. That was how he approached Mooloolaba to achieve his second World Cup victory and announce to the triathlon world that he had returned.
David, who can be considered one of those triathletes like Whitfield, Robertson and Raña who know how to perform on D-day at H-hour, has put his moments of doubt and question marks behind him: “That’s been my story these last two years. It’s true I thought about giving up triathlon several times, but in the end I told myself that either I tried to keep going using all the means at my disposal, which I know I have and which I can do better than I did in London 2012, or I’ll give it up because I’m no longer motivated”.
The road to Rio – pending the announcement of the French criteria – now means peaking in the Rio test event or the 2015 grand final in Chicago in order to go into the Olympic year with peace of mind. The Olympus of sport will be a rematch for one of the most talented triathletes of the last ten years. “No doubt it will be my final appearance in an ITU race; my only goal is to win a medal”.