Nathalie Péchalat: “The emotion of sport doesn’t just come from winning”

A three-time Olympian, double World Championship medallist and double European champion in the ice dance with her partner Fabian Bourzat, Nathalie Péchalat is looking forward to passing on her experience and values to the young athletes who will be competing at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Lausanne 2020. Here, she explains why being an Athlete Role Model means so much to her.

What’s your first Olympic memory?

My first abiding memory of the Games dates back to when we were selected for the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006. That was, I think, the high point of my career, at least up until that moment. I got into ice dancing when I first saw Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay compete at the Albertville Winter Games in 1992. I can remember it perfectly; I was 9 years old, and it was then that I said to myself that I wanted to take up ice dancing, as I’d started out doing individual figure skating. What I wanted was to have a “Team France” jacket and represent my country abroad. So for me, going to the Games was the Holy Grail. I wasn’t thinking about the results or the medals; that wasn’t what made me get out of bed in the morning. It was about going to the Games, taking part in European and World Championships, and being proud to represent France.

You ended your career after Sochi 2014…

For my third Games with Fabian, Sochi 2014, we went there to win, and we finished fourth. Ahead of the competition, there was a lot of self-examination, as there always is, and our approach was to move forward and not to rest on our laurels. We gave our best and don’t have any regrets; we stacked all the odds in our favour. We just missed out on a podium finish, and ultimately, that’s just how sport goes sometimes. The result doesn’t just depend on your ability and performance; it also depends on the performances of others and on timing or judgement. You influence what you can but there are some things that are beyond your control. And that was the case for us.

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What was the best moment of your sports career?

I’m not sure if there was a best moment in my career. I feel it was just a series of highs and lows, of good memories and setbacks that are more difficult to process in the moment. But each stage of my career was valuable in its own way. As Nelson Mandela said: “I never lose. I either win or learn.” You need to take a few hits, get injured and experience some bad results so that you can come back stronger. The reason we do sport is to feel the emotions it can bring, and the emotion of sport doesn’t just come from success and winning. It’s the adversity and the effort that make you appreciate how far you’ve come. I don’t just remember the victories; I enjoy everything, I enjoy the change. Not everything is written in stone, not everything is linear.

How do you see your role?

I spoke with someone from the IOC who explained what we would be doing. I’ve never taken on a role like this before. But I fully intend to be 100 per cent available between 9 and 13 January, which is when I’ll be on site. It will mostly involve talking to the young athletes, reassuring them when they slip up, congratulating them when they win, and telling them that there are no limits as to how far they can go, at least until they hang up their skates. This is a transitional stage; just because you don’t win today, it doesn’t mean you won’t win tomorrow. Just because you fail, it doesn’t mean you can’t then go on and win. It really is a learning phase. My role will be to try to instil certain values in them and maybe just reassure them about the path they’re on, give them a boost and encourage them to continue in the right way.

Nathalie Péchalat
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How would you best describe ice dancing?

It’s a sport in a category of its own, because it’s a form of artistic expression. There aren’t many like that. It’s a really demanding sport. As recently as yesterday, we were discussing the artistic component of the score and the technical score. Nowadays, it’s more objective, more transparent. When you look at your score, it gives you more information to work with so that you can improve. More than anything, it’s a discipline that requires mental preparation which you need to follow up on, with specific areas that become increasingly important. The most interesting part of ice dancing is being able to express who you are. You’re not the same as the competitor standing next to you, you’re not the same as the athlete who wins; you’re you. That’s the positive side of the discipline, even though you often hear about the negative aspect, i.e. human judgement. But this is something you need to accept to be able to express yourself and do what you love on the ice, putting the score element to one side. The beauty of this sport lies in its creativity. Ice dancing blends sporting performance with artistic creation. If all you think about is the strategic side of things, you’d be better off doing pole vaulting!

What is your message to the young athletes?

The only person you’re competing against is yourself. Competition with others is healthy. It can provide some indications about how to improve, but it can’t tell you everything. There will be highs, lows, victories, everything – but that’s what makes sport so exciting. You’ll constantly be filled with doubt – even the greatest champions have doubts all the time – but that’s precisely what will get you results and make you a stronger athlete and human being. It’s really a school of life for the future: work hard, enjoy the effort you put in, enjoy being different, show how you’re different, respect your opponent, respect the judgement of others, and make as much progress as possible whenever you can. In short: when you do what you can, you’re doing what you need to. Perform to the best of your ability; the road is long, and this is just the beginning. Run through everything in your mind, but in a good way!