The tranquility of the Vaires-sur-Marne Lake this autumn morning was shattered by the crash and thump of mechanical diggers and other construction equipment working nearby. But this was only to be expected… as work on the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games had already begun! For the members of the French para-rowing team, however, their sights are clearly set on Tokyo 2020. For most of them, one month after the World Rowing Championships and a welcome break, it's back to training this morning, the beginning of a year that should, hopefully, see French rowers mount the Olympic podiums.
There will be at least three boats competing in Tokyo in the four disciplines on the program: the PR1 women's single sculls (in which rowers use their arms and shoulders), the PR2 mixed double sculls (the competitors use their trunk and arms) and the PR3 coxed four (the rowers use their legs, trunk and arms). The men's single sculls will have another chance to qualify in the spring.
The 3 boats already qualified have a good chance of winning medals. Nathalie Benoit, who came back to racing after a six-year break, won a silver medal in the World Rowing Championships in September while Perle Bouge and her new teammate, Christophe Lavigne, brought home a bronze. But the particularity of rowing is that the qualification concerns the boats, and not specific athletes. The rowers who ultimately compete may not be the same as those who ensured the boats were selected. And if the coach, Charles Delval, finds new talent quickly, nothing prevents him from including them on the high-level program.
This morning, therefore, he invited some new rowers. Before thinking about performance, he must first understand their handicap to appreciate their eligibility for his discipline: “Performance is always our principal objective but our first concern is to put a team together. We have to find the athletes. In adaptive rowing, it can happen that athletes suddenly turn up and reach the level of the others very quickly.”
This was the case of Julien Hardi, who arrived without fanfare in 2018 and is already competing in his first Paralympic Games: “I became a paraplegic after an accident at work, I was a tree trimmer. I started rowing for therapeutic purposes, but also to get my mind off things. That was in January 2018 and, 3 months later, I got a phone call from Charles. It all happened very quickly because there was little competition. Charles didn't tell me that I’d be competing in the World Championships! I had to make progress.”
And he progressed rapidly because, just a few months later, Julien reached a high level in his discipline before becoming a key competitor in men’s singles. In para-rowing, the athletes can progress very quickly because the competition is less intense than in the able-bodied category. By taking part in the La Relève (“Successors”) program, an initiative launched by the French Paralympic Sports Committee, Charles Delval hopes to recruit younger people with a view to Paris 2024 while continuing to combine short-term performance with medium-term ambition.
“In para-rowing, we are looking further ahead to Paris 2024. Our goal is to put up a fine performance at home. We're pursuing two objectives: striving to be highly competitive with our best rowers, and looking to recruit new athletes. But above all, we're trying to create a spirit of emulation so that, in the end, we can bring out the very best.”
In order to fill his 8 places in the Olympic boats, Charles and his colleagues can now count on 9 high-level athletes. Owing to professional obligations, however, not all of them were able to take part in the first week of training. If the new recruits give satisfaction, he will be able to expand his group and inject an element of positive rivalry with a view to preparing for Tokyo 2020 and, especially, for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games whose competition venue they already know extremely well!