Denis Gargaud-Chanut is the reigning Olympic canoe slalom champion but he had to overcome deep disappointment when he didn't qualify for London 2012. He explained to Tokyo 2020 how he got back to his best and how he's hoping to reach his peak in Tokyo through pleasure, hard work and ego.
"Getting back on the water is really pleasant. This lockdown made me realise that I need to be on the water to be happy." After weeks of isolation, you don’t need much to enjoy yourself: water, boat, paddle, chill.
That’s exactly what the reigning Olympic canoe slalom champion Denis Gargaud-Chanut did when the lockdown softened in Pau, South-West of France. No white water, just a peaceful pond where he could paddle and enjoy the moment, as he explained in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.
"Pleasure. That’s what drives the French canoeist, and it’s also how he reached the holy grail of any athlete’s career, an Olympic gold medal. That was achieved at Rio 2016, when he flew down the Deodoro Olympic Whitewater Stadium in the final to beat Matej Beňuš (SVK) and HANEDA Takuya (JPN).
He had just replicated the success of his fellow countryman Tony Estanguet, the triple C1 Olympic champion.
It marked a happy time after the disappointment of London 2012, when he failed to qualify for either the singles or doubles events.
But what got him back on the road to success in Rio? Again, it was pleasure.
Pleasure, work and ego
"Between the London failure and the Rio victory, my recipe [for success] was to get the pleasure back. Firstly, I had this vital need to have fun again. That was in 2013. I managed to do that and at the World Championships I finished fifth," recalled Gargaud-Chanut.
It took him a year to recover from the disappointment of London and to once again find pleasure in his passion. Only afterwards, in 2014, could he start a new cycle and get back to serious hard work. His principle is simple: unless you enjoy what you are doing, enduring many hours of training is tough. That was the second part of his Olympic redemption.
"After pleasure, I needed to get back to work. I’ve put myself in the skin of a labourer. I needed to do better, to be stronger and more precise. That was in 2014 and 2015,” he confirmed.
The hard work paid off as he claimed victory in a World Cup stage. But the World Championships in 2014 didn’t go well. And the following year, he didn’t even manage to qualify for the 2015 World Championships.
It was another failure that awoke in him the third and final element required in his quest to become an Olympic contender. “I needed to recover the ego of the champion. I found it after this second failure and I can’t dissociate those three years from the Olympic title.
After Rio, I set myself very reasonable goals.
The 2017 World Championships took place in Pau, and I just wanted to have a good time.
His glorious journey from 2016 started with one of the simplest and most important things: pleasure. Gargaud-Chanut stuck to that formula whilst preparing for the following Olympiad in Tokyo, where he will defend his title. After his gold medal, he spent an entire year enjoying his Olympic win.
"After Rio, I set myself very reasonable goals. The 2017 World Championships took place in Pau, and I just wanted to have a good time. I didn’t care about the ranking." He finished tenth, but he was satisfied with his time.
2018 was dedicated to work, as he wanted to perform at the level of the best canoeists. "I wanted to get back to international level. My goal was to reach World Cup podiums. Then in 2019, I wanted to get closer to the top five in the world, in order to capitalise on all the efforts I had made to come back as strong as possible in Tokyo. The level in the World Championships was high and I finished fifth. I fulfilled my goal."
Qualified and not qualified within days
Gargaud-Chanut finished fifth in Spain, where the Canoe slalom event was won by another Frenchman, Cedric Joly – one of two athletes he was about to compete with for Tokyo 2020 Olympic selection (along with Martin Thomas). Next year in Japan, there will be only one French canoeist competing in the slalom event. The selection should have been made at the European Championships in May in London, but the competition was cancelled, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It was an announcement that had many consequences, especially for Gargaud-Chanut.
The rules stated that if the qualification event was cancelled, the Olympic place would go to the French athlete with the highest world ranking. As Gargaud-Chanut was the highest ranked canoeist in France, he qualified. But that only lasted for a couple of weeks, until the Games were postponed. Even before that, the French Canoe National Technical Director (DTN) Ludovic Royé had sought to temper his expectations, telling l’Equipe that "if the Games are postponed, that process could be revised."
I wanted the qualification to be made under the rules of sport. So postponement was a fair decision because it wouldn’t have been a pleasure to compete under those conditions.
2019 Getty Images
The fight for qualification
All of this happened in late March, and now a new selection event will be held, with a date yet to be determined. In any case, Denis Gargaud-Chanut was not happy with the automatic selection process, and he told Tokyo 2020 that he had gone through some tough moments waiting for the final decision.
"It wasn’t a pleasant moment. I didn’t like that [automatic] selection process. That was not how I saw it. I didn’t want the other French athletes to not agree with the qualification. I wanted it to be made under the rules of sport. So postponement was a fair decision because it wouldn’t have been a pleasure to compete under those conditions."
Even if he was not happy with the process, learning that he was no longer qualified was not easy to handle, as an "Olympic qualification is such a difficult thing to claim" and those kind of changes are simply difficult to live with. "It’s hard to be waiting for decisions," he said.
So far there are no details about the qualification event, but the Olympic champion is happy to fight for his spot in Tokyo. This is how he booked his ticket to Rio. He wants his qualification for Tokyo to be legitimate, even more so as the defending Olympic champion. His sporting spirit rises above everything else.
Balancing family life and training life for success
Before Olympic selections, Gargaud-Chanut and his family made the choice to move from Marseille - where he has lived for the past eight years - to Pau, in south west in December 2019. With no whitewater stadiums in Marseille, Gargaud-Chanut wanted to be in a place where he could train and be with his family, in order to be as comfortable as possible and be in the best condition to prepare for the Games.
"I think I reached the end of a cycle in Marseille and I wanted to live in a place where I could mix my family life with my training as an elite athlete. Pau was the best solution. I want to continue competing after Tokyo and I couldn’t afford to be far from home for 250 days a year."
Of course, Denis Gargaud-Chanut also wants to compete in Paris 2024, at home. "That would be my last competition. After Paris, I will retire. Fact."
Tony Estanguet, the triple French Olympic canoe slalom champion, is president of the Paris 2024 organising committee and it can be difficult to imagine a non-French athlete winning in Paris considering their history - they have won four gold medals out of a possible eight - and their strong competition for places.
It's a challenge that has certainly not escaped Denis Gargaud-Chanut, but his ambition is even greater. "France need to win in Paris, of course. But France need to win in Tokyo as well. This is our discipline and it has to remain that way."