At only 23, Jimmy Gressier already represents the future of French long-distance running. However, he was not meant to succeed in athletics. He tells Tokyo 2020 how he moved from football to athletics, and aims to compete in a discipline he has never competitively run.
When he crossed the 5,000m finish line last year in Gävle, Sweden, Jimmy Gressier became the new European king of U23 long distance track races.
The French runner claimed gold not only in the 5,000m but also in the 10,000m two days before, under the summer sun of the Bothnian Sea city, where the 2019 European Athletics U23 Championships were held.
He knew he was favourite, but despite three successive cross-country European youth titles, he had never claimed a major victory on track.
"Before the 5,000m start, I had a lot of pressure because everybody was focused on me," Gressier told Tokyo 2020.
"So I wanted to be forgotten in the race and I let the other runners lead the pace to see how I was in the final. I attacked the last 100m and it paid off," the 23-year-old athlete recalls.
At this moment, his life took a new turn.
Giving up his football dreams
Before his new stature as one of the strongest hopes for French long-distance running at Tokyo 2020 and beyond, Gressier used to run elsewhere.
His playground was the football pitch at Boulogne-sur-Mer, the Northern France city where Franck Ribery grew up. Naturally gifted at both athletics and ball skills, a young Gressier wanted to follow in the path of the French football star.
"Football was what I loved the most, I enjoyed it so much," he said.
At that time, many local athletics coaches spotted the potential of the youngster - as well as football coaches.
"They were telling me they never saw my kind of skills on any footballer. I took part in local school athletics competitions and I was beating the young athletes."
In 2014, Gressier was 16 and running local cross-country races and playing football. But he needed to make a choice: keep on trying to be a professional football player - the dream of every kid from his hometown - or switch to athletics as many coaches were advising him.
A year later, Gressier was selected to play for team representing France at the World Schools Football Cup in Guatemala, as well as making the cut for the Junior Cross-Country World Championships in the People's Republic of China. He agreed to both.
However his final career-defining decision was made just a few months later.
"I stopped football at the age of 17. I quit because my coaches were telling me that I could reach the French team in athletics and be an Olympian. Wearing the national jersey is too beautiful."
People kept on telling me that it was very difficult for a road and cross-country runner to be strong on tracks.
2019 Getty Images
Going over the clichés
Since then, Gressier hasn't stopped running, especially when it comes to his favourite discipline: cross-country. He won his first title back in 2017 when he became U-23 Cross-Country European Champion - a crown that he would eventually hold for three years consecutive years.
He also enjoyed his time on the road with an admirable 28:13 in the 10km race at Corrida de Houilles, France in 2018.
But a large problem remained. As soon as the cross-country season came to an end, the new track season would begin. And despite his many valiant attempts, he still couldn’t manage to perform as well as he wanted on track.
The longer his disappointments dragged on, so did the list of critics. The common cliché that a road or cross-country runner can't perform on track began to weigh heavy on his mind.
"People kept on telling me that it was very difficult for a cross-country or a road runner to be strong on tracks. Every time I started the track season, I had this knot in my stomach because I was so good in cross-country and yet track didn’t go well. I needed to erase that because when doubt is setting in, it’s complicated."
Several long discussions with his coach, Arnaud Dinielle, followed but with hard work and determination, Gressier overcame his mental block in Gävle in July, 2019.
"I got my confidence back. Now there is no longer room for those who say about cross-country and road runners. When you are a good runner, you are good everywhere."
I needed to be good at school to be a professional athlete.
So I didn’t give up.
Succeeding in a hard environment
The teenager from Boulogne-sur-Mer - a heavily industrialised area - was unaware that, thanks to sport, he would succeed in school as well.
"I come from a tough neighborhood and I wasn’t good at school," he recalls. "Either sport would get me out of the blocks, or I’d have to work in a factory because I would have quit school.
"I knew that I needed to be good at school to be a professional athlete, so I didn’t give up on school. I knew I wanted to succeed in sport."
For two years he trained, studied and worked as an intern for a French bank. He now holds a BTS [a second year degree in France] in negotiation and customer relations that he passed last year.
With the BTS behind him, his focus has shifted entirely back onto his athletics career and his training regime that has pushed into another gear - switching from 90-100km a week up to 140km.
Steeplechase Olympic dream
His Olympic plans have almost started to become concrete - with a personal best of 13:23 in 5,000m and the Olympic entry standard set at 13:13.50, Gressier would have been able to clock this - especially since he erased the 5km European road record with a time of 13:18 in February last year.
"If the Games would have been held this year, I would've qualified. I could have run 13:10 or 13:05 this season," he explains.
However the French runner now wants to compete at Tokyo in an entirely different discipline - the 3,000m steeplechase - an event he has yet to compete in and one that another French athlete, the triple Olympic medallist Mahiedine Mekhissi, is also aiming to qualify for.
"I think this is the event for which I have the best chances to qualify," he said. "I know I need time to train and progress, but I can be very strong."
When asked about his lack of experience in that discipline, he answers as clearly as it can be: "I have everything to prove and nothing to lose. I know I need to respect this discipline and I have to train hard."
He also knows why he thinks he could optimise his chances.
"The changes in pace, barriers, tight battles, it's fast and it’s long. This is similar to cross-country, where I’m almost the best," he adds.
The golden road
Earlier this year, Gressier travelled to Flagstaff, Arizona, and trained to participate in the university competition season to reach Olympic entry standards.
However, because of the pandemic, he is now back in France and currently training once a week with a 3,000m steeplechase group at the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP) on the outskirts of Paris, with fellow French athletes Emma Oudiou and Maeva Danois to acquire the necessary technique.
He won't give up on the 5,000m just yet, but if he can reach Olympic standards in both, he would enter the steeplechase.
Last year, amid talks of Paris 2024, Gressier explained that he could also compete as a marathon runner since he was so strong on the road.
"At that time, I had this mental block on tracks. Since Gävle, I passed a step so we will see where I’ll be the best and where I have the best chances to become an Olympic champion."
But now he has one more year to train, and his goal is crystal clear: "I want to reach the final in Tokyo. Once there, everything is possible."