When the reigning Olympic champion in men's canoe slalom single (C1), Denis Gargaud-Chanut, took a long break from training during the COVID-19 pandemic, he realised how much he loved his sport, competing and the Olympic Games. Having been pre-selected for the Games that were to have been held this year, he is delighted to learn that he will now have to start over to qualify, because he wants to arrive in Tokyo "through the front door" to defend his title in the summer of 2021.
Denis Gargaud-Chanut has been competing at the highest level of international canoe slalom for a long time. As he notes: "I've ranked in the world's top ten for more than a decade." He earned his first world championship win in Bratislava in 2011. At that time, France's biggest name in C1 was Tony Estanguet, who qualified for the Olympic Games London 2012, where he went on to win his third Olympic gold medal. Four years later in Rio, Gargaud-Chanut took on the mantle and claimed his own Olympic gold.
Born and bred in the city of Marseille, in France's Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, the 2016 C1 Olympic champion did whatever it took to earn his place at the Tokyo Games. This included moving his wife and children to the French Pyrenees to live within walking distance of the world-class Pau-Pyrénées Whitewater Stadium, which was built in the late 2000s with the support of brothers Tony and Patrice Estanguet. The two-year qualifying process was abruptly interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The French paddlers were set to battle it out at the 2020 European Canoe Slalom Championships, scheduled to take place in London in May.
As Gargaud-Chanut explains: '"In 2019, Martin Thomas took the silver medal at the European Championships in Pau and Cédric Joly won the World Championships in Seu d'Urgell. Suddenly, three athletes were in the running, and it was going to be settled at the European Championships in London, but they were cancelled. The qualifying process states that, in this case, world rankings would take precedence. Being the consistently highest-ranked French canoeist, I was set to be chosen for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020."
"I live for the Games"
On March 24, it was decided to postpone the Games of the XXXII Olympiad for one year. "From a sporting point of view, it was hard to deal with," states Gargaud-Chanut. "I usually train in Australia, but since I live 50 meters from the Whitewater Stadium in Pau, I was able to practise a bit at the start of lockdown. As I was selected for the Games, I had to maintain my performance levels. I followed all the health regulations. I was alone in the pool. I didn't really know what to do; it was complicated. Then we had to stop all activity, and I experienced a real emotional rollercoaster."
Ultimately, though, he came to a realisation. "This lockdown made me aware of something I already knew, but it really brought it to light. I need canoe slalom to be happy. I love my sport. I love competition, and I live for the Games. I was really glad to come to this conclusion and pleased to have the time to do so. There are times in your career when you try to convince yourself you enjoy it. But sometimes, like any job, like any major commitment, it's hard. Then, after spending 56 days off the water, I came to an extremely positive realisation that fills me with optimism for the future."
Les athlètes réagissent au report des Jeux de Tokyo 2020 https://t.co/Wonea73WFQ— GARGAUD DENIS-OLY (@DENISGARGAUD) March 25, 2020
He also has a positive view on the postponement of the Tokyo Games. "As an Olympic athlete, I took it in my stride. It was the right decision to make, and it had to come from the Olympic Movement rather than being imposed on us. I didn't like politicians intervening on the subject. The Olympic Movement is an important enough institution to make its own choices."
He added: "As for me, in terms of qualifying, I have to start over. Since the qualifier was cancelled, we have to compete again to earn the right to represent France. If I win, I’ll be coming to Tokyo through the front door, which is in line with my Olympic values. That’s also part of our sport. Ultimately, I'm relieved it has been postponed, and that we can have real qualifiers."
Starting from scratch and achieving something new
Canoe slalom joined the Olympic programme in 1972. Since that time, only two athletes have won the gold medal more than once: Slovakia’s Michal Martikan in 1996 and 2008, and his eternal rival, Tony Estanguet, in 2000, 2004 and 2012. Estanguet, a current member of the IOC Athletes' Commission and President of the Paris 2024 Organising Committee, is the only competitor to have won the gold three times in a row, adding medals in Sydney and Athens. Does this feat inspire Gargaud-Chanut? "Winning twice in a row isn't what motivates me," he says. "I just want to try to win again. ‘Winning twice in a row’ sort of implies repetition and adding another notch to your belt. I prefer to start from scratch and achieve something new."
He welcomes the addition of women's kayak slalom (K1) as part of the IOC's gender equality programme, even if it comes at the expense of men's canoe double (C2). He stresses: "The big picture takes precedence over the smaller one. But I haven’t forgotten my friends on the French C2 team, with whom I spent so many years."
In terms of the immediate future, he remarks: "I think it's hard to plan anything today. We're in unprecedented times. I am trying to make sure I have a certain idea of what could happen, without getting too attached to it, because I know it could all change. It hit us out of the blue in March 2020. I would prefer to have been taken less off guard, if possible. We have to adapt. That's one of the qualities of being an athlete. This not only applies to sport, but to everyday life. I told my wife that she also needs to be flexible. People in our field know how to do this, but families also have to deal with the consequences."
Preparing to resume training at the Pau whitewater course next to his home, Gargaud-Chanut reiterates how vital and important training is. "I see myself as a soldier of peace. In our respective countries, we are all fighters for peace. It is wonderful to see nations competing against each other while following the rules. During lockdown, I wish I could have maintained regular training. Everyone follows the same rules at the Games but, from March to May, I couldn't practise, while competitors in other countries could. No harm done. We were suddenly put in a difficult situation. Now, we have to start over and, if everything goes well, I will be entering Tokyo through the front door!"