After making her debut at Sochi 2014, cross-country skier Mathilde-Amivi Petitjean is preparing to represent Togo once more at the Olympic Winter Games. The sprint specialist, who grew up in France and trains in Canada, will turn 24 at PyeongChang 2018, where she hopes to continue her journey to the very top of her sport. She tells us her story.
"I was born in Kpalimé, Togo, on 19 February 1994, but I arrived in France with my family when I was four, in the village of La Roche-sur-Foron in the Haute-Savoie region. You can see Mont-Blanc from there.
I was seven when I first went cross-country skiing with the school, to the amazing Plateau des Glières, and I fell in love with it straightaway. My father enrolled me at the Pays Rochois Nordic Ski Club and that was that.
I made the France junior team, and was there from 2011 to 2013. Then the Togolese Skiing Federation got in touch with me on Facebook. I don't know how they found me and at first I thought it was a joke. I spoke about it with my parents. I realised it could be a great adventure and so I agreed to switch federations, though the chance to take part in the Olympics didn't really come into it. As far as I was concerned, the time had come for me to do something for Togo, and I was still very young."
Emotions run high at Sochi 2014
“And then came Sochi 2014. I was still young. I was competing in the European Cup and there I was, a Winter Games athlete, getting a lot of coverage in the media because I was Togo's first ever cross-country skier. Everyone was talking about me. I'm pretty shy so it all came as a huge emotional shock for me, going from being an anonymous athlete to some kind of icon for African sport. It was hard to deal with.
Sochi was such a massive experience. It was really pleasing for me to be able to show the rest of the world that just because I come from a place where there's no snow it doesn't mean to say that we don't know how to ski. I was Togo's flagbearer in Sochi (an honour she had again yesterday in PyeongChang). Wow. I experienced so many emotions. I was petrified when I went into the stadium. I didn't know where to look. The president of my federation was right behind me. He was encouraging me and telling me to smile. It was the biggest highlight of my very first Games.
The athletes all came together in the stadium at the Opening Ceremony and I found myself next to all these big stars and athletes from the so-called smaller nations. It feels amazing to tell yourself that you're rubbing shoulders with Bode Miller, Marit Bjørgen and the Jamaican bobsleigh team, and you realise that at that particular moment in time you're all equal. There's no difference. You're all there to give the very best of yourselves.
I'm a sprint specialist, but I only did the 10km classical in Sochi. I'd been dreaming of the Games since I was a little girl and it all came about really quickly, when I was only 19. A few big-name athletes came up to me and said: ‘So you're the girl from Togo'. I remember doing a training run on the course with Finland's five-time Olympic medallist Aino-Kaisa Saarinen. We chatted as if we'd known each other all our lives. It made me want to carry on. When you do sport at the highest level and you make progress, the Games are all you think about. I want to go back and to get results, not to put on a show."
A helping hand from Olympic Solidarity
“After Sochi I received a grant from Olympic Solidarity. I wouldn't have been able to do anything without that. I went to Canada to train at the Pierre-Havey National Training Centre in Mont-Saint-Anne, Quebec. I've been working on my skiing there for three years now. And I've been getting some good sprint results too – top-5 finishes in the Nor-Am Cup. I've skied on the FIS and World Cup circuits. I spend nine months of the year at the Pierre-Havey and then I go back to France to do my marketing studies. Being a part of that structure means I can train at the highest level and get really good coaching. One of the coaches travels with me to international races. I've got everything I need to keep progressing. I'm living the life of an athlete, with 11 months training a year, 600 to 700 hours, and with the aim of going as far as I can. I'm a competitor at heart.
Then, this year, I've entered into a partnership with IOC TOP Partner company Procter and Gamble. We shot a video together as part of the “Thank You, Mum" campaign. My mother was in it with me and it was very emotional for her. Your parents are where it all starts."
Top 30 the target
“This time I'm going to the Games to get good results, which is going to come down to how I perform. Making the top 30 in the sprint would be great. The 10km is all about enjoying yourself and getting your skiing right. If you do, then it's perfect. I won't be alone either, like I was in Sochi. There's another Togolese athlete, Alessia Afi Dipol, in Alpine skiing. I'll still be carrying the flag at the Opening Ceremony though.
Beyond PyeongChang 2018 my aim is to make the top 30 regularly by competing in the World Cup from start to finish. I want to be the first African cross-country skier to score points. I want people to see me as a genuine elite athlete and to establish myself on the international circuit. That's what I'm training for.
I get a massive amount of messages and likes on social media, and there are a lot of tweets about me. Mentally I'm ready. I've got the weapons to ensure I don't suffer the same emotional shock at the Games. It won't be so new to me. I'll know how to handle it, though it'll still be an incredible feeling for me to be staying at the Olympic Village.
There's no other place like it in the world for sharing and for peace. No matter what else is happening around the world, we show that sport can bring people together, that everyone can speak to each other and see each other, which shows that there's still hope. You have to see it with your own eyes to understand just how special it all is."