July's Athlete of the Month is reigning World Champion and double Olympic Champion, Tony Estanguet. Star of the Men's C1 in Canoe Slalom, Tony's persistent performance, his enduring sporting rivalry with Michal Martikan (SVK) and his warm persona make him a popular and much followed athlete of our sport.
Starting at a young age, Tony is from a strong canoeing background. Born in 1978, he started paddling when he was five. His father, Henri Estanguet, formed part of the French Wildwater Canoeing team and won silver and bronze medals in the Wildwater Canoeing World Championships in the late 1970s. With two older brothers and his father so involved in the sport, it was natural for Tony to follow in their footsteps. As he said in his own words; “Step-by-step, and maybe thanks to them, my progression was quite fast. In 1996 I won my first title in the World Cup in Prague. I was 18 years old and it was the real start of my career. After this point, my only dream was to be in the Olympics and my goal was to win it.”
This moment in Prague, his first competition as a Senior athlete, was a real turning point for Tony. It was a point when he could consider himself a serious contender on the international arena. “Before this point, I was doing everything to reach this level but I really didn’t know if it was possible. And, even though it was only a World Cup, I knew a lot of top level guys were there and knew that if I could win this race, I could win any race and even realise my Olympic Dream.”
And his Olympic Dreams were to come true in 2000 at the Sydney Olympic Games. The Games were one thing, but the pathway there was somewhat dramatic for the Estanguet family. With only one place for the French C1 Canoe Slalom team, Tony was faced with some tough competition from his big brother, Patrice. Having taken bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Patrice was the favourite, but the competition was nail-bitingly close. Tony won the first run, Patrice won the second, on the last race they were within one second of each other, with Tony emerging as the winner. “It was hard for my parents to watch and it was hard for us too. But right from the beginning we entered with the right spirit, and we are family, we wanted to keep a good level of sportsmanship. When we both finished, before knowing the result we got together and hugged, we were both totally exhausted and emotionally drained. This was one of the biggest moments in my career. But it was difficult; we had the same dream to win the Olympics and there was only one spot.”
- Image Courtesy of Tony Estanguet
Tony took the winning streak to Sydney with him and took gold in the Men's C1. After that his career changed. He had broken the mould and gone from the underdog to the favourite. His new goal was to keep the title which he went on to do in the 2004 Athens Games. Then came the Beijing Games where, as his country's Flag Bearer, he had a completely different experience which became “a special memory that I will keep for the rest of my life”. Talking about it a year later, Tony told the ICF, “for the three months before the event I was very busy talking to politicians and sponsors in Paris. It was difficult and it might be the reason why I found the race so difficult—I came ninth. But I don’t regret a thing. I think that Canoeing for me is also to experience moments like this. To enter the Olympic Stadium with 300 people just behind me was amazing.”
2009 proved to be a good year for Tony, experiencing such a change in fortune at the 2008 Olympic Games, he decided to start from the very beginning again. He competed at some small regional races and some at national level where he was also beaten. This, he said, was important because he needed to understand that he had to start from zero again. And so, in one year, Tony built a new season with a focus on the World Championships and the pleasure of paddling.
“Looking back, maybe in Beijing I was too focused,” Tony explained, “I had gone over the race a thousand times in my head and by the time I arrived, I was exhausted.” With a more open approach and with a new balance in his life, Tony entered the 2009 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships in a completely different frame of mind. It clearly worked, he took gold. Describing how it felt to win, Tony reflected “it was really intense because, ok it was just a world title, but this one was really different because I’d started with nothing six months before. And in these six months, I gained a lot of confidence. The day of the final was great, I was happy to be there and it was great to share this moment with fans and my family, compared to Beijing where I was too focused... I didn’t know that after three Olympiads, at the beginning of a fourth, it was possible to enjoy a moment like this.”
Come back next week to read about what Tony thinks of his enduring rivalry with Michal Martikan, what he has in store for the future and what else he gets up to when he is not on the water.
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