WOC: Thierry Gueorgiou from a different and new point of view

Text: Laura Garrido Photo: Mårten Lång

“I was probably not the biggest talent ever, but I made sure no one was working harder than me”

It is quite difficult to practice orienteering and follow the elite runners without knowing the name Thierry Gueorgiou, the man with the most World Championship gold medals: 14 victories, from his first gold medal in 2003 to his last one in 2017. During last year’s WOC, in Estonia, we witnessed how the king of orienteering gave up his crown after having won his eighth gold medal in middle distance. Now, one year later, not only has he changed the flag on his jacket but also his role during WOC: Thierry will return to the main orienteering competition but to play a different role, as one of the coaches of the Swedish Team. In this interview, he talks about his career as an orienteer and how he has exchanged the role of the runner to become the coach.

Going back to your first WOC, would you have ever imagined that you would be known as “the king of orienteering”? Would you define the process of becoming such an orienteering legend as a “coincidence due to dedication” or as “something that you have really looked forward to”?
– Well, quite early I had the dream of becoming a World Champion. I think everything started when I witnessed the WOC 1987, organized for the first time in France. I was 8 years old, and France did not really belong to the top nations at that time. So yeah, it was a long way to go, with plenty of moments where I felt this dream was just too big for me and inaccessible. But one step after another, I was getting closer and closer. It really felt like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. And WE made it happen in 2003, as even though I was alone in forest, it was also the result of the passion of several persons around me, notably my father. Thereafter, what made the difference was that I understood quite quickly what was working best for me, and how to prepare for a World Championship. Then, it felt, more or less, like applying the same recipe over and over. And I always managed to trick myself that the next one was the most important, and never really looked back during my elite career. But it still feels unreal today.

“Competition has always been pretty addictive for me”
Since you left orienteering competition as an elite orienteer, have you ever regretted making that decision?
– Haha, every single day! No seriously, it is definitively not the same to follow the runners in forest, which is a big part of my job nowadays, as doing it for yourself with that unique feeling of freedom and being perfectly prepared. But the chance I have is that I ended the way I always wanted it, and I have some other nice things in my life. I just cannot imagine what would have happened if I would not have finished with a win in Estonia last year, I guess I would have resigned quite quickly from my contract with the Swedish national team to try one more time! Competition has always been pretty addictive for me.

Obviously if you had never started orienteering, your life would have been absolutely different, therefore, how would you imagine a life without orienteering?
– It is a hard question as orienteering has always been a big part of my life, and my main job since 2003. Apart from that I had two other big interests, one was biology and it is what I have been studying. And the other one is cooking. My guess is that I would still live in France then, starting my day with a coffee and a croissant, complaining about the result of my football team, and maybe having a restaurant! But as I have always been quite competitive, I think I would be hunting for a Michelin Star then!

From when you began practising orienteering until your last WOC, how would you describe the changes that have happened in orienteering?
– Even though the sport is still more or less the same, there have been lot of small changes after the appearance of new technologies like the GPS tracking or the punching system. But I would say that the biggest change is that the maps are more and more accurate. When I started orienteering, only very few mapmakers were skilled enough to draw a good picture of the terrain. Nowadays, with a tool like the laser curving, doing a great map is still not easy, but there is a much bigger chance that the features are in their correct locations. But it also means for elite orienteers, there are less and less surprises in competitions, and there is a lot to learn by spending time in front of the computer, both before and after the race.

Referring now to the Swedish Team, which is the main challenge for them?
– Actually, it is very much the same challenge as for every other elite orienteer in the world. Even though there is no country where this sport is bigger than in Sweden, most of the national team runners are struggling to get enough income to be full time professionals. That is the reality of our sport at the moment. But if we refer the coming WOC, we cannot say that the terrains we will face in Latvia are typical Swedish terrains. You do not really find this type of undetailed green steep slopes here. Even though we are well prepared, we also have much respect for the task.

 “I was probably not the biggest talent ever, but I made sure no one was working harder than me”
Being part of the Swedish National Team as a coach is undoubtedly a tough task, so what would you like to transmit to athletes?
– Well, as a coach, at the moment, I am using my two biggest strengths – I know exactly how it feels to stand on a start line of a World Championship, and I am still able to follow the runners in forest. So, it is pretty easy to understand what is going on. Also, I guess I get some respect for my previous achievements, but this does not last so long if you do not back it up with hard work. Basically, I am approaching my coaching career the same way as my elite career – I was probably not the biggest talent ever, but I made sure no one was working harder than me. It is what I am trying today. And I hope the runners get somehow inspired.

I suppose that when you used to compete in WOCs you had a defined idea about how a coach should be. Now that you are on the coaching side of an important national team, do you think that you live up to your own expectations or not?
– It is a good question actually. Because when you start coaching you realize quite quick you need to adapt to the runners, and not the opposite. We have 11 runners who are going to compete at WOC, and they are all very different. Also, if they have reached this level, it is because they do a lot of things right. So, it is a lot about listening and trying to understand them. But as they are not doing everything right (as no one does), and as I also come from a different culture, and I think I have a bit of experience as well when it comes to delivering the D-day, I try to bring them something. You know, the best coach I ever had was the Norwegian Petter Thoresen, multiple World Champion, because he had been in the same situations, and knew exactly what was going through my mind. I really enjoyed discussing and spending time with him. I had successes before and after him, but he was challenging me all the time, and those were probably the years I enjoyed most.

How do you face World Champs from the coach role? Is it easier or more difficult than when you competed?
– As I am only the assistant in charge of the technique, to Håkan Carlsson and Susanne Barkholt, the head coaches of the Swedish team; I feel pretty relaxed actually as I am not responsible for the main decisions. But for sure, it is a lot easier to compete yourself as you have a full control of what is happening. You have more pressure, but you can do a lot to handle it. As a coach, you often just feel like a spectator, and sometimes things take more time that you really wish. You have no pressure, but you have very little control.

Referring now to France, this year, France has won FIFA World Cup, so do you think that French orienteers can add another World Champ title to the football victory?
– I am really not hoping for this! It would mean they would beat the Swedish orienteers which is the last thing I want. I am very committed to my job you know, I care about them all and actually I never thought I would feel that bad when they underperform. But to get back to the question, a French success is far from impossible as they have classy runners, and they have shown at EOC earlier on this year, it is a realistic goal both for the individual races with Frédéric Tranchand and Lucas Basset, and for the relay.

Finally, who do you think will win middle distance race in men’s class, which was your last victory in a WOC?
– Well, if my coach would have bet against me, I guess I would have been quite mad. So, yeah, it is not even a question, I want to see blue and yellow colours on top that day!