Athlete of the Month - June 2010
Recently returned from the first stage of the 2010 Rowing World Cup in Bled where he finished fourth in the men's single sculls, Julien Bahain shares what his relation is to single sculling, how he started rowing, and how he is preparing for a professional career.
World Rowing: Where do you come from in France?
Julien Bahain: I was born in Angers, in north-west France, close to Nantes. It is a region with many rivers, such as the Loire, and so rowing is well established.
WR: How did you discover rowing?
JB: Before I began rowing, I did horse-back riding (show jumping). I had to stop because of back problems related to a rapid growth spurt. I had to reinforce my back muscles. Our family doctor suggested I start rowing or swimming. Since being in the water terrifies me (yes, that is a scoop!). I told myself it would be better to be on the water… and that is how I started rowing in September 1999 and discovered a sport I didn’t know anything about. I was 13.
I went reluctantly at first. I didn’t find the sport interesting, I was bored in the beginners boat. That lasted all winter long and then spring came along with the first competitions. Something triggered within me. Although I had not attended sessions regularly, the coaches of my club (Angers Nautique Aviron) offered me to row in an eight, to prepare for the French championships. We qualified and that was a revelation. I loved the friends, the atmosphere and especially the racing. That woke up the competitor within me.
The following year, at age 14, I started rowing in the single. I always really liked the single. I was lucky to have coaches at the club who believed in me and knew how to build my self confidence so I could start competing at the elite level. I come from a little club that initially didn’t have a lot of material resources. I thank Robert Servel in particular (sport counselor in my region) who immediately saw my potential and looked to place me in the best possible environment. I trained more and more. I loved to feel that the more I trained the faster I went in the boat and when racing. And just to think I had sworn to only stay in rowing for a year and then go back to horse-back riding… You can never tell!
WR: What were the major challenges you had to face to be able to row at elite level?
JB: There are many challenges when practicing at the elite level. Challenges came my way early. At 16 I was already training between seven and eight times per week. The French school system is not adapted for practicing a sport. We have courses from eight a.m. until six p.m. every day except weekends. So I had to be very organised to be able to train. Since I lived quite far from my club, my coach would pick me up between noon and two p.m. so I could go row, and then go back to school. I did homework in the school bus because I came back home late in the evening after training. Looking back, I was really very organised for a 16, 17 year old. I always had the support of my family. It is very important for me to know they are by my side, because elite sport is riddled with obstacles.
Since you cannot live from rowing, I had to plan my higher education. I began mechanical engineering studies at the UTC (Technology University of Compiègne), north of Paris. The studies are long and difficult, especially the first years. When I joined the school I was able to benefit from a special arrangement designed for elite athletes. I did my studies in seven years instead of five, which allowed me to skip classes and also to train and go to regattas. But again, the constraints of rowing are such that even with this arrangement it was sometimes very difficult. I finish my courses this monthand the next challenge will be to find work. To continue rowing at elite level while working at the same time will require a lot of sacrifices.
WR: What do you do when you do not row?
JB: I go to university to study mechanical engineering. I specialised in project management which should allow me to have a job with responsibilities. This part of my life keeps me very busy and days go by at 200km/h. I still have a bit of time to read. I like reading a lot and that allows me to take time to quiet down. I also try and see friends, although I do not see enough of them to my liking.
WR: Since 2007, you won a series of medals at Rowing World Cup and World Rowing Championship levels, first in the quad, then in the double. What are the differences you noticed between these two boat classes?
JB: I was placed in the quad in 2005. The aim was to prepare the strongest boat possible for the Beijing Games. We were lucky during the last Olympic cycle to have a very strong sculling group. When you work in a quad you have to be able to increase your own level (by training in the single and on the erg) and also to think as a group. We were looking for a common technique, even when training in the single. You really need to forget yourself because in a quad you are lost in the mass. In competition, you feel strong together, you feel supported and there is also the sharing of wins and losses, which means that today my crewmates are more than crewmates. We shared so many things together that we are linked forever, in a way, by the spirit of the quad.
The double is more personal. You learn to live with someone, as in a couple! When you don’t get along with a crewmate in the quad, you can always turn to someone else. But in a double, you have to compromise, learn how to handle yourself, better understand the other one. You need to be in perfect harmony physically and psychologically in a double. It is really a lot more personal and training can be a source of conflict because disagreements are felt a lot more strongly. But I find it so interesting and exciting to be able to increase your performance through a more specific and closer understanding of your crewmate. When competing, I feel I can express myself a lot better, and better feel what I’m doing in the boat. But then, if a stroke isn’t great you feel it a lot more quickly!
WR: What are the factors that played a decisive role in your level of performance these past years?
JB: I know that my first season as a senior was a great catalyst. I only finished seventh at the selection trials in France, but was given the chance to race at the three Rowing World Cups in the single. I finished fourteenth twice, and performed at my best. At 18 it was the greatest experience I could have had alongside the best international single scullers.
I then joined the quad for the World Rowing Championships in Gifu. Rowing with experienced rowers such as Jean-David Bernard or Adrien Hardy was very enriching. I learned how to handle preparation for the World Rowing Championships, and how to approach a world-class final.
I am not big physically for a heavyweight rower so I had to bulk up a bit to better match my crewmates. I did a huge job to reinforce myself and lower my erg times despite only measuring 1m90 and weighing 89kg.
I think the factors that influence my level of performance are my fierce determination in training and in competition and the fact that I am rigorous and constant and able to always question myself. You cannot be satisfied with what you do and still make progress. I look for solutions to optimise what I do. I try to build myself up technically and psychologically. I get inspiration from what others do but also make my own opinion about rowing and performanceI try tomake everything coherent in rowing and outside of rowing. I try toavoid falling into the “I only live for rowing” trap. That is also part of performance in my eyes!
WR: You were French champion in the single sculls several times. How would you describe your relation to this boat?
JB: I won my third consecutive national champion title in the heavyweight single this year. I had also won at the junior level. I think the single is my favourite boat, but also one of the most difficult and demanding ones. Even if it is difficult at times I never tire of it. When I get on the water, I forget all of my concerns. I like beingalone with myself, even with my doubts and questions. I try to find the solution witheach stroke and I can only depend on myself. If the result is bad, it’s because of me. If it is good, it is also because of me. I never get bored in my single. I go at my own tempo, and look to optimise my speed and technique using my qualities, my physiology and my flaws.
I especially like the relation I have with the river, with nature. I often go on the water very early and have the feeling I am waking up at the same time as nature.
I also like competing in the single. It is not the same type of stress, I feel overexcited, I look for solutions and reach for my limits on my own.
WR: You rowed in the single in Bled. Do you plan to stay in this category on the long term?
JB: I do not know at all what I will do in the future. With some scullers going over to sweep rowing or stopping rowing altogether, our group is being totally restructured. It is also interesting to be a driving force, to be an example to increase the level of the group. Regarding the single my focus ismid to long term. You don’t just improvise with single sculling. Something within me is pushing me to try out this adventure, but I must also take time to think.
WR: What was it like for you to race in the single in Bled, alongside some of the best single scullers?
JB: Bled was a very enjoyable experience. I enjoyed racing at high level where nothing is determined until the very end. I learnt a lot about myself, about my way of managing a race and pushing my limits. I think my result in Bled is encouraging. It makes me want to race internationally in the single again. Despite having a lighter physique than the others, I proved I had weapons to compete against the best.
Julien talks about how he prepared for Munich, rowing in the double, his family, the erg, nutrition, books, films, music and more in the second part of this "Athlete of the Month" feature.
WR: How did you prepare for the Rowing World Cup in Munich?
JB: I had to dive back into my engineering studies to take my last semester exams. That kept me very busy between the two stages of the Rowing World Cup. We have a heavy sequence of competitions, with the three stages of the Rowing World Cup, the Henley Regatta and our national championships, within a six-week period. So we have been focusing on speed and quality work between each of those deadlines. Let’s trust our winter training!
WR: You rowed with Cedric Berrest in the men’s double at the Rowing World Cup in Munich. How do you assess your performance there?
JB: We improved after each round. It was the first time we raced in this combination, with Cedric in bow and me in stroke. We rowed very little together this season (only eight training sessions in the double). We’d like to change things this year and get a second wind. We really had the impression we were improving and learning at each stage. It is interesting and instructive after so many years of rowing together. Our level of performance is encouraging for the future. The only negative point is that we won silver - again!
WR: What is your favourite film/book? Why?
JB: My favourite film is “Le Dîner de cons”, a French comedy directed by Francis Véber. It is a great classic that I love watching to relax before a world final, for example. Cult lines, guaranteed blasts of laughter, and spectacular acting.
It is difficult for me to choose a favourite book. I’ll just mention two that particularly stood out to me. I am still under the spell of “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” by Patrick Süskind. While reading it, I had the impression I could actually smell things; I was intoxicated with the descriptions of 18th century Paris. Patrick Süskind awakens your sense of smell with words. It is simply magical!
The second book is about rowing. “On the Water” by Hans van den Brink summarises in one book what we feel when we row. From our relationship with the river, to the sensations we have at the start of a race, everything is described in words so perfectly. I would recommend it to all rowers who would like to put words on what they experience and feel.
WR: What is your favourite music ?
JB: The latest album by Black Eyed Peas (the E.N.D.) is at the top of my playlist. I never tire of it. I really enjoy listening to calm music when I’m home in the evenings, either while studying or just to relax. I have a weakness for the album “Dive Deep” by Morcheeba or the “Hôtel Costes” collection (volume 10 is my favourite). The Hed Kandi albums are quite something too.
WR: How does your diet change throughout the year, depending on the season?
JB: I am not naturally big. In the winter I struggle not to lose weight due to the heavy training schedule. So I try to have a varied diet and eat in large quantities. I cook a lot and prepare almost everything myself. The winter is a good time for gratins and soups while in the summer I feel more like eating mixed salads. But I eat a lot of starches and meat throughout the year. I’ve recently started to eat a bigger protein-based snack after my morning training to help maintain weight. When competing I am especially careful as to what I eat after racing to make sure I recover well and fill myself up with energy.
WR: Both your sisters row. Did they start rowing because of you? What is it like for you to share this common activity?
JB: I don’t know if they started “thanks to” me. Let’s just say that I allowed my family to discover a sport that no one really knew previously and rowing naturally integrated our lives. The atmosphere at the club did the rest. Rowing really is something that we share and that creates a bond between us. But I have never wanted to interfere in their practice of the sport. It is sometimes difficult to always be a point of reference and it is important for them to experience their sport and their passion in their own way. I am proud of what they are undertaking and follow each of their results closely. All three of us will be competing at the national senior and under14 championships for big boats over the weekend of 26 and 27 June. Laura and I will compete at senior level and my little sister Claire at under14 level. I hope to experience and share this moment as a family!
WR: You have dual French and Canadian citizenship. Do you have close ties with Canadian rowing?
JB: I admit I don’t have a lot of contact with “Canadian rowing”. I try to get in touch when I can, either in shuttles or at the athlete parties at the end of a regatta. My grandmother follows rowing closely from Canada and regularly sends me press clippings about the maple leafed rowers.
Who knows when I’ll attempt the adventure of rowing under Canadian colours…?!
WR: What place does the ergometer occupy in your training? What are your erg training sessions like?
JB: The ergometer is “the” winter training tool, although it is not the most exciting one for many of us. It is quite rare for me to row on the erg after April and selection trials have gone by. I think it is essential to give erg training an important place, because it is an efficient way to work on your basic physical condition during the winter, especially when outdoor conditions are difficult. From October to March, I have two erg sessions per week, and the main objective is the 2,000 erg tests (one in December and one in February).
The first session is usually an endurance workout at 20 strokes per minute. Sometimes I cut out the sessions differently: 2x6000m, 2x20 minutes, 5x10 minutes, 6x2000m, but I always do them at 20 strokes per minute with average splits of 1:39/500m.
The second session is more focused on speed. Sometimes I do a series of 20 strokes at racing speed, with a 4-minute rest between each series, for 50 minutes. Sometimes I do shorter but more intensive workouts such as 30 seconds at 120% of my vVO2max alternated with 30 second resting times.
WR: How does the fact that the World Rowing Championships are being staged in November affect your training programme compared to previous years?
JB: It is true that this special calendar somewhat changes our normal preparation schedule, especially considering that after the 2010 worlds, we’ll be nine months away from Olympic qualification in Bled. So I personally decided to go back in the boat quite late after the 2009 worlds in Poznan, to be sure to preserve myself physically and mentally.
I went back on the water in the single in November, after a break of nearly two months (which I spent practicing other sports, studying, and living outside the world of rowing!). After the world cup, we will go for high altitude training (cycling, hiking and weight training) and will then pick up our oars for the European Championships in September before the final training camp before New Zealand. I think the key to a season like this one is to break the monotony and change the usual pattern.
WR: You have a personal blog and website. What motivated you to launch them?
JB: I launched my blog in 2007, before the World Rowing Championships in Munich. We had just begun our Olympic preparation and had one training camp after another. In France, we do a lot of training camps because we all live in very different places. So I launched my blog to stay in touch with my family and friends. It was a way to give them regular news and link them to the adventure I wanted to share with them.
It took on a dimension I hadn’t expected. The blog got a lot of hits and not only from the world of rowing. So I adapted the content to make it accessible to as many people as possible. I wrote about my Olympic preparation, I talked about results and the related sensations. Following the Games, I realised media were also interested in my blog and used some of its content. The blog was also a good sales pitch to approach sponsors, so I also created a website and the blog became one of the site’s “activities”. http://julienbahain.centerblog.net/
WR: What advice would you give to young rowers who wish to become high level athletes?
JB: When I was still very young I dreamt of becoming an Olympic Champion one day and I told myself I should do everything within my power to live that dream. I would simply tell young people to live their dream and believe in what they do. Being a high-level athlete is no picnic, but if you have a dream, then go for it. It is not at age 40 that you can look back and tell yourself “If only I had known…” You have to try it out and see what happens. It can work or not, but it is essential not to have any regrets.
Also do not forget to get an education, something that balances you aside from rowing, because when things get tough you will be happy to be able to lean on something else.
Finally, take time to understand what you do, look after your image, because sport is not only blood and water, it is also about knowing how to exist and knowing how to build yourself for the future.