Feature: Chardin & Mortelette - Quietly chasing the Holy Grail

21/05/2013 - 17:54:00

The 2012 Olympic Rowing Regatta may not have resulted in the medal haul rowing fans in France were dreaming to see but their one single medal was a mark of the consistency that does exist within the French team. In one of the most spoken-about boat classes of the London Olympiad, two determined Frenchmen raced fast enough to gain a spot on a 2012 Olympic podium. Meet the men’s pair of Germain Chardin and Dorian Mortelette.

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At Eton Dorney, the host venue for rowing at the 2012 London Olympic Games, the phrase ‘Kiwi pair’ had become somewhat of a buzzword in the grandstands. Whether or not spectators were New Zealanders, the men’s pair was highly anticipated. The question was whether any of the other crews lining up in the Final – Australia, Canada, France, Great Britain or Italy – could dethrone the reigning Kiwis.

From lane four, Chardin and Mortelette were explosive out of the start. They pulled out to the front of the field, determined to get to the finish line in first place. They owned the first 500m leading the five other crews before the Kiwi pair reined them in. As the race progressed the French duo had two focuses – moving back on the accelerating Kiwis and counteracting the increasing speed of the British pair. The finish line came just in time as Chardin and Mortelette held off the charge of Will Satch and George Nash.
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As much as the Kiwis taking gold was symbolic, where the silver went was equally so. Chardin and Mortelette’s podium-placing finish, earning them silver medals, would be the only time the blue white and red flag of France would fly in Eton Dorney. It had been a long and winding road to this, their second Olympic medal, but what Olympic journey isn’t?

Both Chardin and Mortelette were introduced to rowing at an early age. 1996, the year when their future coach Daniel Fauche rowed to Olympic silver, was the year when they both first experienced the sport in which they would become Olympic medallists. Mortelette’s memory of his early days in the sport probably sounds familiar to many people: “At first, I wasn’t that fond of rowing, but was obliged to go [training] as it was easier for my parents to drive me, my brother and my sister to the same place!”

Coincidentally, within four years they both represented their country at international level. At the 2000 World Rowing Junior Championships, Mortelette took home a silver medal in the quadruple sculls while Chardin earned his first world title, racing to gold in the coxed four.  In 2001, Mortelette medalled again at world junior level, this time winning gold. For him, this was a defining moment in his rowing career. Standing on the podium in Duisburg, Germany, he thought that with determination and willpower, competing at the Olympic Games could be a real possibility for him.
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It wasn’t until 2006 that Chardin and Mortelette had the opportunity to see what the potential would be of combining their talents, along with those of Julien Despres and Benjamin Rondeau, in the men’s four. The crew remained unchanged for the remainder of the Olympiad, and by 2008 the benefit of this consistency had paid off. They found themselves in real contention for medals coming into the Beijing Games in 2008 and when the race that really mattered came along, they lived up to their own expectations. They crossed the line in bronze medal position, marking the end of a whirlwind period together. The duo agree on what they feel helped them fulfill their potential. “We trusted in our coach Daniel Fauche, who motivated and drove us to the final,” says Chardin, adding that the fearlessness of being young and carefree also had a positive impact on their end result.

Following their first Olympic experience, Chardin and Mortelette wanted to try something new and dabbled in different boats, returning  to the four in 2010 and winning their first World Championship title. “This period was rich in experience and gradually allowed us to build in to the Olympiad,” says Chardin. However, amongst all the positive experiences came some disappointments.

In 2011, just one month before the World Rowing Championships at which the majority of 2012 Olympic qualification places were up for grabs, Mortelette suffered a major blow: a fractured foot kept him out of the boat until 10 days before the championships. After the early rounds of racing their hope of securing a place for the following year’s Games was lost and so it was back to the drawing board for the duo and their coaches. Returning to France after an overall disappointing performance in Bled, it was decided they would restructure the group. Chardin and Mortelette would move to the pair and, just like their men’s quad, four and eight, try and qualify for the Games through the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta.
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“I’m pretty optimistic by nature,” says Chardin, “and our ultimate goal was the London Olympics. Our motivation remained intact and our desire was growing.”

“The qualification regatta was emotionally tough,” Mortelette recalls. “It was a huge challenge as making mistakes was not an option.” For them, the pressure that existed at the regatta was entirely within their own boat as opposed to being a race against others, as it is at other regattas. Their capabilities, both mental and physical, allowed them to prevail against this unenviable challenge as they earned the first of two final Olympic placings available.

The duo had not gone to London to compete for the best place behind the Kiwis. “The fact that Murray and Bond were favourites didn’t affect our race plan,” says Mortelette, with Chardin adding jokingly: “The New Zealanders were favourites?” “Dorian and I went into battle to reach our maximum potential technically, physically and mentally. We were aware of [Murray and Bond’s] ability to dominate but never competed for second place,” he asserts. “What affected our race was coaching decisions, our own know-how, and our mature approach.”
Although they missed out on the gold they had aimed for, Chardin and Mortelette had went one better than their Beijing result, remaining composed against a challenge from the British pair, well and truly earning the second highest honour at the Games – Olympic silver.
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The reaction to the medal and its implications were multifaceted. Earning France’s only Olympic rowing medal in 2012 was bittersweet. Both Chardin and Mortelette refer to their feeling of disappointment for France’s lightweight men’s double sculls, which finished in the most difficult position of all – fourth.  In a post-Olympic interview with the French newspaper Le Monde , Chardin recalls arriving in London and discovering that the final of men’s Judo featuring France’s five-time World Champion, Teddy Riner, was on the same day as the men’s pair final. “We realised that no matter the outcome, we would not be the news (in France),” he says. In the same interview Mortelette commented that the fanfare around becoming Olympic medallists is short-lived in France: “In this sport you know that you will soon be brought back down to earth.”

Perhaps it is this closeness to reality and understanding their own goals that allowed them to commit to another Olympiad, which began for them at the Samsung World Rowing Cup in Sydney, Australia, where they finished at the head of the field. “Quite simply, we aim for gold,” says Chardin. “It is our Holy Grail."