Arnaud Gauthier-Rat: “Beach volleyball under the Eiffel Tower is the ultimate recognition”

Thursday, 15 june 2023

Arnaud Gauthier-Rat, an athlete supported by the Caisse d’Epargne de Midi-Pyrénées, is one of the world’s elite beach volleyball players. At the same time, he’s studying to become an engineer, with the dream of competing in the Olympic Games in Paris, where beach volleyball will be played… under the Eiffel Tower!

How did your journey to the elite level begin?

Both my parents played first division volleyball and my older sister, Marion, was in the French national team. Volleyball has always been an integral part of my life although, until I was fifteen, I started out playing table tennis. I then decided that I wanted to play a team sport and I hesitated between volleyball and basketball. My grandparents were international basketball players, and my grandfather, Michel Rat, was captain of the French team. In the summer, I used to take part in the Summer Volleyball tournaments in Côtes d’Armor (Brittany), which was my first contact with volleyball. I then took the aptitude tests at the ‘Young Hopefuls’ center in Chatenay in the suburbs south of Paris and immediately joined the Chatenay-Malabry training center with Yves Logeais. I then moved on to the National Volleyball Centre in Montpellier, which is the ‘nursery’ for French volleyball. Most of the players in the team that won the Olympics in Tokyo came from this center… That’s what helped me improve my level under Eric Daniel.

What position did you play?

I was an attacking receiver at that time.

How did you switch to beach volleyball?

There was a lot of competition for my position in the French team. And in the summer months, I began to be selected for the French beach volleyball team… The first competitions went well and I quickly got good results. And I developed a taste for the sport and the lifestyle it evokes.

Can you tell us more about what makes this sport so special?

It’s a sport where the players are extremely autonomous. They’re responsible for what happens to them. There’s no coach, no replacement. You’re on your own. You can’t get help, you proceed at your own pace, and you’re responsible for your failures and successes. In terms of personal development, it teaches you a lot…

So you focused on this sporting discipline…

Yes, at the age of 18 I focused 100% on beach volleyball when I joined the CREPS training facility in Toulouse in the south of France.  In 2014, with Arnaud Loiseau, we became the first French team to qualify for the Youth Games. We finished in 9th place.

At the same time, you’re working on a dual project…

When I joined the France division at the CREPS training center in Toulouse, I also began studying in INSA Toulouse, a school of engineering, in pursuit of two overarching sporting and academic ambitions…

What is it like having to combine a sporting career with high-level studies?

INSA Toulouse has more than 3,000 students, including some 80 elite athletes, and I’m one of the ten or so who are preparing for the Olympic Games. It’s very tiring because we have a very heavy workload… all the more so as in my 4th year, I made it into the world top 25, so I’ve increased my training load as well! At INSA, we have the option of dividing an academic year into several years, of having tutoring hours financed by the school (private lessons, in a way) to make up for lessons missed because of a competition, and also the possibility to reschedule certain exams. I’m currently in my fifth year, specializing in automation and electronics (embedded systems), and I’ll be doing my final work placement after the Olympic Games, graduating in 2025. 

What are the similarities between your studies and your sporting discipline, and how do they mutually reinforce each other?

For me, even if what I’m doing is difficult, I manage to strike a good balance in pursuing these two things at the same time. It also develops cross-disciplinary skills and it offers me a degree of security because if my sporting career is interrupted I’ll still have my engineering degree to fall back on. So it gives me a certain peace of mind.

Can you explain the specifics of beach volleyball, especially compared to volleyball? What special qualities does it require?

The qualities needed to play well are the same as in volleyball. In beach volleyball, however, you need to be a really well-rounded player whereas in volleyball you need to be highly specialized. To be good at beach volleyball, you have to be innovative, adaptable (both vis-à-vis your opponents and the climate) and have a good sense of strategy. Last, but not least, it’s a very physically demanding sport. Physical preparation is a major part of our schedule. 50% of my training is devoted to the physical component, i.e. 15 hours out of 30. In traditional volleyball, we play one match a week but in beach volleyball, we play 6 to 8 matches over the course of a tournament, with 3 matches a day, frequently under a blazing sun on soft sand. It’s exhausting!

Beyond the more specific technical aspects, can you explain the particular culture around this sport?

The culture of beach volleyball is somewhere between surfing and tennis. There’s a travel culture, like in tennis, where you all stay in the same hotels, on the same circuit, and you make lifelong friends in every country. And then you play outdoors in the middle of nature in a dream setting with the sea, the sun, and with immense respect for the environment.

Beach volleyball at the Olympic Games Paris 2024 will be staged in an exceptional setting… Is that part of your motivation?

The beach volleyball event will be played under the Eiffel Tower, an iconic venue! For us, it’s the ultimate recognition… What’s more, I’m from Paris, so it will mean something very special to me personally, the dream of a lifetime come true… In fact, as soon as the site was announced, everyone wanted to be part of it… 

In beach volleyball, how do you manage your relationship with your teammate?

Beach volleyball is neither an individual sport nor, strictly speaking, a team sport. There are just the two of us. And it’s a factor that has to be taken into account; we train together, we live together, and this relationship finds expression on the court. With Youssef Krou, my partner, we form a real little sporting couple!

Do each of you specialize in something during a match?

There are two options: either you play as a duo with individual specialization, one defender and one on the block, or as two complete, well-rounded players. We play more like two complete players, although I tend to be more of a defender and Youssef is more of a blocker…

Which nations are strong in beach volleyball?

Europe is very strong. Out of the top twenty pairs, fifteen are European. The Norwegians dominate and the Swedes are starting to win a lot. It used to be America (USA, Brazil, etc.), the sport was born there… When you go to Brazil, you’re treated like a star… A Brazilian knows who the Olympic beach volleyball champion is.

What athlete impresses you the most??

I have a huge amount of respect for Teddy Riner, for the whole of his career, for Tony Parker for the way his career has unfolded, and Federer for his elegance… And, finally, Nadal for his tenacity and resilience.

What do you think about when you doubt yourself?

Self-confidence… and perseverance. You have to confront many cycles of failure and success.

What’s your greatest strength?

My capacity to learn and my adaptability. Both in volleyball and in my studies.

If you had to single out one value that you admire in sport?

Resilience, being able to keep working until you succeed.

Do you have another passion in life?

The big cross-cutting issue in my sport: sustainable development, which interests me and which is constantly foremost in my mind…

And what does the support provided by your partner, the Caisse d’Epargne de Midi-Pyrénées, mean to you?

The Caisse d’Epargne de Midi-Pyrénées allows me to devote myself to the pursuit of performance, enabling me to focus full time on the goal I’ve set myself: qualifying for the Olympic Games!

“We share the same flame”