Gaëtan Charlot, para-fencing: “Fencing is a duel in which you have to find both technical and tactical solutions…”

Wednesday, 26 april 2023

Gaëtan Charlot, a wheelchair épéeist supported by BPCE, is pursuing his high-level sports career while simultaneously studying engineering at INSA Lyon: a two-pronged project helping him to maintain his mental and physical equilibrium. Portrait.

How did you get into fencing?

I started very young, when I was 7. I was undergoing rehabilitation and, in view of my disability, the doctors advised me to take up sport. I’ve had spastic diplegia since birth. It is a neurological malformation that causes a disconnection of my lower limbs. My muscles seem to have a mind of their own to the effect that I can’t always control my legs, which prevents me from walking. The doctors advised me to take up a physical activity that could also help me to understand my body. I really liked basketball but there wasn’t a club for young people in my region, but there was a fencing club. I tried it and never looked back…

What was the first weapon you tried?

I was trained in foil fencing before I switched to the epee.

What got you hooked on fencing?

What I like about this sport is that it’s extremely complete; it allows you to exercise your body along with your mind; it’s both physical and technical, you have to handle a weapon and be precise in your movements. And, finally, there’s a tactical aspect that I also really like. It’s a combat, a duel in which you have to find solutions, identify the opponent’s weakness, lead him to where you want him to be and strike him at the right moment… You have to do all this simultaneously because, if you can see the solution but don’t have the technique to bring it about, you won’t score the touch. And, similarly, if you have a really good technique but can’t come up with a tactical solution, you won’t score either…

You have to get into the opponent’s head, set traps for him and avoid falling into those he lays for you… It’s a clash between two minds…

Absolutely! And that’s what I like about it. I’m not interested in sport as pure performance. I’m not attracted to sports based on speed, distance and throwing whereas I really like oppositional sports: the fact of dominating the other in all possible dimensions… of surpassing him physically, tactically, and technically… You have to surpass your own limits if you want to overcome your opponent.

This is the paradox of fencing; you have to want to ‘stab’ the other while simultaneously respecting him…

You’re right. You don’t have any friends on the piste but, as soon as the bout is over, we become friends again. It’s the same in all combat sports.
So you advanced until you joined the French team. And at the same time, you pursued a parallel project…
I joined the French team in 2018 and I’ve been there ever since. At the same time, I entered the INSA Lyon school of engineering. I’m currently finishing my fifth and final year with a specialization in industrial engineering.

Why this specialization?

It’s an extremely open course of study that offers a wide range of possibilities considering that we’re trained to find solutions to problems as and when they arise. You have to understand how things work within an overall system if you want to tackle the problem at hand. A bit like fencing…

INSA is a pioneering school in that it welcomes students pursuing dual projects and, especially, high-level athletes… Can you tell us what studying is like for an elite athlete?

Dual projects can take on a number of different forms: art, music, acting… High-level athletes study in a different structure and at a different pace. For example, the integrated preparatory course of study typically lasts two years. We are allowed to take three years to complete it. There are 27 or 28 students in each class of athletes… The teachers know about our sports projects and help us with them. Everyone specializes in different sports and everyone has to face up to different problems, different constraints… So it’s an enriching experience to be together; we all learn from one another.

What do you get out of pursuing a dual project?

I personally feel fortunate to be able to pursue these two projects at the same time. I need a distraction, to do several things simultaneously. My fellow students at INSA devote their time to their studies. I find it hard to do just one thing. It’s very useful in my sporting life to learn how to reflect, to think quickly… And, conversely, the skills I’ve developed in sport – an elite athlete’s sense of self-sacrifice, rigor, and ability to work hard – help me in my studies. The skills work both ways. I’m also fully aware that a career in sport only lasts for a certain period of time, and having a degree in engineering means that I don’t have to worry too much about the future. And, finally, the intense human interactions you experience in sport will also be useful later on in my work.

As you navigate your busy schedule, are you careful about how much you sleep, what you eat…?

Yes, in my sports project, I’m supported by a whole team: a trainer from the Federation, another trainer from the club, a fitness trainer, mental coach and nutrition specialist… I’m also supported by the teaching staff at my school: teachers, internship supervisors, etc… and my partners such as BPCE… who are also part of my team considering that they support me in my dual project of sportsman and engineer. Behind every sportsman, there are a great many people.

Does the fact of having all these people behind you increase your sense of commitment?

Of course, it’s a responsibility, but above all it’s a source of inspiration and motivation. It puts you under a bit of pressure because you want to do well for all these people supporting you. I’d say it’s a positive kind of pressure and something beneficial.

What is your greatest sporting memory?

It’s the final of the World Team Championships in South Korea in 2019. But winning my first medal is another outstanding memory. It was at the French championships in 2016. This success has guided my career choice… 

And what athlete has impressed you the most?

It’s more than an individual athlete, it’s more an image that comes to mind. I was 12 years old and taking part in my first competition organized within the framework of an international tournament in Villemomble in the eastern suburbs of Paris. There was a huge photo of the Polish fencer Dariusz Pender, the title holder and favorite of the event, hanging above our heads from the ceiling of the gym. This image made him inaccessible both literally and figuratively and I looked at him in awe, not imagining that a few years later I’d be able to beat him in the World Cup, which I did. That’s also why we do competitive sports: to make our dreams come true!

What advice would you give to a person with a disability who wants to pursue a career in sport?

I’d say that you simply have to dare to try. The handicap is obviously an additional difficulty. But all sports today are being adapted for disabled people and so you have to dare to push through the door of a club and just try. And if you don’t succeed at first, you can adapt, find solutions, persevere…

What do the Paris Games mean for your career?

Today, it’s the key objective for the next two seasons, to train as much as possible to bring home a medal in front of all the people supporting me. It’s an honor. But the Paris Games will still just be one step in my career because I’m still young, I’ll be able to compete in other Olympics. I also have shorter-term objectives like being in the world Top 8 even if I’m keeping my sights on Paris. This is an additional motivation that drives me to go a bit further every day.

What do you think about when you doubt yourself?

Why I’m doing this. I like to advance one objective at a time. If things are not going well, I tell myself that if I’m working so hard, it’s to achieve my objective. I ask myself why isn’t it working out and what I need to do to get there. Like in my approach to engineering today. Understanding the problem…

What is your greatest strength?

My point management and my physical strength.

Can you give us a value that you admire in sport?


Do you have another passion in life?

In my spare time, I do magic. I worked on my magic tricks in high school and I keep it up.

Is the support given by your partner BPCE an additional asset?

Very clearly. It is obviously a source of financial support that helps me a lot in my sports career… but beyond that, the fact of having a backer is a source of moral support in competitions. It’s also long-term support that helps me see the different jobs existing in the field of IT in the banking industry. BPCE is supporting my project as a whole which is, as we have seen, a collective project. So, in a sense, I’m being carried along, buoyed up by a shared story. 

“We share the same flame”