Justine Braisaz-Bouchet, Olympic biathlon champion and mother-to-be: “I trained right up to the end of my pregnancy.”

Thursday, 19 january 2023

Justine Braisaz-Bouchet, supported by the Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes, talks about how this 2022-2023 season has been so special to her as an athlete and a woman.

We still remember the thrill of Justine Braisaz-Bouchet’s outstanding performance in the mass start event of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022: a victory that crowned a fantastic race and brought her name into the annals of French sport! Last spring, she decided with her husband to start a family. Because of her pregnancy, she followed the 2022-2023 season from the sidelines but never stopped training, up to the very moment – or almost! – she gives birth.

You’ve been on the circuit for eight seasons living your life with great intensity, constantly traveling, competing, training, etc… How does it feel to be living at a much more gentle pace?

Last spring, my husband and I decided to start a family. This decision was, of course, extremely personal but it also had an impact on my professional life to the extent that I would be taking time out before bouncing back for a new Olympiad and the Olympic Games in Italy in 2026. After eight seasons competing for the World Cup, I needed a break. It was something that both I and my husband felt very strongly. This meant that I’ve adapted to this change in pace pretty well. What changed the most for me was the traveling, which became less frequent. But as far as training is concerned, and considering my plans to pursue my career after giving birth, I’ve maintained a proper training regime… with the approval and under the supervision of the medical staff, of course. The pregnancy is going very well and time is passing very quickly so I’ve been able to keep up my training at a good pace.

So you’ve continued training without the competitions…

Exactly. I’ve been keeping up my training for almost nine months… although any intense training is out of the question. It’s all been quite basic…

So it’s been pure pleasure… And you haven’t had to deal with the stress of the competitions…

You could say that, absolutely! But I also enjoy training for competitions and I enjoy the competitions themselves because I’ve been doing this since I was a little girl.

But I’ve been training with the idea of continuing my career afterwards and with an eye to the seasons yet to come… Let’s say that I’m taking advantage of my pregnancy without losing sight of my future career.

Have you asked other champions for advice, other women who’ve already followed the same path?

Yes, I’ve talked to Marie Dorin-Habert. She’s ten years older than me and had a little girl during her career. I asked her how it was for her… and I’ve also talked to Anaïs Chevalier Bouchet who’s still actively competing and had a little girl three years ago. They’re two women athletes who are close to me, who compete in the same sport as I do. So it was very interesting to have their point of view… but I also trusted my own instincts. Because I’ve been thinking about developing long-term projects for quite some time. It was clear in my mind what I wanted to do.

How do you organise your daily life?

I stay at home a lot. I live in the Tarentaise valley, near Peisey-Nancroix, and my parents live in Les Saisies, so I alternate between these two places, which are two very good spots for cross-country skiing. I train once or twice a day.

Are you going to train until the end of your pregnancy?

As long as I feel OK, I’ll continue. I simply adapt. When I’m feeling a little more tired than usual, I lighten up but, apart from that, I haven’t really eased up. I listen to my body. I know myself well. As long as I can keep up the pace mentally and keep my body under medical supervision too, nothing is holding me back. I’m also looking ahead to the weeks to come and I tell myself that I’m going to need a lot of energy to look after this little baby. So the idea is to gradually slow down until I’m due to give birth. And then I’ll give myself a month or two to get used to this new life… before thinking about my career once again.

Compared to your usual training regime, how intense are your sessions expressed as a percentage?

I’d say I’m training at more than half capacity. I really try to keep my physical, physiological or muscular capacities aligned with the needs of my pregnancy. I’d say 60-70% in terms of the number of outdoor sessions but in terms of intensity, I’m skiing at moderate to low intensity. I honestly have to admit that I feel pretty good. I don’t have the impression that there’s a huge change compared to previous years.

Do you watch the races on television? And when you see the other biathletes, do you miss the surge of adrenalin from the competition?

I don’t miss a single race. I really love racing, and I miss it a bit.

It’s strange. I sometimes feel the urge to compete more strongly when I’m watching a competition on TV than on certain race days when I may feel less enthusiastic or suffer from so much stress that it dulls the pleasure and intensity of the competition. But today, yes I want to come back. I’ll take the time I need but I’ll be back. I’m enjoying my pregnancy but I also say to myself: “It’s fine, I’ll be back!”

What were your feelings about the first stage in this season’s World Cup?

It was very exciting. I wanted to achieve that level. But I learnt a great deal from what I saw. It was very different from the way I experienced racing in competitions. I can understand things in a more self-evident way than when I’m actually taking part in the race. For example, I was struck by the sheer simplicity of the biathlon. There’s the technique, the strategy… but what strikes me is its pure simplicity. I’m also inspired by athletes who are performing well today, like the Norwegians. I look at biathlon as a whole. And it shows me that to create a successful race, there’s something self-evident about it when you watch it on TV, and that’s a nice feeling.

So you continue to train in front of your TV and pick up tips from others that will help you to progress?

Absolutely. It’s very complementary. It’s another approach that I discovered this year…

What kind of TV spectator are you on your sofa? Do you get excited or do you manage to keep things in perspective?

A bit of both. It’s really fun when I watch a competition, and quite an intense experience. I can almost feel the athletes’ emotions, even guess what decisions they’ll make. Not for all of them, just the athletes I have a connection with. I can almost experience their race first-hand, their choices, the way they build their race…  And then I get really frustrated when I see them miss their shots. This enables me to appreciate what it’s like for TV spectators when they watch us compete. It’s a bit like the situation where a car overtakes a bike and a bike is overtaken by a car: I share both points of view simultaneously because the observer and the actor stand in diametrically opposed places, and it’s very enriching to experience both sides of the action. It will help me in the future…

You confirm that it’s easier to sit on your sofa and make a running commentary…

In fact, I realize that, when you’re an athlete, you have to be able to reproduce the ‘sofa spirit,’ i.e. to be confident, to have the self-assurance to perform as you’ve trained to do, to give full expression to your potential. Because, when you’re an athlete, you sometimes shut yourself away in a bubble, focusing on everything at stake… and that can be counterproductive. It’s good to keep things simple….

So when you go back to competing, you’ll try to keep the ‘sofa spirit’ alive in you…

Yes, I’ll try to use my experience throughout the winter as a TV spectator.

Have you changed what you eat or kept to your diet as an athlete?

Personally, I’m continuing with my usual diet for health reasons, and I’ll also manage my food in the same way after my sporting career has come to an end. It’s just a question of common sense.

Has motherhood changed you as a champion? Your relationship with sport, with competing…

We’ll see when I come back but I don’t think so. Let’s just say that there have been times during my career when my sporting objectives took precedence over everything else. This time it might be different. But I’ve already put things in a different perspective since last year: about my career, my approach to sport, about the person I want to be…

Also because you’ve taken comfort from your Olympic title…?

Yes, perhaps. It made me want to keep going and to dream about the 2026 Olympic Games. This anticipation and all the different pieces of this puzzle fell into place before I became pregnant… It’s just a question of growing and developing with or without sport but in contact with the people I see every day. It’s also a family project.

Do you think that your professional pathway, your decision to take a break in your career and give birth to a child, can help other young women who ask themselves the same kind of question in their own professional lives and who feel inhibited or pressured by their career plans in the corporate world? They may say to themselves: a champion whose career is already very short is taking that decision, so why not me…

I don’t know if you can give a ‘yes or no’ answer to this question. Several athletes before me in sport and in the biathlon have already done so. When I made this decision, I was supported in this choice by all my sponsors, and notably the Caisse d’Épargne Rhône Alpes. I was clear with them about my plan to skip a season with a view to returning for the next Olympiad. They decided to continue supporting me, which helps me enormously in the pursuit of my plans. Even if my decision was made – and I would have made it even if I hadn’t received their support – it would have just been much more difficult. For women who are wondering whether to take time out, it all depends on the specific context. I was given strong support by my partners, notably by the Caisse d’Épargne Rhône Alpes, and when you feel supported, you feel serene. And a serene mother is a serene family, and a serene child. And a mother can be more efficient, more professional when she has made this choice.

We talk about ‘mental load’ but having a child and pursuing a high-level career calls for a lot of energy. Have you prepared yourself for this challenge?

As far as the logistics of the matter are concerned, it’s important to plan ahead, and I enjoy the help of my family who supports me in this project, and the help of my husband in particular. We have organized everything for the first year. After that, I’m allowing myself time to prepare, to do things intelligently, to adapt. But I’m ready! I know that there will be moments when things are difficult emotionally. This I can imagine. But I’m going to take the necessary time, this year especially, which is going to be a pivotal period. And we’ll work things out with all the staff of the national French team so that everyone can thrive and prosper as much as possible.

Among the various partnerships it has created, the Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes has formed a group of some ten champions from the national French ski and snowboard teams, including Justine. They carry high the colors of French national and regional skiing and represent potential medal winners in international competitions.

“We share the same flame”