Maurice Manificat, cross-country skiing: “I’m persistent, a ‘never give up’ sort of person…”

Wednesday, 24 january 2024

At 37, he’s one of French sport’s leading examples of longevity at the highest level. Maurice Manificat, a four-time Olympic medalist in cross-country skiing supported by the Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes, continues to pursue his sporting career at the highest levels in a magnificent and extremely demanding sport. He talks about the forces that have driven him throughout his extraordinary career.

How did you get into cross-country skiing?

I lived in Thyez (Haute-Savoie département) in the Arve Valley in the French Alps with my parents and my brother. We were a sporty family, rather mountain-oriented. We love nature. I started cross-country skiing at school and went downhill skiing with my family and friends. I liked cross-country skiing straight away. We used to follow each other’s ski tracks and go to the Agy Nordic skiing center above Cluses, which became my club. It was a cross-country skiing resort not far from my home, just a fifteen-minute drive away. I liked it, but it wasn’t a sport I fell in love with immediately, although I found myself naturally drawn to it. I liked skiing in the grooves in the snow and enjoyed making an effort. That’s how I was talent-spotted: I moved to the front very quickly, I found it easy to push myself. It was my schoolteacher, Michel Petit, who was also an active member of the Agy Ski Club, who told my parents that I should take things further. I went through the different stages gradually. I wasn’t the strongest at first, but little by little I progressed. I wasn’t really interested in reaching a high level; I was more into having fun with my friends. I entered the sports education class at the Marignier middle school, near Thyez. It was a multi-sports class, with two or three cross-country skiers. We had special timetables and were exempt from sport on Monday mornings after competing over the weekends, and we had Wednesdays free for training. At the end of middle school, the best in the age category who applied were accepted for the ‘Hopefuls’ section in the high school in Le Fayet. So, from the age of 15, I attended a boarding school at the foot of Mont Blanc. It was my first experience in a high-level structure. It was a program that combined regular schooling with ski-related activities, with cross-country skiing, biathlon and downhill skiing. Those were great years, the kind of years when you forge lasting friendships. My best friends are from those years. 

Is that when you switched over to the elite level?

At the elite level, you realize what you’re doing and it becomes something you take seriously. You start to think about your future. But I didn’t see myself as a champion. I used to watch the big events on national TV: Roland Garros, the Tour de France, the Olympic Games. It impressed me. When I see young people today signing autographs, I can feel that they want to become champions, but I didn’t have that kind of attitude. I wasn’t ultra-competitive; that came with practicing the sport. The fact of winning the cross-country races organized by the National Union of School Sports, for example, gave me a taste for competitions. And then, the coaches taught us the basics of top-level skiing, how to ski better and how to optimize our preparation. After that, the quest for perfection became part of my career. What we were taught helps you to improve your performance but also to avoid monotony, because top-level sport is all about repetition and routine, even if cross-country skiing takes place in ever-changing settings… 

Is this quest for excellence the reason for the length of your sporting career?

I never get bored. I’m constantly striving to improve. That’s why I’m still here today. I don’t feel yet that I’ve reached the end of what I’m trying to do. I’ve always been a fighter, I never give up. I’ve never dropped out of a race. I’ve always kept going all the way to the finish, whether in joy or in pain… 
Cross-country skiing is a solitary discipline, yet there seems to be a collective atmosphere about it. Would you agree?
It’s true that cross-country skiing is a solitary endeavor. Personally, I’m a fairly solitary person, so I’m happy to train on my own. I was also rather shy when I was a child. But boarding school, training with the Mont Blanc committee, and club life taught me about living in a community. We were small groups of five or six students per age category, so you forge very strong bonds. Especially as cross-country skiing is an endurance sport, training isn’t always a lot of fun. We suffer together, and that’s how friendships are forged. We’re competing with each other, but we don’t get in each other’s way. Above all, there’s a sense of mutual trust that drew me out of myself, that enabled me to grow out of my shyness and open up to others. I learned to do things with other people. Sport is great for that. And cross-country skiing in France has this collective identity. Our medals at the Olympic Games and World Championships were won with our celebrated 4×10 km relay. This camaraderie exists at every level of the sport…

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

First of all, there’s the link with nature. Whatever the region, it’s a sport that’s practiced in the great outdoors. I do most of my training sessions on the Vercors plateau south of Grenoble, where I’ve been living for the past 11 years with my partner. It’s a beautiful natural setting. I go out for three-hour sessions that enable you to experience moments of pure presence in terms of technique, but also moments when you can let your thoughts run free. At times like that, I’m full of ideas, I feel spiritually nourished. And as we said before, it’s an individual sport but one you practice a lot in a team. You really feel the pleasure of teamwork, the pleasure of a shared effort. We like to exert ourselves and surpass ourselves. We like to feel the pain caused by lactic acid. After this intense effort, we enjoy the physiological sensations of pleasure and fulfillment.

Did you study at the same time?

My first objective was to pass my baccalaureate… I really enjoy studying and I like science. If I hadn’t got involved in high-level sport, I would certainly have become an engineer or research scientist. As I was also particularly interested in biology, after graduating from high school I started a biology degree at Grenoble Alpes University, which I completed in six years because of the distance I had to travel to take part in competitions. I went on to do the first year of a Master’s degree program in 2011, and then my sporting career took up a lot of my time… When it comes to skiing, you have to travel long distances, far away from the university, not forgetting the extra-sporting constraints of the profession and then there was the arrival of our son in 2014. I wanted to be honest with my teachers and I simply didn’t have enough time. So I gave up studying, but I still enjoy keeping in touch with the University, notably through its Foundation.

You’re 37 years old and still at the highest level of your discipline. How have you managed to build such an exceptionally long sporting career? 

First of all, cross-country skiing is not a sport where you’re going to suffer serious injuries, and secondly, we practice outdoors, without being cooped up in a stadium or swimming pool… We’re out in the open air. However, we often train twice a day. What takes a toll is all the travelling, as well as the mental burden of having to organize and plan training sessions. Because I train every day, even when I’m on vacation. So you need to be well organized. For example, when we go on a family outing at the weekend, I either cycle to the venue or take my gear in the car and roller-ski or jog back home. So you have to think about the logistics, because it’s not just a question of throwing a pair of sneakers in the boot. And then you have to include the type of outing in your overall training schedule, varying intensities, distances… you have to anticipate everything!

Which champion do you most admire?

Until I was 20, I didn’t know the great legends of our sport. Later, as I got to know them, I felt inspired by certain people, like Vincent Vittoz, for example. When I was a child, I used to watch major sporting events on TV and, subconsciously, I definitely wanted to take part in them. I felt moved by these events. At the Olympic Games – which are great races – the emotions are strong even in moments of distress. When we finished 4th in Vancouver in 2010, we felt really sad, but they were still highly emotional moments. And that’s what sport is all about, strong emotions. It’s like a beautiful film, it can move me to tears… I feel things, that’s what’s important!

What do you think about when you doubt yourself?

My brain is constantly active. When I have moments of self-doubt, it doesn’t take me long to find a solution. Even if sport dominates my whole life, I’m not fixated on it all the time. I manage to take a step back. It’s paradoxical because I live and sleep ‘high-level sport,’ but I still manage to escape. So when I suffer from self-doubt, I escape the context. I manage to push away negative thoughts. I’m optimistic, even a bit idealistic. I put things into perspective. Which also explains why I have this staying power in my sport, I quickly move on to something different. I can have a great result and then a week later find myself at the bottom of the rankings, my body doesn’t want to do it any more… and then, in a few days, I can start improving once again. You have to forget about a good race. You have to move on both when things are going well and when things are going badly. I’ve never felt the need to call on the services of a mental coach. I draw strength from other people. I’ve learned to accept phases of self-doubt, disillusionment… Failures are clearly the moments when you learn the most. I think I remember the bad races better than the good ones… 

What’s your strong point?

My physical strength. As they say, I have a very good physique, so I’m naturally well-suited to endurance sports. Then, at a psychological level, I never surrender. I’m persistent, a ‘never give up’ sort of person. I pursue things to the very end. Even when there’s no point in continuing, I still keep going… just to make the most of the slightest chance of success.
If you had to choose one value in sport that you hold dear? 
Camaraderie. We’re an individual sport that’s practiced in a team, so this duality is part of our nature. 

Do you have another passion?

I love DIY or inventing things. Making things with my hands. Fixing bikes or computers. I also love model trains. I play with them a lot with my son. With him, I’ve rediscovered the spirit of my childhood… 

And what does the support of your partner, the Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes, mean to you?

I have strong ties with my partners because we’re close. In our sport, we develop close ties with people. When we compete, we’re not cooped up but in the midst of people who have access to us. We’re not aloof. It’s the same with partners: I like to see people and talk with them. And I have long-standing partners. I think that’s important, you feel supported… We practice a very difficult sport that doesn’t get a lot of media coverage. My partners take things seriously, they’re how I make a living. What’s more, with the Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes, we’re connected to the world of work, the real world. Because, despite everything, top-level sport is a kind of bubble in which you experience extraordinary things that are nevertheless disconnected from reality. So it’s a good thing, thanks to these links and exchanges with my partners, to return to reality.

Among the different partnerships created by the Caisse d’Epargne Rhône Alpes, a “team” of about a dozen champions from the French skiing and snowboard teams, including Maurice. They proudly carry high the colors of French skiing and of their region, and form a group of hopeful contenders for winning medals in international competitions.