A superstar is born
More than halfway into the last year’s pre-season training Emilien Jacquelin felt physically spent and mentally empty. He went to see his coach Vincent Vittoz to ask for a lighter workload. Instead of what he wished for, he got what he needed: straight talk from the person who was aware of Emilien’s vast potential but also knew what competing at the highest level demands from the best: absolute dedication.
Vittoz explained, “Emilien, competing at the highest level is not for everybody. Maybe you just can’t do it." Leaving the coach's room Emilien felt it was a terrible way to speak to an athlete. He also knew his coach was telling him the truth. Jacquelin had trained for years with Martin Fourcade and saw how his close friend, teammate and one of the best biathletes of all times was extraordinarily consistent over a decade, every season, every week, every training session.
A hard learning experience
2018/2019 was Jacquelin’s first full season at the world cup level. It was a hard learning experience for a thinking young man who claims to this day that he is only truly confident on skis and with a riffle over his shoulder. Finishing ninth in the Ruhpolding sprint and in the Antholz-Anterselva mass start were his best results, rather disappointing achievements for somebody who finished fifth and sixth in the sprint and pursuit in Antholz - Anterselva in the 2017/2018 Olympic season and whose arrival at the BMW IBU World Cup level was praised by Fourcade. Still a student, Jacquelin became IBU Rookie of the Year at the end of the 2017/2018 season. He was very much looking forward to the next summer when he no longer needed to spend most of the time studying but instead became a full-time athlete.
Although Jacquelin was disappointed at the end of 2018/2019 season, he did ski 1% faster (his speed progressed from 0% to -1%) and shot 1% more accurately (his shooting accuracy improved from 80% to 81%) than the season before. He also learned biathlon’s main lesson: there are many ups and downs and your resolve is constantly tested. It is a daunting task for most. There are very, very few of those whose natural talents are supported by high work ethic, mental strength and burning ambition and for whom there is only one pain greater than the physical and mental pain: not winning.
At the beginning of the last season’s summer training Jacquelin decided that he was just too nice to everybody; too nice to his teammates with whom he was competing for the podiums and a spot on the relay team and also too nice to other competitors. He knew he needed to reposition himself on the French team and the BMW IBU World Cup as someone who will do everything in his power to challenge the best, to actually be one of them, the guy who can compete for the podium or the win every single time. He was sure his new level of commitment was enough for the highest level until Vittoz told him otherwise.
“That conversation with Vincent changed everything. I suddenly understood what Martin was telling me, how others in my team approached training, how the best in the world work,” commented Jacquelin.
Breakthrough began in Oestersund
The French team and their wax techs had one of the finest days in the season-opening individual in Oestersund, Sweden. Fourcade won, Simon Desthieux finished second, Quentin Fillon Maillet third, Jacquelin fourth and Fabien Claude seventh. Although the Norwegian wax team had its worst day of the season, the French squad demonstrated that Fourcade and everybody around him was back at full strength, ready to take on JT Boe, his brother Tarjei and their teammates. In the aftermath of that team success Jacquelin put this now already legendary post on his Instagram account: ‘Napoleon said: “Know there is never a shame to be defeated by French.”’
As the biathlon caravan moved from Oestersund to Hochfilzen, Austria, Jacquelin’s form kept rising. He finished third in the pursuit for his podium ever while also shooting his career first 20/20. His very capable body started to process and download the hard work of summer; he took these new found feelings home to France, to Annecy - Le Grand Bornand. It was in front of the home crowd that Emilien discovered a new level to his talent; in the mass start's wet and slow conditions , JT had rocket-like skis and took off from the rest of the field in the first loop. The only athlete who matched the Norwegian's power was Jacquelin. He finished second and noticed that Boe doesn’t necessary like one-on-one encounters but prefers to dominate the field on his own terms.
“In Annecy I was surprised to be as fast as Quentin or Martin in horrible conditions. Maybe for them it was luck, but for me it wasn’t. I knew I was getting very close to the very best,” Jacquelin said in the retrospect.
Overconfident (for a while)
When Trimester 2 started in Oberhof, Germany, everybody tried to position themselves anew while JT Boe took paternity leave and wasn’t coming back before Pokljuka. Jacquelin started with new podium, second place in the sprint, the first he shared with his great friend and mentor Fourcade.
“We did a race six days before going to Oberhof,” said Jacquelin. “Just the two of us. We felt really bad about our skiing form and hoped for better performance in Oberhof. To finish second and first and to share podium with Fourcade is a dream come true. Just five years ago I was just a kid who was able to train with him and I looked up to him as an idol. This gives me great confidence.”
Leading off for French relay in Oberhof, Jacquelin had a terrible standing shooting performance, clocking two penalty loops. He admitted a week later when France finally beat Norway (albeit with no JT in the squad) in Ruhpolding that he started with too much confidence in the Oberhof relay. He quickly learned that bravado, even if internal, rarely brings the desired outcome. His form dipped in Pokljuka but that was not unexpected for Jacquelin, biathlon never shows any mercy to those who are not on top of their game on competition days.
The IBU World Championships Antholz - Anterselva 2020 were highly anticipated for many reasons, but Jacquelin had his own expectations. He finished sixth in the sprint, while Fillon Maillet took silver and Fourcade bronze behind Alexander Loginov. JT finished fifth and focused on a revenge in the pursuit. In one of the great biathlon dramas JT and Jacquelin found themselves alone in the last loop, ahead of the pack, observing each other, thinking and rethinking their positions, estimating the odds, internally checking the energy reserves while the finish line kept drawing closer. Whenever JT offered Jacquelin to go ahead, the Frenchmen refused. Then JT deliberately almost stopped, forcing Jacquelin to take the lead. It was a fatal mistake by the Norwegian.
“When Johannes let me pass, something changed in my head; I understood that I can be proactive and even dictate the last few 100 meters with no fear. So my reaction was to tighten my shoes, as a sprinter does, like, “Okay, I’m ready for the fight.” So I watched him, looked back to see if he wanted to attack; I decided to attack one time, he took more speed than me at the tunnel but almost fell; I saw I am still first at the last turn before the stadium, I knew I will win. It was not my legs or my head that decided it, but the child I was. For sure, I used cycling track experience from my childhood,” later explained Jacquelin. Fourcade finished fourth in that competition, looked for Emilien, found him, hugged him and kissed him. Legacy was passed.
He built on that gold medal, won bronze in the single mixed relay with Anais Bescond, gold with the relay and bronze in the mass start. He shot with 94% accuracy in the individual competitions in Antholz and skied at -4%, his form peaked when it mattered the most.
One for the memories
As the BMW IBU World Cup edged forward in the uncertain weeks of the fast-spreading coronavirus Jacquelin kept his cool and his form. He finished second in the Nove Mesto an Morave mass start, third in the Kontiolahti sprint and third in the Kontiolahti pursuit. In the last competition of the season Fourcade started in the yellow bib and Jacquelin in red bib. At the end Fourcade won in yellow and waived goodbye, the World Cup Total Score deservingly went to JT and Jacquelin won his first ever small crystal globe for the pursuit.
But it was the photo of Fourcade leading in yellow and Jacquelin following closely in red that will forever stay as Jacquelin’s favourite souvenir.
“To tell the truth, Martin is not someone who gives a lot of advice. I think, for him, young guys like me need to improve by themselves, not with help. We’ve trained together for six years, I'm like his greatest fan since my teenage years! So you can imagine how it felt to train with him. He taught me the rigour you need at every training to be good. One day he told me: ‘In races, I set aside my pleasure; the important thing is performance.’ It was the opposite of how I was thinking. But after this year, I understand what he wanted to tell me. So, I can’t count all the days we trained together, the hard training, the good training, all the days I told myself, ‘He is crazy’, but he is the greatest biathlete. I'm really proud to have raced with him. This last race, together with the yellow and red bib, is the biggest souvenir of my career,” said Jacquelin in Kontiolahti as the curtain fell on the season.
Jacquelin will be eager to see how he compares to JT and the rest when that same curtain lifts at the start of next season.