In conversation with world champion kayaker, Manon Hostens

What makes an elite athlete? World champion kayaker Manon Hostens reveals a few secrets in this interview.

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This month, 25-year-old kayaking champion Manon Hostens, from the Dordogne, should have been in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Games – but they have been postponed for a year due to the Covid-19 outbreak. She is one of France’s hopefuls for a medal in the kayak sprint events. She has been wild water kayaking World Champion eight times and was European Sprint Champion in a two-seat kayak in 2018. She was part of the French Olympic team at Rio in 2016.

Tell us about your chosen sport

I love being outdoors, close to the water and nature. On the water I feel privileged to discover hidden and amazing landscapes you can only see from a boat. In the sprint races I love the speed and the sensation of jumping and sliding along the top of the water. In the wild water competitions, I adore being in the river, the waves and the rocks and that rush of adrenaline. It is a sport with lots of positive values which takes place in nature and is very aware of the need to look after the environment.

What are the different sports in the canoe world?

First we have to distinguish between kayaking and canoeing. Kayaking comes from the Inuit people. When we kayak we are in a seated position and we paddle on both sides with a two-blade paddle. Canoeing comes from Native American Indians and we have a one-blade paddle, are on our knees and paddle on one side only.

There are several disciplines. Two are classified as Olympic sports. These are slalom and sprint in both canoe and kayak categories. For the sprint there are distances of 200m, 500m and 1,000m for one or two canoeists and one, two or four kayakers.

Other disciplines include wild water, which are races on open rivers; marathons when the official competition length is up to 30km but there are several which are longer; canoe ocean racing, where the fastest type is surf ski; freestyle where competitors score points for tricks; extreme canoe slalom and canoe polo.

How did you discover the sport?

In 2000, my brother saw French canoe champion Tony Estanguet win gold in slalom canoe at the Olympic Games at Sydney and he really wanted to have a go. We moved to the Dordogne shortly afterwards, where there was a nearby canoe club and as he had not yet made any friends and didn’t want to go on his own, I had to go with him, even though I didn’t want to. But as soon as I got in a boat and had a paddle in my hands, it felt right. The club was at Castelnaud, near La Roque-Gageac with its village climbing up into the cliffs and I really fell in love with the landscape and canoeing.

Do you come from a sporting family?

No. My mother likes to keep fit and my father loves running but they have never been interested in entering competitions. But I have always been very competitive and liked being active and did a lot of sport at school. I was in the basketball club and played matches every weekend and did a lot of cross-country running. Gradually I began entering kayak events.

After collège, I went to a lycée in Pau for sports enthusiasts where I was able to train seven times a week. My parents always said to me that I could only continue canoeing if I had good marks in school. At the time I complained but now I am grateful to them for having pushed me to work hard at my studies. In my last year in lycée, I was accepted at the Pôle de France at Toulouse for promising sports students. I only had lessons in the mornings and 15 hours of training per week.

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Do you think the French education system is a good one for young sports people?

It is very good because we are able to get professional qualifications so we have job prospects as well as our sporting careers. We are very well supported. I had always wanted to be a physiotherapist as well as a sportswoman and because I was still at Pôle France and training for the Rio Olympics I was allowed to spread my final year of physiotherapy over two years so I could fit it in.

Have you been able to practise as a physiotherapist?

I spent one year working but it took too much time and so for the moment I am concentrating entirely on kayaking. As there is no prize money in my sport and you are not paid to be a member of a team I have to rely on for financial support from local authorities and sponsors.

The Dordogne Department give me a grant and have helped me to find sponsors. The Region and the town of Périgueux, where I now have my licence, also give me grants. The Olympic Committee has a budget for people who they think could be medal winners and as I am in that category, they help out too. All of that helps me to make ends meet. It covers my rent, allows me to go on courses and train, and gives me a basic salary. You get money from the State if you are World Champion but only around €2,000. It’s nothing like being a footballer!

What skills do you need to be a canoeist/kayaker?

It depends on the discipline. In the wild water events you have to have navigation skills, meaning you have to know how to use the water so that you are helped by the currents. You also have to be very strong and have excellent co-ordination. For all the events you need strong arms because you depend on them to propel you forward and you need technique. You have to really know how to use the paddle in the water.

What is a typical day for you?

I get up at 7.30am. I have breakfast and then I activate my body by stretching and exercising. The first session of the day will usually be in a kayak, and that will be followed by a jog before lunch. We will have a rest and then do muscle-building exercises and we will go back on the water in the evening.

Not every day is like that as during a week we have three half recovery days when we rest. It means we train in total for between 20 and 25 hours a week, but that is without counting time for stretching and waking up the body and all our physiotherapy sessions.

I am still at Pôle France in Toulouse, as I am in the French national team, and we work in groups. We also go away for courses, because not all the canoeists and kayakers are in the same town. My events in the Olympics will be solo, in a boat for two and in a boat for four so I have to be able to train with my other teammates.

Is it still more of a man’s sport than a women’s sport?

Yes. The Tokyo Olympics will be the first time when there will be the same amount of medal events for women as for men. For many years, it was said that the canoe position on your knees could create spinal and pelvic deformations which could make it difficult for woman to give birth later on. This was absolutely not true, but it was a macho sport and it is only recently that things have changed.

You must be incredibly fit. But are there times when you are tired?

Yes, and that is why we have intensive training periods and periods when we do less so as to have time to recuperate. Our physical state is closely monitored. Diet is very important. We need to eat enough to compensate for our physical effort, so we have to make sure we take in enough protein, carbohydrates, fibre and good fats. A car needs just the right amount of petrol to function well and so do we. If you put chip oil in a Formula One sports car, it won’t work properly.

How did you find the confinement period? It must have been difficult as you could not even go on the river with your kayak.

I spent it at home with my younger sister and my parents in the Dordogne. I missed going on the water as usually I go at least once a day. I continued exercising to keep up my muscle strength. My father built me a homemade rowing machine from materials he had in his garage which helped. It was very worrying and frustrating when we knew that in other countries sportsmen and women could go on the water. On the positive side it was interesting to train in a different way and it was really good to spend time with my family who I don’t see very often.

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Are you frustrated that you are not in Tokyo this July?

It is frustrating but it is better that it has been postponed because the period leading up to the Games is always a difficult time and we could not have trained in the right conditions. Now we have time to build on what we have already learnt to be really ready for next year.

You have already taken part in the Olympics in 2016. What was it like?

You always dream of being in the Olympics and when you are there it is exceptional. It is amazing seeing all the other great sports icons. I remember going for breakfast one day and seeing Usain Bolt dancing to music on his balcony, putting on a little show. It is like being in a parallel world and it’s really amazing. The games are on television and that is something we are not used to in our sport.

You do not have the normal life of a 25-year-old. Does that matter to you?

Sometimes friends ask me to join them for a party, and I have to say no, because I have to train the next day. But I am lucky to take part in events such as the World Championships and the Olympics. Last winter I trained in Australia and I would not have been able to visit so many countries if I was not a sportswoman, so I don’t think about what I have missed, but enjoy what I have been able to experience. I have been extremely fortunate.

Is France a good country for canoeing and kayaking?

In slalom, yes. We have often won medals in the Olympics. But fewer in sprint events. We are very lucky to have so many rivers and such a long coastline so there are plenty of opportunities for canoeing and kayaking.

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Is it a well-known sport?

Leisure canoeing is very popular and during the summer lots of people hire canoes for trips down the river, particularly in the Var, the Ardèche and the Dordogne. But it is less well known as a competitive sport. It is why the Olympics is really important for us. Lots of people do judo because France has had lots of champions, so if we win more medals young people might want to take up canoeing and kayaking just like my brother after he saw Tony Estanguet on the television.

Do you love what you do?

Yes, for sure. I am looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics and then my dream is to go to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

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