A WORLD-CLASS JOURNEY
LAKE MICHIGAN CHURNED like an angry sea early on the morning of the Chicago ITU World Triathlon Grand Final last September – cold, grey and choppy. The wind quieted just minutes before the horn sounded for the women in the 20–24 age group. But even with the calmer conditions, Séverine Bouchez didn’t have a good start and, 400 metres in, she found herself being knocked around, struggling to get ahead of the pack. At last she pulled ahead, certain she was still far behind the leaders. She couldn’t quite believe it when she made it out of the water in 9th place.
Two days earlier, Bouchez, 21, had cleaned up in the sprint at the worlds, crossing the finish line two minutes ahead of the second-place woman to defend her 2014 world title.
The icing on the cake? This time, she was the fastest woman in the entire field.
Bouchez’s goal in Chicago was double-gold. Cycling is her strong suit and, in that second race, she pedalled past the eight women who had come out ahead of her in the water.
“Then I made a beginner’s mistake,” she recalled. “I couldn’t find my place in transition, because I had my sprint race number stuck in my head.”
Despite the precious seconds lost in transition and a blister that plagued her in the run, Bouchez returned home to Quebec with two gold medals.
Séverine Bouchez discovered triathlon by accident. In 2010, at 15, she was on the sidelines watching her younger brother race, and it looked like fun. She signed up for a try-a-tri in Joliette, near her hometown of St-ambroise-de-kildare – a small farming town north of Montreal. “I caught the bug,” Bouchez said. She did not have a coach nor a training plan. “When I got up in the morning and felt like biking, off I’d go,” she said. But her solo work and her determination were enough to earn her the Coupe du Québec, the top place in her age group in 2012. A year later, just days before her 19th birthday, Bouchez was at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in London, riding a heavy aluminum road bike that was too big for her.
“It was the one they had in the store; and all I could afford,” she said. “When I bought it, I never imagined I would qualify for the world championships.”
Bouchez finished 10th in the sprint event in London. Two days later, she came fourth in the Olympic distance.
“That’s when I realized I might really have potential in triathlon,” she said. She set her sights on the 2014 Worlds in Edmonton. Bouchez competed in all three events, winning gold in the sprint, silver in the aquathon and bronze in the Olympic distance.
By then, Bouchez had a coach – and a management plan. Stéphane Clermont is a former elite cyclist turned kinesiologist. Not long before the 2013 ITU Grand Final, the manager of a local bike shop in the Lanaudière region where they both live told Clermont that Bouchez had come knocking, looking for a sponsor to help her get to London.
“It’s a hit-and-miss way of getting sponsorship, going door-to-door like that – not very efficient,” Clermont said. He had a better idea. He had just set up Totem Management, a non-profit agency modelled on B2ten, a private foundation that provides training and financial support to Canadian athletes with Olympic potential. Totem aims to help promising young athletes from Lanaudière move up in their sport.
Bouchez “fits perfectly with the philosophy of Totem, which is to offer optimal conditions for the development of athletes who would otherwise fly under the radar,” Clermont said. “We have a world champion living and training in the region, and nobody knows it. I ask potential sponsors, ‘Do you think that’s right that an athlete like Séverine is training without any help?’ They see that they have to do something.”
Bouchez’s major sponsor is Les Entreprises Réjean Goyette, a real estate developer who has set her up with a state-of-the-art gym in a new medical office block. The company also helps defray her equipment costs, training and travel expenses.
“This is an investment in the community, and there is a payoff: Look how much Séverine has improved in the past two years.”
The question now is whether Bouchez can translate her success as an age-grouper into points on the elite circuit. She’s been wedging her training into a hectic schedule as she studies occupational therapy at Laval University in Quebec City. She swims endless lengths three or four times a week in the university pool.
Unlike many elite triathletes, Bouchez has no background in swimming and although her speed and technique have improved remarkably over the past three years, she is realistic.
“In age-group racing, even if you are not an excellent swimmer, you can make up for it in the bike and the run,” Bouchez said. “But in elite racing, if you are not among the best in the water, you don’t have much chance…no matter how strong a rider you are, it’s hard to be faster than a good peloton of 20 riders riding ahead of you. It’s hard to catch up.” She intends to try. Over the Christmas break, Bouchez trained with Quebec’s U23 development team, including Emy Legault and Xavier Grenier-talavera, under Quebec provincial coach Kyla Rollinson. Rollinson agrees with Bouchez’s own assessment of her potential. “If Séverine were a chase pack swimmer, then I think she’d probably be able to finish top-10 or top-15 in the elite races,” Rollinson said. “She is just on the edge. And it’s not an easy thing to move from ‘on the edge’ to the nucleus of elite racing.”
Gwen Jorgenson is Séverine Bouchez’s role model. The 2014 and 2015 ITU World Series champion competed in one of her first international races at Coteau du Lac in Quebec in 2010, coming out of the water well back in the field and fighting her way to fifth. “Gwen Jorgensen is proof that it can be done,” Bouchez said. This month Bouchez will test her determination on the CAMTRI circuit, heading to Florida with the Quebec elite team to race in Clermont and Sarasota. Rollinson isn’t counting her out. “Séverine is very courageous. She works very hard. She wants this, and she believes in what she is doing – and that could make all the difference.”
Loreen Pindera is a producer at CBC Radio and an avid triathlete from Montreal.