Note: The following interview with retired biathlete Audrey Vaillancourt was conducted in French and translated to English. For French version, click here.
A year ago, in May of 2016, Canadian biathlete Audrey Vaillancourt announced her retirement in a blog post titled, ‘The end of a great adventure’. Having spent 12 years — nearly half of her life — racing in a sport she’s still very much passionate about, the decision to call it quits came at 24 years old, and was not an easy one to make.
For Vaillancourt (who has the same last name as her mother), it all started on skis at age 6 as she tried to catch her older brothers Maxime and François Leboeuf, both former members of Biathlon Canada’s national team themselves who stepped away from the sport at 29 and 24, respectively. Fueled by active parents, Carmen and Pierre, cross-country skiing started as the central sport in the Leboeuf family, and quickly, the rumour of a brilliant trio of young ski racers from Val Bélair began to spread across the province of Quebec.
At 12, Vaillancourt once again followed her brothers’ footsteps and gave biathlon a try. An instant love for shooting — and a natural knack for it — immediately followed, and she was hooked right then and there.
“It was so fun and different. The shooting presented a new challenge, and it really makes biathlon races much more exciting than cross-country skiing, in my opinion,” Vaillancourt said in January on the phone from her home in Quebec City. “A race can totally change in 30 seconds; it’s crazy.”
She joined the Courcelette Biathlon Club, founded 30 years ago, and trained close to home at the Myriam Bédard Biathlon Centre — the only training centre of its kind in Quebec — located on the Valcartier military base. That’s where she perfected her shooting skills, first training three days a week in high school, then gradually expanding that to six morning sessions a week when she began her CEGEP (Collège d’Enseignement Général et Professionnel) studies. Olympian Jean Paquet was her first coach, then she spent the rest of her career working with Martin Tremblay, Biathlon Team Quebec’s head coach.
At 16, she was named to Canada’s national junior team, which brought her to Canmore, Alberta. While training amongst the country’s best meant a natural progression in her athletic career and the lustrous prospect of racing on European soil, it also came with a few unexpected hardships, she explained.
“At the time, I was the only French-speaking athlete on the team. I never fully blended in when I was in Alberta,” she said. “Canmore is a small city that revolves a lot around training, sports and performance. I felt so far from family and friends. Even though I was all in for training and racing, the traveling back and forth from Quebec to Canmore was challenging.”
She added that she enjoyed visiting different cities in Europe (Antholz, Italy, was her favourite) and competing in front of tens of thousands of fans. Vaillancourt competed at 2013 and 2015 World Championships before retiring last spring.
“In my final year as a senior, being so often away from home really influenced my decision of leaving the sport,” she said.
With countless podiums in national races, the three-time Canadian national champion reached the peak of her career in 2014, when she won the 15-kilometre individual at Open European Championships in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
“It was unreal, I will forever remember that day,” she said. “But I think the overall experience of training year-round with the squad, our training camps, the fun I had with my teammates, all that which surrounds racing, actually is what I’ll remember the most. I was so in love with training at the time. That ranks first in my memory … aside from Nove Mesto.”
Her podium at 2009 Youth World Championships was another important stepping stone. In front of a home crowd in Canmore, she took third in the 6 k sprint.
Looking back on 12 years of racing, Vaillancourt said she had no regrets.
“I really feel I gave it my all. Sure, qualifying for the Olympics would of been awesome, but it became evident that to get there meant sacrificing a lot, too much for me anyway. The cons outweighed the pros in the end,” she said.
The decision to retire from competition came gradually during the 2015/2016 season. Disappointing results weren’t solely to blame.
“What can I say, I just wasn’t in it anymore, physically and mentally. I was totally drained,” she explained. “Despite some few good results, things never improved during that season. It was clear I was on my way out.”
While the prospect of retiring at age 24 was hard to swallow, it came with great relief, she said. Having a goal to focus on after biathlon was “absolutely necessary,” she said, and made the transition a lot smoother.
“I understand why some athletes fall into depression after retirement. I really get it,” Vaillancourt said. “You need to prepare yourself, make plans, fill your life with projects. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into limbo.”
Just last month, she completed her degree in translation at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR). She now works at Sematos Translation in Québec City and has remained involved in biathlon as a coach at Courcelette Biathlon Club and Biathlon Mauricie Club. And seven months ago, she became involved in a new project her brother Maxime founded called “Unis pour le sport” (United for Sport).
“This project is an effort to help athletes achieve specific goals regarding racing, training, technique in various sports, ranging from cross-country skiing and biathlon to obstacle-course racing and running,” she explained. “We already sense a strong demand for such services across the province.”
Most recently, the website published an example of a personalized training plan for runners.
“Things are going well,” Vaillancourt wrote in an email last month.