When Emmanuel Jonnier, a thirteen-year veteran of the French national team, announced his retirement earlier this month, it was picked up by every major news source in his home country.
But even then, it was nothing compared to the coverage his teammate, Vincent Vittoz, got two weeks prior when he announced his own retirement – which had happened at about the same time that Roberto Gal, the team’s Italian head coach, also declared that he was leaving.
For Jonnier, the loss of his teammate and coach played a part in the decision to retire, although he also said that it would have been difficult to keep the form he had in previous years (Jonnier placed 4th in the 50 k at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, which is still France’s best-ever Olympic distance result).
“With the news of the departures of Vincent Vittoz and Roberto Gal, a page is turning,” Jonnier said in a statement posted on his blog and quoted in the press. “The generation which was my own is going. It’s the right moment.”
Both Vittoz and Jonnier were born in 1975, and had spent more than a decade skiing together. In the beginning, they raced with the likes of Vladimir Smirnov, Bjoern Daehli, and Vegard Ulvang; in the end, with Marcus Hellner, Dario Cologna, and Petter Northug.
In 2007, the pair made history by putting two Frenchmen on the podium in a World Cup race for the first time. Vittoz finished second and Jonnier third behind Tobias Angerer of Germany in a 15 k skate race in Changchun, China.
While Jonnier has his country’s best Olympic result, Vittoz owns a World Championship from the continuous pursuit in Oberstdorf in 2005. Vittoz’s star rose earlier, and he has been lauded by many as the athlete who led a resurgent French team to their current success. Since 2000, Vittoz has stood on the World Cup podium 29 times, including relays, and also won a stage of the Tour de Ski.
“When I was young, someone told me, ‘why do you do cross-country skiing, a Frenchman will never make it,’” Vittoz told ski-nordique.net, a French ski news site. “That stuck with me. I am satisfied to have succeeded… in the end, I have no regrets, not even the Olympics, because I always gave all that I could.”
Throughout that decade of success, Gal was by his side.
“Roberto came to the French team after the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, so that was in the summer of 1998,” Vittoz told FIS Cross Country. “Back then French skiing was not at the level where it is now.
“We spent twelve or thirteen years together and yes, we have created a good team in a country where cross-country skiing is not the number one sport, as for example in Norway. During that time we achieved some great results such as the victory in the World Cup relay in La Clusaz in 2004… We proved the French cross-country skiers could fight with the best.”
While Vittoz joked about the state of the men’s team when Gal took over, the French weren’t actually that bad. The men had a top-20 result in each individual race they entered in the 1998 Olympics, and a different athlete led the team in each competition. However, the team finished an unimpressive 13th in the relay.
Twelve years later, Jonnier anchored the French team in the relay at the Vancouver Olympics. The team was in it until the end; Jonnier tried to secure silver by making a move to drop Martin Koukal of the Czech Republic and outrun Petter Northug of Norway, but in the end he tired and was betrayed by his slower finishing speed. He was the fourth man across the finish line, and the team considered it a disappointment – quite a change from a decade before.
“When I arrived, I didn’t think that we could have these results,” Gal told ski-nordique.net last summer. “We waited three years before Vincent had his first podium. Since then, each season it has been between six and ten.” (This is a slight exaggeration.)
On his blog, Vittoz acknowledged Gal’s years of work with the French team.
“Thank you for the thirteen years we have passed together,” he wrote. “You invested yourself 100 percent in a team that didn’t look like much at the start. In ten years, you brought much more success to French skiing than in the 50 years which came before.”
He nevertheless said that Gal’s departure did not affect his own decision.
“Before he announced his decision, I already felt that it was complicated for me,” Vittoz told ski-nordique.net. “You could have said that having a new coach and new training programs could have motivated me to continue, but I preferred to stop before becoming completely overloaded.”
Vittoz was widely quoted as saying that in January, he had lost his aggression and was no longer in his place on the World Cup circuit. His last season had ups and downs; after injuring his leg shortly before World Championships, he had a frustrating week and finished 34th in the pursuit, the event he had won four years prior. However, in Lahti, Finland a week later, he stood on the World Cup podium one final time, placing third in a 20 k pursuit.
Vittoz says he isn’t sure what he’ll do next; on April 14th, he tweeted, “future ????????????”
He has two young daughters and a farm just west of the Alps. But while a retreat from the spotlight sounds relaxing, there is speculation that Vittoz will take over as the coach of the French U23 national team.
At World Championships in Oslo, French skiing’s technical director, Fabien Saguez, noted that he would be changing the organizational structure of the team. A new sprint group will be formed, while the “B” team will consist of only U23 athletes. Technique coach Christophe Deloche will keep his job, and a new physical trainer, Patrice Paquier, has been hired.
The French federation has offered Vittoz the “B” team/U23 position, which he has yet to either accept or decline, but nobody knows who will replace Gal at the head of the program.
“I hope the new coach will understand that the French Cross-Country team is a small group of people, but that they have a big heart and can achieve great things,” Vittoz told FIS Cross Country in a recent interview.
With the rise of younger stars like Maurice Magnificat and Jean-Marc Gaillard, Jonnier and Vittoz can rest assured that they aren’t dooming their team to mediocrity as they move on, at 36 years of age, to a new life.