Living in France for the past year, and with ski racing never far from my mind, I was interested in learning more about the athletes and system here, particularly for the women. While the French men’s team is a force to be reckoned with, both in sprinting and distance, results, or even athletes, on the women’s side are sparse. For example, at the Oberstdorf World Championships in Germany this past season, the French men’s relay team finished third while on the women’s side they did not field a team. To begin my investigation, I reached out to Delphine Claudel, the sole member of the A Team on the women’s side representing France during the 2020/21 season and an athlete steadily gaining success.
Claudel’s first full World Cup season was 2018/19 and she finished the year ranked 69th overall and 53rd in the distance standings. That same season, she posted three top-ten finishes at U23 Championships in Lahti, Finland. The next season (2019/20), Claudel was 32nd in the overall World Cup standings and 26th in the distance at the season’s end. This year, she improved yet again, finishing 26th overall and 23rd in the distance ranking. In addition, she scored three top-ten finishes this season, including a podium in the notorious Alpe Cermis hill-climb, the final stage of the Tour de Ski.
Claudel was gracious enough to respond to my elementary-level French emails and the following interview has been translated.
Faster Skier: Can you give us a little background on yourself? How did you start skiing and what made you want to pursue competition at the highest level?
Delphine Claudel: I started cross-country skiing when I was 10 years old thanks to school friends who convinced me to come and try. I immediately liked the atmosphere, the fact of being outside, of having fun on the skis, so I stayed and I joined the ski club in my town. As the years went by, I continued to enjoy cross-country skiing. I stopped other athletics, which I had been practicing for a long time, to go to a middle-school with a ski section. I started to do national competitions. I joined a high school with a cross-country skiing development center and I got a taste of international competitions. My results were good and I joined the French team. I have always loved sports and have always imagined myself playing sports. I have devoted myself fully to this since and I love it.
FS: You joined “L’Armée de Champions” (part of the French military) this past October, can you explain a little what that means?
DC: The Army of Champions is a turning point in my life as a high level athlete. The army is my biggest support to date. This allows me to practice my sport 100% while being paid. Before I practiced my sport but could not live fully off it, now it is the case. I am part of the army as a top athlete. I represent their values and France in my competitions.
FS: Despite all the challenges with COVID, you had a strong season this year, including your first podium finish and three top-ten results, can you talk a little bit about that success?
DC: The 2020-2021 season is for me the most beautiful that I have done so far in my career. Despite the health crisis, our world cup circuit could be organized. Thanks to that we were able to have a season full of competitions. I was able to express myself as I wanted and I won my first podium in the World Cup, on a legendary stage of the Tour de Ski. I am very proud of this performance and also of my great places in the top 10. I particularly remember my 7th place at the Oberstdorf World Championships in skiathlon which allowed me to really achieve the level I had produced. My training and my willingness paid off this season, psychological barriers have broken down. A new season will start. I leave [last season] motivated and I am convinced that I can get even better results.
FS: You were the only woman named to the 2020/21 women’s A Team for L’equipe de France and the only woman representing France at many of the World Cups this season, is that ever challenging? Especially travelling and being on the road for longer periods of time?
DC: Unfortunately, the season has been complicated for our women’s team because of the coronavirus pandemic and some injuries. I have been alone a lot for these reasons. I am fortunate to have a coach who listens and allows me to feel at ease and relaxed in competitions. The men’s team is great with me too so I managed to have some fun with them. Now the goal is to build a stronger female team because the competition that we can create between us can only be beneficial for the whole team.
FS: As the next training year starts and you look towards the upcoming season, what are some of your goals and aspirations for this year?
DC: This season all eyes and goals are fixed on the Beijing Olympics. Two distance races give me great desire and I will prepare myself as best as possible to reach the best possible places. I have shown great things, I will now train to show very great things. However, I do not forget all the competitions besides this big event. The Tour de Ski is a concept that I particularly like. It is a demanding week which requires a lot of seriousness and which puts forward the complete athletes. The stages are all great and the last event particularly pleases me. In addition, other great World Cup stages will take place, like the one organized in France at Prémanon (tentatively slated for January 15-16, 2022). It is a chance to be able to host the circuit on our home soil. Hoping that our families and friends can come and encourage us, this is all the more motivating, but I take the days one by one to build a solid preparation. Above all, I want to have fun doing what I do and winter is still far away. For the rest, nothing is fixed, we will see over time.
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Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.