Switzerland’s Simone Niggli is, without a doubt, the world’s biggest O’ star. Thierry Gueorgiou is the king of the middle distance and is on the way to dominating the men’s side. Both run for Nordic clubs and are seen every year at Sweden’s big competitions. More unknown is how their normal days look. To find out, Skogssport’s Henrik Erickson spent a week on the continent.
St Etiennes airport isn’t much more than a runway. On the big field north of the town the little terminal building looks like a lone porta-potty on an empty Oringen field. In the porta-potty we meet TG. It is always strange to meet a sports star away from the field and TG’s brown Manchester jacket is both welcome and a little surprising.
St Etienne, with about 200,000 residents is the center of French elite orienteering. Here is what in Sweden would be considered the national training group. Most of the best have gathered in St Etienne to train together. The trainer, Olivier Coupat, is employed full time to take care of the group and his salary is paid by the French Sports Ministry. He is, in other words, employed full time by the public.
“All sports in France get money from the Sports Ministry. Cycling, orienteering and gymnastics have their elite training centers in St Etienne,” explains TG who thinks this is necessary.
“We have to gather our best together to develop and learn to know each other. In France there aren’t clubs with such a high standard and so it is good that we who aim for the national team can be together.”
Together with Damien Renard, Francois Gonon and the new star Philippe Adamski, TG has excellend training opportunities around St Etienne. There are more than 50 different maps within 30 km, most are in the area of Moutn Pilat, whose summit is at 1432 meters altitude and is just 20 km from the center of St Etienne. We shall be back here.
300 km east of St Etiene, passed Lyon and across the Swiss border, and right north of the Olympic city of Lausanne sits Munsingen. Things are much quieter here than in St Etienne, even if there can be some traffic jams in the afternoon when commuters are going to or from Bern to the north of Thun to the south. The terrain around Munsingen is varied, both flat and steep. In terms of orienteering the terrain isn’t technically difficult, but the variety is good.
8000 people live in Munsingen. On Rosenweg in the north part near Muhletal, in building 10 C lives the city’s biggest celebrity, SN.
“I think everyone in town knows me now. There were a lot of people waiting for me at the train station when I returned from Japan and there was a big congratulations sign along the road. Some times it gets tiring when everyone in Munsingen knows me while I don’t know so many people,” says SN.
After 10 WOC golds in 4 years and 2 WOCs where she won everything, SN has made a name for herself in the Alpine nation.
“After the WOC in Japan in August I’ve gotten more attention than ever.”
“Right now it feels like everyone looks at me and that I’m recognized everywhere. A lot of people ask if I’m Simone Niggli and some want autographs. I’ve also noticed more recognition from other athletes.”
“A couple of weeks ago, Martina Hingis came up to me and congratulated me, talked to me like a friend, and that surprised me.”
For an orienteer to be transformed into a celebrity in a couple of years is revolutionary, even for Simone Niggli, who handles the attention in an impressively professional manner.
“The attention is fun for the most part, and everyone is kind, but sometimes I just want to be Simone when I take the train to Bern. To just be able to sit there and be anonymous would actually be nice.”
For Thierry Gueorgiou, celebrity isn’t much of a problem. Orienteering isn’t a big sport in France. “I’m getting recognized more and more here in St. Etienne, but it’s not like people in town are staring at me. We have a good soccer team here, so that’s the main focus of the local press. But I’m not complaining. I’m starting to be seen in the local papers more.”
Compared to other European countries, sports coverage overall has a rather small place in the French media. There’s not much in the way of sports on TV, unless it’s the Tour de France or Olympic Games.
“The big sports newspaper in France is called ‘L’Equipe,’ and I’d probably have to win three golds in one and the same world championship to make an impact there.”
Three? Why not four?
“To take four golds in the men’s division would be very difficult. There are a lot of men among the world’s best, as well as many who are also specialists,” Gueorgiou explains.
For winning a gold at every world championship, the flying Frenchman has to content himself with an article in the local St. Etienne paper.
As a native, he knows every street and alley in and out, and he navigates confidently between the typical French stone houses in his green Renault – the only one in France with a Jukola sticker on the trunk.
“2004 was a special event. The first time I won with Kalevan Rasti,” he explains.
In the new apartment, there are also plenty of signs that an orienteer lives there. Flags, maps and medals decorate the cabinets and walls in the otherwise sparely decorated four-room apartment on Rue Joseph Soulary.
“I moved back to St. Etienne after having lived two years in Lyon with my girlfriend. I got this apartment two weeks ago, and it’s not really done yet,” he explains.
The most important things are in place. A living room with a large sectional sofa in the corner, a projector in the ceiling and a projection screen.
“For soccer and movies. I’m interested in film and I watch a lot.”
The computer room is central for Thierry. He spends a lot of time here between workouts. The rumor that the foundation of his brilliant orienteering technique lies in hours of playing computer games is about to be confirmed or denied.
“It’s true that I play a lot of Catching Features, which is an orienteering game. I get the same feeling as being out in the woods, and there is no doubt that I’ve developed my technique here. Sometimes I play four hours a day, sometimes less.
“I’m also interested in looking at other orienteers’ website. Seeing how others prepare for a world championship can teach me a lot. I do that up until 2 months before the event – then I shut it all off and focus just on myself.”
Just like Thierry Gueorgiou, Simone Niggli has her own website. It’s easy to assume that anyone who took German in school is trying to learn a little something here. Maybe not quite as expected is the fact that Simone has the same interests as Gueorgiou, and is inspired by other runners’ websites.
“It’s fun to look at how the other girls are training and how they’re doing. I like Emma Engstrand’s site a lot.” Comparing how much she’s training spurs her on, she says. She shares the computer room, like a lot of other things, with her husband, Matthias.
“I’ve seen Emma train more hours than me, but I’ve trained more workouts than she did. Myself, I had 550 workouts in 48 weeks from the middle of November 2004 to the middle of October 2005. It’s not an extreme amount, but I train very high quality, and a large portion of that is running. We girls very seldom compete for more than 70 minutes, so I don’t see much meaning in doing longer runs, particularly now when I have a good base. As a rule, I usually train 2 or 3 hard weeks, followed by an easier one. But there’s not as much of a difference between the weeks as there should be, because I have a hard time relaxing,” Simone says, and gets a nod of agreement from Matthias.
Many of the running sessions – and it’s mostly running, without a map, during the winter – the couple does together.
“The question is if I’m up to it, now when I’m not pushing it as much,” Matthias laughs.
Map caption: Four maps in the vicinity of Muensingen, where Simone Niggli usually trains. The top left is part of the map where Simone’s “Danish loop” winds through; top right is the closest training area, Huernberg; the lower left is Blasenflue, with part of the last speed training before the world championships in Japan; and the lower right is a more technical area, Steffealp.
Horse caption: A moment of relaxation in the kitchen before the first workout of the day. The Dala horses point to Simone’s competitive success in her other homeland, Sweden.
[Other captions repeat what’s in article.]
For someone who has won 10 World Championship gold medals and totally dominated her sport in recent years, it is important to set her own performance goals. Simone has hers clear for the winter.
“I am always trying to improve myself physically, and that is one goal. I want to be perfectly prepared physically for the Danish terrain this summer. There will be short steep slopes where it will require a special strength in the legs to keep up the speed.
“I also want to improve my running style on trails. I’ve seen on TV that it doesn’t look perfect and I think there is more to accomplish in that area, perhaps nothing decisive, but this is also to give me a little motivation.”
While Simone Niggli trains alone or with Matthias, there is a lot of group training for Gueorgiou in France. The team in St. Etienne has five group trainings a week. And 3 of the 4 weekends a month they go together for weekend camps to other parts of France.
“There is a lot of training that is similar to competition, with mass starts. I’m trying the whole time to keep the others behind me. I think that it is a little like in Halden with many good ones who push each other in training.”
Thierry trains just under 700 hours per year. More than half of the hours are in the forest with a map in hand. That his technique is the reason for his successes is no secret.
“I have always been good at reading and understanding the map. Even since I was little I’ve trained a great deal of map reading. When I became a senior I realized that it wasn’t sufficient to not make mistakes, it was necessary to also go fast. Up until the WOC in Finland I always knew where I was in the forest when I competed, I was really focused on knowing exactly the whole time.”
The realization that his speed had to be increased led to a new orienteering technique that made TG famous. He is the master of simplification. On the map segment on the next page you can see how he thinks. The segment is from the WOC in Japan last summer.
“It’s a matter of still being precise but much faster. I am forced to pick out the big and important details on every leg and then run on the compass to them. Now as soon as I get a map with a leg, I see that I must pass this point and that point and then it’s full speed.”
Is it risky?
“In the beginning it felt uncertain and I was stressed to not know exactly where I was the whole time.
It’s believed that Thierry will change focus in Denmark. After three straight middle-distance golds, he’ll now try for a new title – the long distance.
“As a junior, the long distance was my best event, but during my early senior years, I felt it was easier to get good results in the middle distance, so I focused on that. In the long distance in Japan, where I was seventh, that was a big step forward, and in Denmark, the long distance is a major goal. I have three golds now and that’s enough, really, but I’ll try to run well at this distance in the world championships going forward as well.
“As it stands today, I feel completely secure in the middle distance. I’ve trained so much middle distance that I just need to go out on the world championships final and do exactly as usual. It’s a relaxed situation, but at the same time you’re full of adrenaline, since you have to be at top speed from start to finish.”
Thierry says that the combination of speed and technique makes the middle distance “the spirit of orienteering;” here is where the ultimate soul of orienteering survives. This distance that he has mastered and loves more than anything else almost changed radically in Denmark, with what came to be called micro-orienteering.
On his website, Thierry posed in a T-shirt reading “Micro sucks” and thus clearly stated his position on the matter.
“I was most against the fact the IOF wanted to have the micro at the world hampionships so quickly. It wasn’t fair for anyone, and I think it can be dangerous for a sport to change so quickly without thinking through things carefully. At the same time, I was afraid that the finest distance would be destroyed.”
With former Norwegian superstar Petter Thoresen as the new French association captain, there have naturally been a number of micro discussions at meetings. Thoresen is namely one of the drivers behind the micro project.
“He’s explained the concept and we’ve discussed it. The idea isn’t entirely uninteresting, but I think it’s better that it went as it did for Denmark, says Gueorgiou, who always wants to be ready for what’s ahead.
One example of this is his world championship notebook from 2004. The black notebook includes everything from training maps to old maps of competition areas around Västerås. The edges of the notebook are frayed, and there’s a reason for it.
“This is the most important part of my preparation before the championships,” Thierry says, as he closes the notebook.
“Before Västerås, I set exactly 1,000 different courses on the old maps to prepare myself mentally on different legs. I put the championships logo on all the maps made them exactly like competition maps to get the right feel. There’s just one world championship per year, but I run every championship race hundreds of times in my head.”
Choosing between distances has never been Simone Niggli’s thing. She runs all the events at the championships, and she competes pretty heavily between those. Despite this, she has an ability like no one else among the elite orienteers to peak before the championships.
“I have a peak training program and I always do the same thing. It’s a program I have confidence in and that’s the most important thing. I train hard up until two weeks before the championships, then I cut down on the number of workouts and weave really fast workouts with some very easy ones. Complete rest? No, I’m not very good at resting. I have no rest days before a championship.”
With her successes, Simone Niggli has created for herself a freedom that no other orienteer has, or has ever had. Since the world championships in Japan, a number of companies have called and asked to work with her, so being a pro is no problem for Niggli today.
“We’re not getting rich, but we live well and can save a little. It’s about the same income today as if we were both working fulltime with the educations Matthias and I have,” says Simone, who’s also never bored as a professional orienteer.
“I used to think, just as many of the Swedes used to think, that I couldn’t only orienteer. It’s different today. My successes have made it so I’m always busy, there’s always something going on. It could be an activity with a sponsor, autograph sessions at a shopping center or store, something with the media, or the orienteering association.
“In Ulricehamn, I work a bit with the orienteering high school. In Sweden, there’s a lot more free time, so except for the hours at the school, I can concentrate totally on training and competing. Having this period with some peace and quiet and good training during the spring is very important for me.”
Simone Niggli signed on with Ulricehamn in 2003. In order to prepare herself for the world championships in Vasteras, she wanted to live in Sweden for a longer period. It ended up being more than that.
“We liked it so much in Ulricehamn that we wanted to come back, and the plan now is to live there during the spring and do a lot of training orienteering technique, and at the same time compete in the elite series and the big relays with Ulricehamn.”
With a new 3-year contract with the club, there will certainly be more trips to Sweden.
“In the beginning, we thought we should live in Ulricehamn for a year, but after 2004, it started to also feel like home. So we’ll move up there in March and stay until the middle of June this year. Then we’ll come back for the Swedish championship week in the fall.”
Thierry Gueorgiou gets offers from elite Swedish clubs every year. It’s flattering, of course, but Thierry has let it be known that he has no plans of leaving Kalevan Rasti.
“I think I’d make more money with a Swedish club, but the camaraderie, the coaches and everything about Kalevan Rasti just can’t be replaced.”
He praises Börje Vartiainen, Kalevan Rasti’s main leader, and says that there may be teams that are better on paper, but that Kalevan’s commitment and willingness to fight for one another leads them to victories. A little like what’s starting to happen in the French national team, which is well under way.
“We’ve all learned a lot from the Nordic clubs. We can bring that knowledge back here to France and choose among the best of that before adding our own details.”
Those details have a lot to do with map exercises for Thierry and the gang in St. Etienne. The ice-cold Tuesday training session in the park Le Jardin des Plantes, just a stone’s throw from Thierry’s house, is both impressive and a little odd.
Olivier Coupat runs the workout like a soccer coach, and on the track in the lower part of the park, 10 elite orienteers are doing bounding and strength exercises mixed with stretching. Even though we’re in France, land of freedom, your thoughts go unbidden to Eastern Europe -- not that that is necessarily a negative thing.
The runners are divided into three groups. One does bounding drills, another balance exercises and the third strength, in a circuit format. During each 15-second period per circuit, they have to look at a map, a detailed Norwegian map with a course on it. When they get to the strength station, Coupat is there with an assignment: If there’s a stone at control number 2, without looking at the map again, the runners have to decide whether it’s to the left or right of the actual control point.
“We don’t have so much detailed terrain here around St. Etienne so this is good for learning to read many details around the circle,” explains Gueorgiou.
“To keep up to the Scandinavians and Swiss we must be better than them technically. Therefore the map is almost always present in some way in our training,” says Olivier Coupat.
In Münsingen, after the Danish loop and a “Norwegian” lunch, mostly bread, it is strength training for Simone who takes the bicycle to Highlight Fitness Center. Simone devotes a lot of time to strength training and she does quite a lot with weights.
“I have a special program developed for me which fits orienteering. It will make me stronger in the forest,” she explains before a warm-up on the bike trainer.
Ten minutes on the bike followed by stomach exercises followed by a sort of lunging step on one leg with heavy weights on the shoulders. When one of the gym’s instructors forces me into a vibrating machine that feels far too much like a TV-shop we leave Simone who has to do the rest of the training session alone.
“This is about how my days are during winter,” says Simone after she has biked back home. “I get up about 7:30, respond to e-mail and letters from fans and do other desk work until the midday training. After training is lunch and a little rest, but I never sleep during the day. Then I just get more tired. Then I train in the afternoon and eat dinner.”
After two years as full-time orienteer TG is back at university in St. Etienne since the summer for the last push before he can call himself a biologist. A title that Simone Niggli already has, by the way. Thierry has focused on ecology and animal life hopes after the exam for a job in a national park. Preferably someplace where there are good training possibilities. When Gueorgiou reports on his normal day, there is much that is like Simone’s.
“Most days there are 3-4 hours of studies, most often in the morning. In the morning I’ve already run, cycled, or swum about an hour. After lunch at noon, I need a nap when I train twice per day. In the afternoon I sit in front of the computer, if I don’t study, and around 5pm or 6pm in the evening, we have group training. In the evening, I rest or watch a movie.
When Skogssport was visiting Thierry invited us on a tour up on Mount Pilat. First to a huge ravine with a dam that could be from a James Bond movie where there is lots of running on small woods roads. Then past the village Le Besset and up towards the top where most of the maps are.
“We are going to have night orienteering here tonight,” says Thierry and points to a small meadow.
This is just before we are swallowed up by the fog and the light snow, and the snow cover gets deeper and deeper.
“It’s not usually like this in November. Hopefully it will disappear soon.”
On the way down from the mountain we talk about Swedish orienteering. Guerrgiou thinks that there are many good runners but it is difficult to get on the national team and get experience. He also thinks the Sweden may find it difficult in the continental terrain in the coming years. To have become a model for Swedish and other Scandinavian orienteers is a little of a reversal for a Frenchman whose greatest idols for a long time have been Kent Olsson and Petter Thoresen.
“We lived in the same place as the Swedes in Japan and one evening Göran Andersson came and asked if I could draw in my route choices from the middle qualifier. I understood that they wanted to know how I had run so they could analyse it for themselves. For me it was no problem to share but it occurred to me that I could have draw in something completely different and then the Swedes would have done that in the final,” says Thierry laughing, who has no doubts in today’s elite orienteering despite the fact that he analyses everything that there is to analyse.
“On the starting line in a WOC I often know how it is going to look out in the forest. I am so prepared that there are no surprises. Everyone knows so much and the advance work is to learn as many details as possible. It is a little boring in fact. In Switzerland in the middle distance there were surprising parts and it was the best course I have run in a championships.”
There are many similarities between TG and SN. Perfectionists where it concerns training, planning, and preparations and a total devotion to and passion for orienteering. The differences are mostly in the training methods. In France the total focus is on the map, in Switzerland it is more the physical.
The end of the week offered a proof that everything can’t always be planned, not even for Simone Niggli. Booked for an autograph hour at a computer company, Simone, Matthias, and the photographer and I arrived at a hotel in Muri, south of Bern. Into the elevator from the parking garage and up two floors. 20 seconds later we stood in the center of a half-circle of almost 100 guests who were looking at us. Another 20 seconds later Simone is kicking a soccer ball with two players from FC Thun and then there was lunch. Simone dealt with even the unexpected in the best way. Perhaps that is what is called professionalism.