ONE LIFE TO LIVE
A renowned Olympic champion, Marianne St-Gelais has had a long and successful career in speed skating. Officially retired since 2018, she tells us about her inspiring journey with humility and authenticity.
AN IMPORTANT STEP
In life, there are certain steps that you prepare for and expect, and others that happen by chance or for reasons beyond our control. My retirement is something that I prepared for, announced in advance, and—above all—chose to do. The people around me knew it was coming, the media was aware of it, and so was I. I listened to the signs and made my decision accordingly. I felt like I was on my last laps, and I was drawn to other projects outside my athletic career. I was very fortunate to be able to make that decision. And I experienced it well because I listened to my instinct.
LONELINESS: A QUEST FOR IDENTITY
In my life, I had never really learned to be alone. I was always surrounded in some way—by my team, my boyfriend, my family. I was a gang girl.
And then the retirement happened around the same time that I was going through a breakup, so I had to face life—especially everyday life—by myself. During that time, even though I still had my family and friends, I didn’t let them into what I was going through. My parents told me, “Come back to Saint-Félicien.” They were present and wanted to be there for me, but I firmly believed that they didn’t understand what I was going through. I needed to get in touch with myself, to master the loneliness. I remember telling myself that if I found myself sitting alone on my couch on a Saturday night, I would have achieved my goal.
So, I found myself alone with myself to rebuild my identity. Having to find what I was good at other than skating, what I was going to do then, who I was going to become, continue to be. Slowly, I signed up for a gym and met new people. But creating new relationships takes time. I also reconnected with my lifelong friends, who had gotten out of the habit of contacting me because I was often busy and rarely available. I had to get back in touch with them and pick people up. I put myself out there; I worked on myself.
On this adventure, I once again put my ability to adapt to the test. When you practise a sport at a high level, you know that when you encounter an obstacle or fall down, you have to pick yourself up and roll up your sleeves. You don’t have a choice. In the 18 years of my career, I can count the times when my coach told me, “good job, Marianne,” on my fingers. There was always something to work on, to improve. I never gave up. On the personal level, this led me to see setbacks as challenges to overcome rather than insurmountable obstacles. However, I had to revise my intensity a bit, reduce my expectations for myself. Marianne the athlete is much more intense than all the other versions of myself!
Recently, I’ve given talks at schools and businesses to tell my story and motivate people. I share my experience a little like I did when I was skating: I talk about what I do and what I experience, but always with a great deal of humility. I’ve never imposed my choices; I let people come to me and listen to me if they want to.
I’m also a part-time coach at the CRCE, the Canadian Regional Training Centre, for short track speed skating. I work with 15- and 16-year-old athletes who are ranked among the best in the world. In the long term, I would really like to continue getting involved with young people, especially teenagers. Whether they’re athletes or not, these are young people from an age group that I’m particularly fond of. It’s not easy to interact with them, but then again, that’s the challenge! I want to protect youths and keep them healthy. It’s creative and fiery, and I want to keep that flame alive.
Little by little, I explore, and I discover what interests me. I really like the communications field and the media, and I aspire to keep growing there. I’m coasting at the moment on a good reputation that won’t last forever; I’m aware of this. People still come to me, and I take advantage of that.
My journey as an athlete has taught me many things, though I didn’t realize it right away. At the time, I was living in the present, thinking about performance. It was only after, once I got away from all that, that I could take stock. In hindsight, I can admire how far I’ve come and see how lucky I’ve been, and I’m very grateful for it.