Charlotte Lembach – « Charlotte and me »
I don’t remember much of my life without fencing. As far as I can remember, I have always worn the mask. I was 6 when I started at the Strasbourg Université Club. It even became my job at 17 when I joined INSEP in 2005.
I’m kind of a selfless person, doing my best for others and putting “us” before myself. Working for the team is my true nature, should Charlotte only come next.
That’s why I have often wondered whether I was doing it right, am I enough of this or that, how much do I bring the team? And when you give that much to the team and ask yourself that many questions, the idea of quitting comes back and forth.
It turned my life upside down and my projects. I can’t blame you, you probably weren’t aware of my intention to quit after the summer games. You get it, quitting did cross my mind quite a few times.
Back in 2013, I had already considered giving up the mask. Zero medals between 2010 and 2013. Several messed up years without winning anything made it hard for one of the best nations in the world.
In September 2013, when Jean Philippe Daurelle and his staff took over the national team, French sabre was not doing too well, to say the least.
From there on, and without seeing it coming, it got crazy. In 2014, we reached the podium 3 times individually, and ended up European and World runner-ups with the French team.
Stopping was no longer an option. We kept hitting podiums. We were in the process of building something, but it wasn’t gold. We told each other gold would be for Rio. That was our goal.
In the year before the Olympics, we were getting stronger, hitting podiums, bronze, silver and gold, both singles and teams. We got to Rio with a nice outsider status. I started believing my dream could come true there if I got myself a medal. I could easily put a cap on it and start my second life.
We were fully pumped up for the quarter finals against Italy. But what was supposed to happen actually didn’t. We got thrashed, and just like that the Olympics were over for us. It still remains today the biggest desillusion in my career.
I felt like ending it. Again. I know what you are thinking and I can’t prove you wrong, I was telling myself the same “why bother any longer Charlotte?”
This defeat did hurt, both me and the team. We were having a hard time putting words on it, including myself. I felt like giving up, sick of suffering, sick of putting myself after the rest of them.
I didn’t feel like fencing anymore, I actually didn’t know what I needed.
The hardest part in life is to find your way, and understand why and for whom you do what you do. At this point in my career, I couldn’t say. I was under the impression fencing was just a burden on my shoulders, just like the one you carry when you feel compelled to do what is expected from you.
Prior to my comeback, we went through a lot of discussions with my coaches, I did set conditions to it because I felt like I needed space on the side to thrive: I wanted to go and work for a company. Just like you would need a break from your job when it made you anxious, I needed that break.
Contract granted, I was going to work for a company two days a week. It helped me escape, focus on myself, share but most importantly, learn.
I found out sport and professional worlds were very much alike and I loved it. When I was off to training, I was going hard because I was in need of something, I was hungry.
2018 World championships in Wuxi started. We drew Iran for our first round, which could qualify as an easy pick, but strangely enough, everyone was very tense on the runway.
Faces were closed, a lot of yelling was going on. Some of us were crying and it was a very close win. We decided to have a talk with the staff. I don’t think they expected it when we threw at their faces “let’s have some smiles and positiveness, enough with the funeral faces!”
But the message seemed to get to them, the next morning at breakfast we were facing kids. It was all about jokes, laughters, everything to put ourselves in the best conditions. Throughout the day, rounds were tight, but we felt like a real team was building up. China then South Korea in semi finals. We were getting tired, I thought my fencing wasn’t at its best, and that I wasn’t making the right decisions. I went to see the coaches: Caroline Queroli had to replace me for the final. I felt like I was going to screw it up. I had waited on this gold medal for too long to screw it up. Like I said before, us before me, always. Coaches were on the same page, I wasn’t the only one to have felt this way.
I told Caro: “get ready, you’re in next. You are going to strike and make it. Your turn”.
Of course she kind of freaked out when I told her, but when she had to strike, she put in the work just like she had to. Cecilia Barder came in next to play her closing part. And she nailed it. She carried out the last strike. 45-35. I can still picture her removing her mask, and scream “WE ARE WORLD CHAMPIONS!”
Everyone on the track was screaming, it was like one big zoo.
4 in the morning, we hardly had a minute to relish and it was already time to go home. We got back to Paris unnoticed, no news media looking for us, already too busy covering the French football team World cup winners and the Tour de France. We just went home incognito. For the first time in my career, I wasn’t questioning myself about quitting. This time “why do you go on Charlotte” just made me realize this was only a step. The goal was Tokyo.
Two weeks later, it was all behind us.
In september a new term started at INSEP, and we were greeted with something like “alright, you are world champions but take it easy ok?! »
Let’s put is this way: the message didn’t go through too well within the team. We anonymous world champions did not appreciate the wording. Thinking back on it, I know the coach didn’t mean any harm, he probably even tried to protect us.
Rio had been a massive failure and he was probably concerned we might let loose, but back then we sure didn’t appreciate the message.
At least it was clear to me, no way I was stopping before I had reached my dream, the olympic medal. In the back of my mind, I ticked 1st of August 2020, with a view to retiring after the team sabre final in Tokyo.
November, January, February, April. Four World cups, four wins. Last May in Tunis, we participated in the Olympic games qualifier. The previous day, I finished 3rd in singles. In the evening, I was called in for doping control, and the least we could say was that they sucked. Real champs. They managed to break my samples so I had to do it over again. Even in normal times it takes forever. I was off to bed at 1am, dead beat.
The following morning nothing went as expected, and for the first qualifying world cup, we ranked 5th, nothing crazy. We felt some kind of pressure working its way back in the team as well as a reminiscence of past times.
I started questioning myself a lot, I wasn’t satisfied with my level, I did my best to bring some oxygen to the team but was not at the expected level – you know me well enough by now, I tend to overthink it, and self-confidence takes a hit.
Our team bronze medal at the European championship in Düsseldorf a few weeks later did not help release the tension.
I met the team again in Forges-les-Eaux for a training camp with an awkward state of mind. The positive part of this camp was that for the fist time in a while we regrouped with all the other type of swords (épée and fleuret). And yet this feeling was still with me, of not being totally freed from that burden. Remember that burden I used to carry, on my shoulders. Of not being yourself and having to please everyone. It was still there.
This is when I decided to finally do something I had been debating for a while: I went to see our mental coach Stephane Limouzin. The results were stunning: I cried for an hour and a half. I ended up talking about stuff I had never mentioned to anyone, heavy stuff that went way back. Relations within the group, with the coaches, how we communicated, jealousies among athletes, and most importantly that self-confidence, that goddamn self-confidence. Every single bit in my mind that made me feel guilty for even thinking about it. Everything I had pushed down and didn’t want to tackle. I felt overwhelmed but relieved, a little confused but with a much lighter mind.
Off to Budapest for the World championships in higher spirits. All good and everything, except I couldn’t figure out what to do with all of this. On the fencing side, I did not feel the effects straight away as I failed and got kicked out after the second round of singles.
So I went back to see him and he gave me exercises to do. Why did I do that? He made me stand in front of a mirror and picture myself talking to … Charlotte 2. I can tell you’re making fun of me. I was supposed to tell her “you shut the fuck up!”
I was sharing a room with Cecilia, and was wondering how crazy she’d think I am. So I started muttering it, but that was not the plan. What was needed was for me to tell this other person to shut the hell up and stop being harmful.
I had to scream it and let her know who the boss was “yes you’re strong, you are a strong woman”. At first I felt like in the movie Cool Runnings, when the guy talks to himself to gain confidence. I was laughing on my own, I felt stupid. Then I actually did it. I yelled. I told Charlotte to shut her mouth, to stop devaluating herself, and show how strong she was.
I did wait until Cecilia left for physical therapy though…
A few days later, it was time for team games. I was striking like never before. Combative, committed, agressive. I was on fire. I had never seen her strike like that, “she” was so focused. By “her” I meant Charlotte, well Charlotte 2 in fact – the infamous -, the one I didn’t know of. She was there but I wasn’t acknowleding it. Today, I accept the coexistence of the two Charlottes. I allow myself to be both.
We finished runner ups with the team, we lost the final but I was proud of myself and so proud of the team. Waouh. What a feeling. “Proud of myself”. I couldn’t even remember allowing myself to feel this way, but all things considered, it felt pretty good.
The loss aside, we knew the goal was to be Olympic champions, and the timing was good for the qualification. Like in 2018, we got back to Paris anonymously with our silver medal.
A few months later, we got to the final stretch for the qualification, with the world cup in Salt Lake City. We entered a room and on the board was written “Victory in Salt Lake City”. That was the spirit, positive vibes.
The day before, Cecilia and I had lost in singles, and Manon had ended up 3rd. Which left us quite fresh. Still, despite what we had told ourselves, the Iranian episode from five years back in China happened again.
Everyone was stressed out, staff was under pressure. We drew Tunisia, which was nothing even close to a “big” nation, and yet again we got in trouble. Another fiery argument later and we followed through and won.
“Victory in Salt Lake City”. As if we really had to be close to drowning to make it through and win.
At the Montreal Grand prix last January, coaches wanted to make me try new things. I didn’t feel like it, except now I was capable of sticking to my ideas when I believed I was right.
That was definitely the Stephane Limouzin effect here.
I did call my mental coach on that occasion, who told me “tomorrow is all yours, it’s all about you, you go hard and show everyone you are above”
The next day I did go hard but lost in the semis to a stronger opposition. Good news was this time the mind didn’t fail me.
On March 8 we were in Athens. Coronavirus was already a big thing throughout the world. We needed to reach the quarter finals to confirm our ticket to the Olympics. Done deal, we will be going to the Tokyo games. You might be thinking what a weird reaction we had, I know I did. No joy, no thrill, not even any relief.
We got back in Paris only to learn every single competition was cancelled until further notice. On March 13th, INSEP was shut down, for an initial 15 days. We all went home, feeling fuzzy. Everyone started getting organized to prep at home.
On March 23rd the first rumours of the games being postponed started spreading. The next day, it was made official, the Olympic games were being postponed to July 2021.
On March 24, after 7 days of containment, we learned the Tokyo Olympics were being postponed to 2021.
I was set to retire on August 1, 2020 at 23:58 after the team sabre final. With my gold medal around the neck.
On August 1 at 23:58 I was going to switch to that new life of mine. Start travelling just for fun, discover new cultures, finally taking my time. I was not going to stay locked up anymore for a few weeks straight in a gymnasium in Wuxi, Tunis or Budapest, like I had been doing for 15 years.
I was going to have a child and start a family. Work, pass on and share everything high-performance sport had brought me in 15 years.
Tears were shed on that 24th of March. Disappointment was so deep. Losing control over everything I had fought so hard to learn. Making decisions for myself.
Stopping in 2020 meant starting this new life, to have a child, travelling, and why not get back into it in 2022 to prepare the games in Paris, for the big show, with you.
Charlotte 2 has dried her tears to pick her mask and sabre again. In 2021, we will be in Tokyo to grab the gold.
After that, it will be up to me to decide.
French international, fencer at Strasbourg Université Club
Vice World Champion (By teams)
World Champion (By teams)
Vice-European Champion (By teams)
Vice-European Champion (By teams)
European Vice-Champion (Individual)
Vice World Champion (By teams)
Vice-European Champion (By teams)