From basketball hopeful to track cycling champ: the incredible story of Mathilde Gros
Mathilde Gros' dream was to become a basketball player.
But one day, five years ago, this tall blond teenager from Southern France discovered her incredible talent for cycling. By accident.
They brought a Wattbike to her school and couldn't believe the power she had in her legs, so much so that they thought the bike was broken.
When they made her do the test again on another bike and she repeated the numbers, Gros was recruited by France's track cycling team at the prestigious INSEP (the national centre of excellence in sports), moving from Aix-en-Provence to Paris.
The 19-year-old has never looked back since.
She's now considered one of the most talented young Europeans in track cycling and, in general, one of France's poster athletes for Paris 2024.
After a successful junior career, Gros has already won several senior titles, including European gold in keirin (2018) and a sprint bronze medal at the 2019 UCI track world championships in Pruszkow, Poland.
She added another gold medal on Friday evening at the U23 European track cycling championships in Ghent.
We met Mathilde in Minsk during the 2019 European Games, where she claimed silver in the individual sprint event.
She spoke to Olympic Channel about her beginnings, her love for Japan and how she overcame fear.
Olympic Channel: Can you tell us how you took up track cycling?
Mathilde Gros: It was a bit of a coincidence, because before I was playing basketball.
I started basketball at the age of four, I loved it, it was my passion, I wanted to become a professional basketball player. I was playing as a small forward or center. I loved contact, even if I was smaller than the others, it did not scare me.
OC: What happened next ?
MG: So I had been for two years in a school where I was also practising basketball. By chance, on the second year, they brought some Wattbikes for the BMX team, who was also training in Aix en Provence with me. One day, we were practising at the same time and their coach, for fun, invited the basketball players to try the watt bikes. I started and I achieved an impressive score. We changed the bike to make sure it was not a problem of the machine. I climbed up to 1200W over 6/7 seconds.
OC: That's impressive, and you were just 14 years old, right?
MG: Yes I was 14 years old at the time and I never went cycling. I did not like it at all, I did not know track cycling even existed, the only thing I knew was mountain bike and the Tour de France.
After those tests, the BMX coach spoke about my performance and the news came to the attention of the Olympic coach in Paris. Three months later he called my parents and he invited me to Paris to try track cycling. I discovered a new world and I liked it. When I came back in September 2014, I was 15 years old and I joined the INSEP to start track cycling.
'I wanted to become a professional basketball player' - Mathilde Gros
OC: Did you meet other French athletes from different sports?
MG: We are now training in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, on the future track for Paris 2024, but in the first three years at INSEP I made lots of friends. I met some very nice people. I was studying with girls practising taekwondo and artistic swimming. I get along very well with (judokas) Clarisse Agbegnenou and Marie Eve Gahie.
OC: I saw that you won a lot at junior level, but when did you realise cycling could be your career?
MG: The truth is that at first it was very complicated for me, I crashed a lot and I had a really hard time on the track. But I did not want to give up, I always fought. My coach helped me a lot from the beginning: it was difficult for him to manage a basketball player, a girl who had never cycled before, and had to make a champion out of her. My first two years were not easy. The moment I realised I really had the potential is when, as I junior, I raced the 200m in 10.70 seconds, which was the world record at sea level even for elite athletes! That moment I realised that I had the legs and that I needed to work a lot! Talent is important, but it's not enough to make you Olympic champion, so I told myself, let's go, let’s work!
'My dream is to make it to the Olympics but especially to win them' - Mathilde Gros
OC: Did you have a sports idol when you were young?
MG: My idols were Céline Dumerc, a French basketball player, and Usain Bolt too. I already managed to meet Céline but not Usain Bolt for the moment, it's my dream to meet him. But, when I became interested in the track, I started to follow Felicia Ballanger, who is the only French track sprinter to win the Olympic title three times, 20 years ago. She became my idol. And also Grégory Baugé, who's been my mentor since I started and always took care of me.
OC: Your best results are a gold in keirin at the 2018 European championships and a bronze medal in sprint this year at the World championships: what do these results represent for you?
MG: I think it's the reward for all the hard work done during these four years. I am considered France's enfant prodige, the favourite for the Games in Tokyo and Paris, but it's been four very hard years and I also had a bad injury two years ago in Poland. I recovered in time for the 2018 world championships, but it went very badly. So these medals are a way to say thank you to my coach and to my family, who have been supporting me. My dream is to make it to the Olympics but especially to win them. But the most important thing for me is the pride of wearing the French jersey and the happiness I can give to all those who watch me.
OC: In the documentary 'Sueur Froide' (cold sweat), you talk a lot about 'fear'. What is your relationship with it?
MG: I managed to accept fear and to be afraid because, in France, being afraid is frowned upon. I think it can be a strength so I learned to accept it and not to hide it. I know that I can be scared, I can be afraid of failing, of not succeeding. But it's just like that, when it happens, I need to move on. I also work with a mental coach to feel more at ease, take some pressure off and remove the negative thoughts.
OC: Why is being afraid frowned upon?
Failure is considered something bad. If you fail, you are worth nothing. But even the greatest champions failed at the beginning before they started to win. For example, I remember Rafael Nadal, who, at the age of 14, lost to a Frenchman at a very prestigious European tournament. But since then Nadal has always beaten him. Without failure, we cannot achieve great results. I know that, at the beginning I hated losing, I couldn't accept it, I always wanted to win everything, but it is not possible. I talked with Clarisse (Agbegnenou) and Greg (Bauge) and they told me exactly the same thing: you have to accept it and learn how to get over it.
OC: Which failures did you manage to overcome?
I had several failures, from the beginning I had a big crash at INSEP during my very first day. I injured my buttocks with a splinter and I had to rush to the hospital. It took me 2 months to get back on the track. That was a failure, I had to start everything again. Then, there were competitions where I was knocked out even if I was the favourite. I was recording good times but couldn't go past the last 16. It happened like three times, so I told myself that it was enough. I needed to stop being scared and just go for it.
OC: How often do you work with your mental coach?
I work once a month with him, it's great, we share a lot!
'Without failure, we cannot achieve great results' - Mathilde Gros
OC: I know you love Japan a lot, can you explain why we see you there so often? What do you like about this country?
MG: I had the chance to be invited by the Japan Keirin Association as part of a selected group of only 5 girls from all over the world. I was very lucky to be invited last year and to be invited this year again. It's a beautiful country, I love their culture, people there are very warm with foreigners. It is also a very strict country, with rules that everyone respects. I also love the food there, I find it very healthy with a lot of fish, herbs. I love going there, I feel at home.
OC: It seems that Japanese people like you: why?
MG: I am blonde and they are not used to seeing people with my hair colour. Last year, the first day I arrived, everyone wanted to touch my hair, saying that it was so beautiful... This year, I had even more fans, because when I race, there are people who bet on me and if I win, my popularity grows. I also received lots of gifts when I celebrated my 19th birthday there. Japanese people are super nice, it's great.
OC: Where did you go to Japan exactly?
In Izu, this is where the Tokyo Olympics will be held next year. I had the opportunity to train on the track last year and this year, so it will be an advantage for me.
OC: What is your favourite Japanese word?
MG: Tempura...I also know how to introduce myself: ... and I know how to count, to say a few words of the day-to-day life. I'm always trying to learn more words. I live in full immersion with Japanese riders when I'm racing. When I am in Japan I'm completely disconnected from the rest of the world. There is a lot of people betting on us, so we are kept isolated to avoid risks. That's good because it allows us to speak more, to share our cultures, I love it.
OC: How much do you think about Tokyo 2020?
MG: I cannot wait to be there, it's in one year now but I'm sure time will go by very quickly. First I need to do well at the European championships and at the World championships. Before you become Olympic champion, you need to become world champion...
'Japanese people are super nice. I love going there, I feel at home' - Mathilde Gros
OC: The European Games were your first experience in a multi-sport event: what did you learn and what advice did you receive about the Olympic Games?
MG: Yes, four years ago in Baku there was no track cycling, so this was my first experience. It's been pretty impressive. I can’t imagine what it will be for the 'real' Olympic Games, I will have to be focussed, but my teammate Gregory Bauge told me I shouldn't lock myself up. It's going to be a different atmosphere from a world championship or a world cup event so we'll have to find a compromise in order to enjoy the event and, at the same time, not to get distracted from our goal. The races, the competitors will be the same as during a world championship. The only thing that will change is the media pressure that will be ten times bigger. I must not lose my sleep on it, it is a competition like any other, I simply need to focus on what I am capable of.
OC: You already know that at Paris 2024 the pressure will be even bigger?
MG: Yes, we had a World Cup event in Paris last year. The velodrome was not full but I already felt a strong pressure, even from the media. I realised it will be a huge challenge in five years. I feel strong enough and I am surrounded by people I trust, I have a mental coach and I have a coach who is always there for me, and I have my family too. So, it is all good. I think it's an extraordinary opportunity to able to compete in the Olympics in your home country. Being at the Olympics is already special, taking part in the home Olympics is even more special. I feel very lucky.
I do not want to have any regrets, I will do everything to get a medal there and even in Tokyo. We will see what destiny holds for me.
'Being at the Olympics is already special, taking part in the home Olympics is even more special. I feel very lucky.' - Mathilde Gros
OC: Last question, I know you love shopping: if you win a medal in Tokyo, what are you going to buy?
I think I want to buy an apartment. I'm young so I live in a dormitory. It's good but I have a huge wardrobe, which takes almost half of my room and I have no more space...