Lac Sergent is a beautiful small lake slightly north-west of Quebec City. The surroundings are peaceful and the lake is home to a CanoeKayak club. Frédérique Vézina’s parents met at the lake when they were teenagers and today own their own chalet there. On Saturday mornings, in the summer months, the residents head to the shore for a get together and occasional races.
par pierre shanks
That’s where we found Frédérique Vézina, who just graduated from Cross Country Canada’s junior national team, when I arrived for an interview at the end of July. Her mom Annie Langlois, a volunteer at the club, brought me over, explaining that «Fred», as everybody calls her, had decided at the last minute to enter a race with a buddy of hers. See, when she’s not training during the summer, Fred is a wicked kayakist. As a matter of fact, Frédérique Vézina will pick you up on any challenge you might throw at her, she’s that competitive. In her mind, her body, her soul.
Fred is facing a real challenge this coming season. At 20 years old, she will be competing with the seniors in the U-23 group. But not with the national team. Fred didn’t meet the criteria to move directly from the junior national team into the national senior development team, like her Centre National d’Entraînement Pierre Harvey (CNEPH) teammates Cendrine Browne and Raphaël Couturier. The selection process at Cross-Country Canada gets quite complex, but to make the story short, she would have needed a top 15 at last years’ World Jr Championships to make the cut.
They have good looking racing outfits at the CNEPH, but there’s nothing like wearing the national team outfit… Frédérique is disappointed of course, but it’s only another challenge she’ll have to overcome, and she’s had so many of those, she doesn’t pay too much attention to it. «The selection criteria can be found somewhere, but I don’t read them. I don’t care! says Fred. Because when you start running after the criteria, whether it’s for a carding or what have you, then you’re digging your own grave. So I don’t let that bother me. I ski because I love skiing. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be here. It’s a commitment and also a job, that’s what I do for a living.» On top of keeping up with her studies of course, where she’s just as ultra competitive, according to her mom.
Louis Bouchard, one of the national team coaches and head coach at the CNEPH, makes no case of it either. «Let’s not forget that last year, she was coming back from a mononucleosis, reminds Louis. A lot of athletes abandon their sport after a “mono”.
« On top of that very few athletes make it directly into the senior national team. So Fred isn’t coming off any defeat, she’s actually building her (mental) strength. And it’s nothing new to her, she’s had to overcome adversity since the beginning of her career.»
Who better than her parents to relate to that, starting with her dad, Jocelyn Vézina, who it should be mentioned was Pierre Harvey’s teammate and roommate back in the 1980’s. The two remain great friends today. «We all grow at our own pace and when Frédérique was young, there were young girls growing up faster than her and I remember once at the selections for the Quebec Winter Games, the top two girls would qualify and she came in third. It happened a number of times that she would come up short and miss events like the Quebec Games. Of course there was some disappointment that she didn’t show too much, but she’d turn the page. Two years later, she made it to the Quebec Games and she won every race she entered… all gold medals.»
«Frédérique is very determined, adds Annie Langlois. She’s very stubborn. That’s basically it… that’s EXACTLY it! she corrects with a laugh. She won’t go down easy, she likes to be challenged. She’s been like that ever since her young age. I remember at 2-3 years old, she would try something and if she failed, she would go back to it until she got it right. She likes to be a leader, to be in front of the pack. She has that competitiveness in her. That and her determination come from her dad. Maybe from me comes her sense of perseverance.»
There is also (and always) the question of money. In her favorite race, the skiathlon, she placed 30th at last year’s World Jr Championships after being slowed down by waxing problems. That 30th place qualified her for the first carding of her career, but a lesser one than if she would have graduated directly into the senior team with that top 15 criteria. Lesser carding… less money. Here again, just another challenge on the list. And she gets by with the help of a few crucial personal sponsors.
«I’m very lucky with my sponsors, she says. I’ve had the same ones for three years now, they’re faithful and I’m grateful to them. I couldn’t have found better persons to support me. They come from the milieu, so they understand the game very well, what I’m doing and how I’m investing those dollars, and I understand their reality as well.»
So making it to the top has been a long and winding road so far for Fred. In the upcoming season, her main focus will be the World U-23 Championships. Canada will line-up four U-23 girls in Falun, Sweden. To secure a place on the national team, Fred will need to win one of three races at the Duntroon national trials in January, or a top 3 in each of the two distance races. She will also compete on the NorAm circuit and after Christmas on a number of races on the very tough European circuit. Chances of competing at World Cup level are less than slim for her, due to poor canadian (female) results in the last year that limit the number of entries to only two girls.
What can we expect from Fred this season? Fire! Louis Bouchard, who is a pretty straight forward guy when the bell rings to tell an athlete it’s time to move on from trying to make it into the national team, still has total confidence in her: «Without a doubt! he says. I still make the exact same evaluation of her potential than when I took her on at 16 years old. I still see the same abilities. We have three girls with us (along with Cendrine Browne and Anne-Marie Comeau), we want the three of them on the World Cup.»
That confidence works both ways. «The fact that I’m not on the senior team doesn’t make much of a difference for Louis, says Fred. He knows I’m independent enough to do some of the training on my own and I have the motivation. I trust Louis and I think he trusts me and he trusts his training program. With that in place, there are definitely grounds for hope.»
So you better not count her out of the mix, not just yet. Especially that she knows what she’s after. «Ever since I started skiing I want to do what Pierre (Harvey) and my dad and Yves Bilodeau did, because they had a blast and they still talk about it today. They have such great stories to tell and that’s what I want to live. I want to live MY story, younger version!»
For now, though, Fred has no time for stories as she’s busy overcoming yet another challenge in her career.
By the way, that race she entered at the last minute?
She won it.