| Fabien Lefèvre poses on the podium at the 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships on Sept. 20, 2014 in McHenry, Maryland.
BETHESDA, Md. -- Drinking a coffee and eating a croissant at a local bakery, a patron noticed the shirt fellow diner and canoe and kayak athlete Fabien Lefèvre was wearing.
It was a white long-sleeved Team USA white tee from the recent 2014 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships, which took place at the Deep Creek whitewater course in McHenry, Maryland on Sept. 20. The man had no idea who Lefèvre was, but knew about the world championship event. He asked Lefèvre if he attended it.
After realizing Lefèvre was a competitor, another question followed.
“Did you win?”
Without saying a word, Lefèvre pulled out the gold medal from the C-1 race, where a paddler runs through a whitewater course solo in a canoe. His time of 106.82 gave the United States a gold medal. For Lefèvre, it was the first world title he’d ever won in a canoe.
An accomplished world champion in both the kayak and canoe disciplines, Lefèvre has offered a spark for a Team USA squad that’s beginning to build an identity.
Welcome To America
As Lefèvre says, he was born in France but with an American mind.
Fueled with an ambition to be the best in the world at his sport since he was a teenager, Lefèvre was a staple for France for 10 years. He won world titles in the K-1 event twice (2002 and 2003) and won Olympic bronze in 2004 and Olympic silver in 2008.
But in 2012, France went in a different direction, deciding to leave him off of the roster. He took it as a “slap in the face.”
Not deterred, though frustrated with his situation, Lefèvre decided his time in France had come to an end. As a spectator at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Lefèvre met with a high-ranking member of Team USA. He suggested that it was time for him to leave France and race for the United States.
“They didn’t understand at first,” Lefèvre said, with a laugh. “They thought it was a joke.”
It’s obvious why someone might be befuddled at this. According to Lefèvre, France devotes a lot of state allocated money through its Ministry of Sports and Ministry of National Education for its canoe and kayak program. The sport generates an estimated 3,000 competitors vying for a spot on the French team each time the country is constructing a roster. With the success Lefèvre had in France, various sponsors offered to pay him to represent their brands. By leaving for the United States, he’d leave those sponsors and would have to finance his own way through the sport.
Even so, moving to America was the most logical choice, he said. Multiple times during a one-hour-and-10-minute interview, Lefèvre said, “Freedom has no price.” This phrase, for Lefèvre, carries over into his athletic pursuits. He now sees himself better able to fulfill his potential in the whitewater, with an internal burden removed.
“I was born into a place I did not belong to,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid, the way I think, the way I act, has been like an American.”
However, by moving to another country, his Olympic status for the 2016 Games is in doubt. He’s still waiting to become a U.S. citizen, which is required to compete in the Games. In most cases, immigrants need to hold a green card and be in the country for five years before applying for citizenship. Since Lefèvre is an Olympic-caliber athlete, he has a chance to expedite the process. Getting a world title in his first year could help the process, too.
“I made that promise to bring gold back to the U.S., and I kept it,” he said. “I hope I’ll receive the political support to accelerate the process of my citizenship.”
Practice Makes Perfect
Having grown up in the mild climate of southwest France, his first winter in the Mid-Atlantic region was a bitter surprise.
Like many residents of the metropolitan Washington area, Lefèvre wasn’t prepared for the bitter cold the area felt last winter. But he wasn’t able to take any days off. Lefèvre had to work on his skills in whitewater, even if layers of ice outlined the course’s edges.
Meticulous in his approach, Lefèvre stayed the course and trained as much as he could no matter the circumstance.
“When you train for three months in the snow, and it’s burning your feet and your hands every day, and it’s icy on the side of the river and you’re alone at 8 in the morning or night, then you know what you’re here for,” he said. “If you want to enjoy your summer, you have to have a tough winter.”
Another aspect that helped Lefèvre achieve his first C-1 world title is the structure that Team USA practices in. In France, Lefèvre said it was often rigid, with little time for individuals to carve out themselves. With his new squad, he has more freedom to refine his skill.
“To me, it was the key to succeed,” he said. “It fit my needs.”
For now, the lone goal left to achieve is winning Olympic gold. That is what’s driving Lefèvre, 32 years old, to continue the mental and physical challenges of canoe and kayak.
“I’m still running after it,” he said. “I can’t stop now. My story is not over.”
But he’s also a family man, married with two kids. He knows that at some point, he won’t be able to spend as much time in the canoe as he does now.
For now, he’s hoping to bring more attention to the sport with his accomplishments as a member of Team USA.
“I had to deserve that title,” Lefèvre said. “The intensity and the emotions were on the same kind of level that I had to face for coming and settling here. It’s huge. I’m very happy about what happened.”