By Trey Garman (circa 2006)
Far away in France, many years ago, XTERRA World Champion Nicolas Lebrun was to become living proof that sports can change kids for the better.
The story starts 5,000 feet above sea level in the Savoy region of the French Alps. In this beautiful place, where the local wildlife far-outnumbered the 50 residents who lived in the village, “Nico” became a man of the mountain and the foundation for the rest of his life was laid.
“As a kid I climbed around the mountain and liked to go downhill on my bike. The fun part was going downhill, but to go again you had to push your bike back up the hill and this made the body strong,” recounted LeBrun.
In the winter the family would put skins on their skis and cross-country their way up the mountain. When they got to the top they’d take the skins off and downhill back down to the family chalet.
When Nico was seven his parents separated, and as a result his playground got even bigger. While his Dad, a carpenter, stayed in the village his Mom moved to the northern part of the Alps to work in a high-altitude hotel.
“The only way to get there was by foot or by ski,” said LeBrun, explaining that the “refuge” was situated at more than 8,200 feet. This is where he spent his summer months climbing to the surrounding summits and also where he befriended the chamois – a mountain dwelling goat-like animal with awesome climbing abilities.
There was one significant downside to growing up in this pristine, isolated countryside…the education system, or more appropriately – the lack of one. There were only two other kids in the village.
“There was school but it was so small we just went there and did nothing,” explained LeBrun. “So when it was time for me to go to the city for 1st form (middle school) I couldn’t even write my own name. It was terrible for me because I was like Tarzan.”
Even worse, the teachers had no compassion and wouldn’t break from the curriculum to help get him on track.
“The teacher said we can’t do anything for you, go back to your mountain.”
LeBrun was 11-years-old at the time and with few options available, his parents sent him to boarding school.
“I had lived in the mountains with flowers and animals and everything was perfect. Then I arrived in the city and it was a jungle with violence and fighting. A lot of kids wanted to fight me, and the only way I found to survive was to drink, smoke, and fight. To stop fighting, I had to be with the bad guys. In my head, in my heart, I knew it wasn’t me. It was very hard to be this guy.”
As one of the long-haired, chain-smoking bad boys Nico would walk up the hill in his ragged clothes and throw rocks down at the kids running in the organized races after school.
“One day the teacher take me and say ‘o.k. Today you run’. I said ‘oh sh**’ my friends are going to hit me with rocks. So I went in the race and ran as fast as I could and finished 4th or 5th. Then the teacher said, ‘Oh, you are strong.”
The teacher thought it was strange because the “punk kid” beat the good kids who train and practice.
“I remember for me it was the first time someone told me that I was strong at something. It was a good feeling and it was very important for me because before this moment, I thought I was bad at everything.”
That moment turned his life around and by age 15 he was in a better school and on a better path.
“I stopped my bad life and started to work hard in school. I had more energy and focus. I learned discipline. Sport…made me a good man.”
LeBrun excelled in academics thereafter, but his heart was in athletics.
In 1994, his first year as an elite, he finished 3rd at the French Duathlon Championship. In 1995 he served his mandatory 10-months duty in the French Army and in ’96, he “won his life”.
“I really had to prove that I could be a professional and make a living in sports so I trained more and more and became the French Duathlon Champion. It was my first big victory and a great moment because I knew then that I could be a good professional.”
Make that a great professional. Eight times on the podium in world championships in three different sports – XTERRA, Duathlon, and Winter Triathlon (world champ in ’99 & ’00).
The crowning moment in his career, the ultimate victory, was in Maui last October. He received a congratulatory letter from French President Jacques Chirac, was recognized as the off-road triathlete of the year at Competitor’s Endurance Sports Awards, and garnered all kinds of media coverage. The CBS show put his triumph on TV for millions to see.
In an interview with the XTERRA TV crew a few years ago LeBrun was asked the question, “if you were an animal, what would you be?” His reply, skewed because of the French-English language barrier, was a mountain goat. What he meant was a chamois – the animal with legendary climbing skills at home in the rugged, rocky terrain of the Alps.
Chamois it is…Champ.