Sébastien Lepape is contemplating the broomstick-riding, snitch-chasing, fantasy wizard mayhem of Quidditch from his favorite films – the Harry Potter franchise. “It looks fun and I think I might be quite good at it,” he laughed. “It’s a combination of mind and body. That’s a lot like Short Track.”
Lepape, 26, from Le Havre, is an easy-going presence, but on the ice he’s completely focused. A graduate of Sport Studies from the University of Perpignan, he loves nothing more than applying his intellect to being the best tactician possible on the ice.
“To be a good skater, you need to be strong – but technique, tactics and thinking right are probably more important than being the strongest,” he said. “You need a good mind to think your way through a race. You can be strong in body but if your tactics are off, you will never win.
“Skating smart is always the key. You’re on a short track, so there aren’t hugely long distances to operate within. I think a lot, and I work on that side so much. I’m always trying to be better in all my skating.”
Lepape was a very active kid growing up, dabbling in “loads” of different sports, including fencing, but a fateful encounter aged 11 guided him towards his current profession. “I had a friend who was into Short Track and he invited me to the rink to watch him train.
“Straight away, I thought it was an amazing sport. I gave it a go and I was instantly hooked, I just loved it. I didn’t do any other sports after that, I just wanted to get better at racing.
“I’ve done a bit of freestyle inline skating at the local park, when I was younger, so I knew some technique – although you can’t do tricks in Short Track! And while I never thought that it was something I could become really good at and go to an Olympics for, I just enjoyed getting better.”
He was eventually selected for the French junior squad, and worked his way up through the ranks. He had to juggle training with university work but, after an enjoyable experience at Sochi 2014, he has taken a year off study to focus fully on his skating prior to PyeongChang 2018.
“I wanted to just concentrate on the Olympic Games and get into the best possible condition,” he said. “I’m putting 200 per cent into training. There are no other distractions to think about.
“Sochi was great, my first Olympics, and I didn’t do too badly. I loved competing in that atmosphere.
“But it is totally different to a regular Short Track meeting. Our events are normally a couple of days. With the Olympics, you are there for 15, and you’re in another world. You skate every three days, so it is a long time to be focused.
“Having been to Sochi will help me in PyeongChang. I was young and I had a lot of fun in Russia, but I was maybe distracted by being at the Olympics. This time I will still have fun, because you have to have fun when you’re skating. But I need to focus more, and keep more calm.”
While the competition is hot, Lepape is aiming for the podium in the Republic of Korea. “For anyone going to the Olympics, the ambition has to be to get a medal. I think about it every day. It will be hard and there are many good skaters.
“But you can’t just think, ‘get medal’. It’s an ambition, for sure, but all you can really focus on is to skate as well as you can and hope for results.
“Anything can happen on the day. There can be crashes. You can have a good day and someone else has a bad day. There might be a refereeing decision against you, or a problem with the ice. Even the best skater is not sure to win.”
That’s part of the appeal, according to Lepape. “Racing is just really exciting. Making decisions mid-race, at high speed, is fantastic. Short Track teaches you to be calm about every situation you are faced with. Keep cool, and find solutions.”
1500m is his favorite distance (“my start is not the best for 500m”), and he never really thinks about his opposition (“We’re all just skaters, so let’s race”).
Meanwhile to relax, he “sleeps – a lot! – and I stay in with my girlfriend. I also love to travel. If I have a free week, I like to pick a new bit of the world I’ve not been to, and go to explore it.” Next stop, PyeongChang.