Feature06 Oct 2016

After Rio success, retirement not yet an option for Robert-Michon


Melina Robert-Michon at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© AFP / Getty Images)

Sometimes children can form the ultimate reality check.

Melina Robert-Michon was basking in the warm glow of having just achieved a career-high silver medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games when she rang home to speak to her six-year-old daughter, Elyssa.

“She asked me if I won a medal and I said, ‘yes’,” explains Robert-Michon. “Elyssa then followed up by saying ‘was it a gold medal?’ I replied, ‘no, I won silver’ only for her to respond with an ‘Oh’,” the veteran French discus thrower said, emphasising how unimpressed her daughter sounded by the achievement.

Elyssa may not have initially appeared too dazzled, yet over time the pride will surely swell in her mum’s Olympic achievement, whose medal was a triumph for persistence, sheer doggedness and an unbreakable passion for her sport, which began 22 years earlier.

Attracted by the ‘beautiful technique’

Growing up on a dairy farm by the small town of Colombe in the French Alps, Robert-Michon enjoyed an idyllic upbringing, which formed the physical foundation for her future athletics career.

“It was a great place to play with my brother and cousin,” she says of the memories. “We used to run, play and jump, it was really nice.”

With supportive parents who encouraged her to try any sport, she played handball, volleyball and practised judo as a youngster but it was her PE teacher, impressed by her physical ability, who suggested she try athletics at 15.

Robert-Michon sampled many athletics disciplines but was fascinated by the discus because of the “beautiful” technique of the event. 

In her first competition she hurled the implement 29 metres and by the end of her first year she could achieve 43 metres. She was hooked. 

In September 1997 she moved out of the family home to study in Lyon in central France and it was there she met Serge Debie, her coach, and the man who has guided her for the past 19 seasons.

Describing his style as “always challenging”, she says his every action is designed to fulfil the athlete’s potential. Debie – alongside her long time strength and conditioning coach Jerome Simian – have formed the cornerstone of her success.

“The best quality about Serge is if either of us make a mistake we have to change,” she explains. “Throughout my career we have always done the same thing. We might change the exercise, but the aim is always to change for the better.”

In 1998 she failed to advance from the qualification pool at both the IAAF World U20 Championships in Annecy and the European Championships in Budapest, but she remained undeterred.

Two years later she achieved an 11th hour PB and qualification mark to secure her spot on the French team for the Sydney Olympics. Just 21 at the time, it proved to be a mind-blowing experience to compete in front of 110,000 spectators.

“It was crazy,” she recalls of the competition in which she finished 29th. “It was a huge stadium and when my first throw hit the cage and I heard all the people go ‘oooh’, I thought, 'wow, everyone is looking at me'.”

The following year she landed the European under-23 title and World University Games bronze. In 2002 she set a French record of 65.78m and the year after that advanced to her first IAAF World Championships final, placing 11th in front of her home fans in Paris.

Beijing Games performance prompts decision to go full-time

She was hugely disappointed not to qualify for the final at the 2004 Athens Olympics before she was forced to endure several tough seasons in the sport. A back problem badly hampered her 2005 and 2006 campaigns, but her performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics proved pivotal.

Inside the Bird’s Nest Stadium, she produced her best performance to date at a major global championships, finishing eighth with a best of 60.66m. Hugely encouraged, she quit her job in the Army communications department and committed to athletics full-time.

“I knew if I wanted to progress and compare myself with the other top girls, I needed to make this decision and go professional for one or two years," she says. “I didn’t want to look back on my career with any regrets.”

She also placed eighth at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin but opted to take time out from the sport “to advance her personal life” and gave birth to Elyssa in August 2010.

Starting a family gave the 1.80m tall thrower a new lease of life athletically. Besides providing her with an additional motivation to perform well, it also gave her the opportunity to completely remodel her technique.

"It was easier for me to change (my technique) because I had not thrown for a year," she said. "I could start again from zero."

Adjusting to the technical changes and rebuilding her physical condition following pregnancy was not straight-forward. A below-par 2011 paved the way for a much better 2012. At the London Olympics – which she originally said would be her last before retirement – she hurled the discus 63.98m to place fifth. Hugely encouraged by the performance, she reversed her decision to quit.

“London was like a revelation for me,” she says. “I said you are now among the best five throwers in the world, there is nothing between five and three, I can’t stop yet. I will continue for one more year and win a medal in Moscow (World Championships).”

London spotlight breakthrough yields medal in Moscow

Working tirelessly on her technique and in much better physical condition, Robert-Michon was good to her word in the Russian capital. Launching the 1kg discus out to a national record of 66.28m – adding exactly half a metre on her PB set some 11 years earlier – she claimed silver behind Croatia’s Sandra Perkovic.

“It proved to me that all the hard work did not count for nothing,” she adds of her breakthrough global medal.

European silver followed the next year, although an untimely back problem badly hampered her at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 as she trailed home a distant 10th in the final.

However, one goal remained and that was to mount to the Olympic dais.

Unfazed by the women’s discus final taking place, unusually, on the morning schedule in Rio, – “I throw most days in training at 9am anyway” – she began her medal quest in style. With her first-round throw of 65.52m, she seized early control of the competition. And although the formidable Perkovic was to surpass her, a French record of 66.73m in round five made silver an absolute certainty.

“It was perfect for me – a silver medal and a national record – and confirmation all the hard work in my career was worth it,” said Robert-Michon, who became the first French woman to win an Olympic discus medals since 1948. “A world medal is beautiful but the Olympics is the top medal and the best thing you can have.”

So having competed in five Olympic Games, does she have the desire for a sixth to match the women’s discus record currently held by Romanian duo Lia Manoliu and Nikoleta Grasu?

“I definitely want to throw in London (World Championships) because I want to compete again in that great stadium and maybe turn my silver into gold,” she says. “I will see for Berlin and the Europeans (in 2018) because Berlin is a great place for throwers.

"I don’t know about the next Olympics," she adds. "But I said London was my last, so I just don’t know.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF