An Olympic Chef de Mission wears many hats.
Leader. Mentor. Motivator. Spokesperson. Performance protector. Cheerleader.
Isabelle Charest is looking forward to wearing all of them at PyeongChang 2018.
The three-time Olympic medallist in short track speed skating was announced on Monday as Team Canada’s Chef de Mission for the upcoming Olympic Winter Games, which on Thursday will be exactly one year away.
“It’s an extraordinary experience,” Charest told Olympic.ca when asked why she chose to accept the position. “Over the course of my career and life, I had the privilege of being surrounded by mentors and people that get heavily involved in sport or other fields, which allowed me to evolve as an athlete, but also as a person. I think that I’m now in a position where I can have that type of influence.”
A mother of two whose day job is in communications for a school board in Granby, Quebec, Charest is no stranger to the Olympic movement. She competed at three Winter Games (Lillehammer 1994, Nagano 1998, Salt Lake City 2002), where she stood on the podium with her 3000m relay teammates each time.
In 2016, she returned to Lillehammer where she served as Team Canada’s Chef de Mission at the Winter Youth Olympic Games. Six months later, she was in Rio as an Assistant Chef de Mission for one of Canada’s most successful summer Olympic teams ever.
“It brings you a certain amount of confidence, for sure,” Charest said of her recent experiences. “We arrive in an environment where you get to spend time with great athletes who all have a unique story. I needed to get to know them in a leadership role to realize that I had something to contribute, that my experience and attitude could be positive additions to the team.”
“He explained what needed to be done every step of the way. He was very transparent and present,” Charest said of Harnett’s generosity. “It gave me a good idea as to what the role consisted of.”
Additionally, she got great feedback from others who have recently held the role, such as Mark Tewksbury (London 2012), Nathalie Lambert (Vancouver 2010) and Sylvie Bernier (Beijing 2008), all Olympic medal-winning athletes themselves
“They told me that they could see me in that role. It’s something that really helped me confirm that I had something to contribute and that I could fill those huge shoes.”
Once upon a time, the Chef de Mission was an entirely administrative role. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was held by men who may have been athletes but also went on to become Canadian Olympic Association presidents. As is often the case, however, the role has evolved since the title was first used in 1948.
In recent years, retired athletes, some of them amongst Canada’s most illustrious Olympians, have taken on the mantle of leading the entire Olympic team. At Sochi 2014, it was Steve Podborski, the first male Canadian alpine skier to win an Olympic medal.
“When I used to skate, the Chef de Mission was more of a diplomatic position. They were people that would be involved in sport, but wouldn’t be as known or present and thus had less of an influence on the athletes,” Charest said. “Today, one of the Chef’s roles is to serve as a sort of shield for the athletes in addition to being their spokesperson.”
With their own Olympic experiences to draw on, today’s Chefs are better versed to offer advice when asked. They also take on numerous media requests, able to provide the athlete perspective without bothering those preparing to compete, which allows the current crop of Olympians to keep their focus on their podium pursuits.
But perhaps the most fun part of the role is playing cheerleader in chief, travelling from venue to venue to ensure that every Canadian competing in the biggest event of their life has someone in the crowd on their side.
Of course, Charest can’t wait for the short track competition in PyeongChang, where it will be one of the most sought after tickets as an important medal sport for the host nation. But her anticipation doesn’t end there.
“One sport that I discovered during the Youth Olympic Games is ski slopestyle. Long track (speed skating) is part of my roots so I’m interested in that as well as hockey, of course, being Canadian.”
Charest is the first official member of Team Canada for PyeongChang 2018, which officially begin on February 9, 2018 with the Opening Ceremony.