Xavier Jourson has never done a triathlon. Until he donned a wetsuit for the very first time and dipped his toes in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence last summer, he had never gone swimming in cold water. And he hadn’t been on two wheels since he was a kid. Yet the 35-year-old Montrealer, a former rugby professional, has set his sights on one of the toughest, most extreme triathlons on the planet. Jourson is determined to become the first Black athlete to conquer Norway’s infamous Norseman in 2022.
The idea took hold last year, in the early days of the pandemic. It had been five years since a hand injury ended the rugby career that had taken him to South Africa and back to his native France. Soon after arriving in Montreal in 2017, Jourson found himself in his dream job, working as a senior analyst at the National Bank. But, deskbound, his weight crept up 15 pounds from his best years on the pitch, tipping the scales at 260. Determined to get fit, he bought a mountain bike. While he was at it, he picked up Californian Rich Roll’s memoir, a story of overcoming alcoholism and going from a sedentary lifestyle to becoming an Ultraman in two short years.
“I knew right then I wanted to do something just as remarkable,” said Jourson, “something that would send a message to young Black people, that you can do whatever you set out to accomplish.”
Jourson hit upon Norseman, in part because it is so extreme, beginning with a predawn plunge off the back of a ferry into the icy waters of the Hardangerfjord and ending 226 kilometres later, 1,880 metres above sea level, at the top of Mount Gaustatoppen. But he had another motive for taking on this particular epic challenge: as far as Jourson knows, no Black triathlete has ever done it.
“I poured over all the years of photos I could find of Norseman, back to when it started in 2003,” he said. “I couldn’t find anyone who is Black.”
“I want young Black people to watch the documentary and see a Black man thrashing around in that cold water with all those white people, to know there is a place for them in triathlon, too.”
Did I say documentary?
Yes, Jourson does nothing by half-measure. By early last summer, he’d built a website and assembled a team around him, including videographer Ian-Mathieu Ouellet, to follow his every move. Ouellet accompanied Jourson to Montreal’s Peak Centre for Human Performance to witness him undergo lactate and VO2max testing to establish his training zones — and to give Jourson and his coaches an idea of just how much work lay ahead.
“He looked like basically 500 pounds of muscle,” said Luc Morin, who co-owns Peak Centre with retired professional cyclist Pascal Hervé. “I’m 6’2”, and I looked like a shrimp next to him.”
“My youngest kid, who plays rugby, met him and his jaw dropped.”
Morin said his first reaction was to roll his eyes at Jourson’s Norseman dream, pigeon-holing him as “just another crazy guy” desperate to find a new challenge to help give meaning to the next phase of his life.
Morin is uniquely placed to understand that mindset, having played professional soccer in Europe before ditching that to become a pro triathlete and then a high-performance coach. He knows about the hard work involved not just to slim down, to develop those slow-twitch muscle fibres and transition to a body that can take endless miles of pounding, but — perhaps hardest of all — to learn how to train consistently, to ramp up the volume slowly and to avoid injury.
“That process is often neglected by a lot of athletes coming into this sport,” said Morin. Jourson’s days as a rugby pro have given him discipline and great body awareness, he said, but building that base and inching forward, adding more frequent and higher intensity workouts, thinking about nutrition and making time for recovery, all while still earning a living: none of that is easy for any athlete impatient to see results.
And how about simply learning how to swim, bike and ride, under pandemic conditions?
It didn’t take Jourson long last spring to trade in that first mountain bike for a gravel version. Then, pedalling around Montreal’s Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, he was reduced to frustration and envy as cyclist after cyclist whizzed by him on their carbon road bikes. He went back to the bike shop for a third time and purchased a Trek Emonda SL5 on the spot. Under Hervé’s tutelage, he ticked off his first 100-km ride in late September. “Four hours of pure pleasure,” he wrote in a blogpost. “I am now part of the 100 club.”
However, he has yet to spend much time in a pool, thanks to COVID. As a child holidaying on his parents’ native island of Guadeloupe, Jourson loved to swim in the ocean. But he has never taken lessons, and he is the first to admit his technique is far from honed.
“With good reason, of the three sports, it’s the swim I am most afraid of,” said Jourson. “The Nordic cold — yes, that scares me. But let’s face it, there are not many great Black swimmers.”
Jourson himself brings up the stereotype that there is something morphological about the dearth of great Black swimmers, but in the next breath, he rattles off more compelling reasons than disproven racial myths.
“There are very few Black kids who are drawn to individual sports,” he said. “It’s all about the collective, teamwork — look at basketball, football, soccer.”
Then there’s the issue of role models, who pretty much didn’t exist in the swimming world in France when he was growing up. Never mind the lack of access to pools in predominantly Black neighbourhoods — and on the whole African continent.
“How many 25-metre pools do you think there are in all of Africa?” he asked.
Morin, who worked on contract for the ITU as a technical advisor and coach developer in Asia and Africa from 2007 to 2015, concurred.
“When I was in Africa, I saw who had the pools — it was white people. Foreigners staying in hotels, people living in gated communities.”
Jourson floated an idea that delves even deeper into the cultural psyche to explain what he believes is a widespread aversion among Black people to the idea of swimming in the ocean.
“Remember that my ancestors were brought to the New World in the bottom of slave boats,” he said. “Countless drowned. The ocean is an immense graveyard.”
Jourson’s project began before the murder of Floyd George that triggered months of protests, but he says the goal of becoming a Norseman finisher and “getting the black T-shirt” coalesces with Black Lives Matter. It is about smashing stereotypes, inspiring young people and also making other triathletes take notice.
“When a Black man goes into a pool or starts sizing up the carbon road bikes in a bike store, I don’t want anyone to look at them as if to ask, ‘What are you doing here?’”
Only 250 people make it into Norseman, and while Jourson has talked to organizers, he hasn’t yet been accepted. He has found a few sponsors, such as Castelli, to provide him with gear, but so far, he hasn’t found any financial backers. He’s footing the whole bill on his own.
“I have to go into debt to pursue this dream,” said Jourson.
He has borrowed the idea of T1 and T2, calling his journey to becoming a triathlete “The Transition.” It’s a name that works on many levels. Jourson is transitioning from a sport that drew on his brute strength to one that will call on all of his stamina. He is transitioning to a new lifestyle from the partying days of professional rugby, hiring a nutritionist and learning to train, both physically and mentally, in whole new ways. And in the in-your-face way that Jourson is hungry for attention on the triathlon scene, this determined Black man is demanding that his new sport transition, too.
This story originally appeared in the March, 2021 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.