Ep.018 Athlete Story Podcast
Starting your own nonprofit after sports - Athlete Story ft Berit Nielsen Legrand
I want to introduce you to a series of athletes who are making an impact after sport. We’ll start by meeting Taekwondo champion Marlene Harnois. After ending her sports career in a bit of drama – ranked no. 1 in the world, she decided to go to Africa. We met in person at International University of Monaco for this chat.
After winning the Olympic bronze medal, Marlene Harnois found herself deselected from the French team even though she was still ranked top of the world. She tried to see how she could keep competing but when the leadership got dirty and personal, she decided to retire.
This time was hard on Marlene. But what do champions do? They move on. And so did she, as you’ll hear in this chat about retirement, and creating new opportunities for yourself by giving first.
« We know that the ocean is polluted.We dont need 5 million other people out there researching, going on boats, asking for funding for the next three years because you wanna study the ocean.... We know plastic is killing our Earth... We know all these things.... There's no need to study anything anymore. Just get on with it and find sollutions ! »
You can also watch a video version of this interview here.
READ the transcript of full interview by clicking here.
Anja: The lessons you learn from a sports career often come from what’s around the sport. That’s from the game itself, sometimes you land on a mass of broken systems and power and politics and you have to make the best of it. Today we’ll meet Marlene Harnois who found herself in the middle of this kind of leadership mess around the London Olympics. She didn’t just manage to win an Olympic bronze with that, she took it beyond herself and did so much more.
Stay tuned. This is Athlete’s Story and I’m your host Anja Bolbjerg from World Top 10 Skier in Logos and Free Ride Skiing. Now, wait until Life After Sports, I invite you to join me and other former athletes here on Athlete’s Story for resources to help you repurpose your sports career for new exciting opportunities after sports.
After winning the Olympic bronze medal, Marlene Harnois found herself deselected from the French team even though she was still ranked top of the world. She tried to see how she could keep competing but when the leadership simply got dirty and personal, she decided it was time to retire. This full picture of the broken system she was operating in and the leadership conflict of interest didn’t really get exposed til years later when other stories like this surfaced. All this time was hard on Marlene, but what do champions do? They move on, right, and so did she as you’ll hear in this chat about retirement and creating new opportunities for yourself by giving first. Let’s welcome Olympic medalist, decorated Knight of the Order of Merit by the French president, Champion for Peace of the Peace and Sport Organization, and yes MBA candidate at the International University of Monaco. Without further ado, Marlene Harnois. Hi, Marlene.
Anja: Thanks for coming, I’m so happy you could make it.
Marlene: Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Anja: Before we dive into a little bit of your sports story and all the merits, I’d like to hear about the time when you retired because you retired right after getting a bronze medal at the London Olympics, right?
Marlene: Yes. London Olympics, well Olympics has always been my dream. I started taekwondo as a little girl. I was four-years-old in Canada. When I was 14-years old I was invited by friends to come and train here so I moved to France. I was always carrying around this Olympic dreams and I won two titles as a European Champion, the world champion at the University Games, and when I medaled in the Olympic for me was the best moment ever in life. It was more difficult. The relationship I had with my coach and federations. I wanted to go back to Canada, but couldn’t get the release. I retired in very different context because it’s something that just happened. I was still ranked number one in the world, may I wanted to pursue but it happened and I just wanted to make the best out of it.
While I was an athlete in France I was very involved with the associations such as [unintelligible 00:03:02] so I’d visit hospital children every month. I was always very involved and I always liked to contribute to causes I cared about and inspire the kids and share a medal. I always felt that the most precious value of a victory lies in the impact it has on others and the values it promotes. It’s [unintelligible 00:03:24] to inspire the younger generation, I always felt that that was the true meaning of a victory, and then I wanted to share that.
I had always dreamed of doing a humanitarian mission one day. When I retired I wasn’t ready to transit into a professional career yet, so I just felt like I’m going to take some time off duty, maybe mentor [unintelligible 00:03:45] I’m really passionate about and I’ll figure it out. I decided to go to West Africa because my sport, taekwondo, is very popular in West Africa. I went to Senegal first, then I went to Ivory Coast. I was visiting schools, I was touring in schools and I was sharing my story.
Anja: Did you go on your own?
Marlene: I called friends, it was very random, I called friends that I knew from a national team there or other people, athletes from West Africa that had trained with us in France for some time. I called then I said, “I want to do [unintelligible 00:04:19],” “Come over, come over, just come.” I started touring in school, helping federation with doing seminars in suburbs, and then i went to Ivory Coast and saying I was doing a taekwondo seminar in a club but that was in the very modest suburbs and communities, the poorest communities near Abidjan, its called [unintelligible 00:04:49] community. I met two athletes, incredible talent, the proteges. When I walked in the club, I call it a club but technically it’s a school backyard, on concrete, no mats, no equipment. There were holes everywhere on the concrete so when you try to step, because they were moving, you can sprain your ankle and twist it. It was difficult, the conditions were very, very difficult, and there I was, 30 athletes, amazing talent like I had never seen before. It was amazing, and their energy, their values, they were so respectful, they were so welcoming. When I saw them, I said “Yes,” I saw two of them and I said, “Oh, my God they could be Olympic champion.” I started saying as soon as I saw them, I knew they had the potential of becoming Olympic champions, they had so much talent and so much drive and rejuvenation and courage.
I said, “Well, there goes my transition to a new project.” I decided to launch a foundation in Abidjan to promote sports, but also education. I started my foundation, stayed in the country for a few years. I went back and forth. I was really doing the training sessions with them, supporting them, trying to just be a mentor of their Olympic dream. It was funny because nobody believed that it would be possible ever. Everybody told me the country never had an Olympic medal, Olympic gold in any sport.
There was never an Olympic woman medalist ever in history. They all thought I was this naive, very enthusiastic white girl coming, discovering the country. So they didn’t take me seriously at first. They all saw that I was very nice so they supported my project.
Anja: [unintelligible 00:06:50]
Marlene: Everyone, everyone around, everybody who saw me walking. There was this Olympic medalist form France, white, that was walking around in the suburbs for years in Africa. Going to training, cleaning the floors, because we have to brush all the sand off the concrete before we train. We were struggling to have mats brought to Ivory Coast, equipment, electronic boards. When it rains, there’s no roof, so it’s complicated to train. It was a very difficult condition. Nobody could understand why I was going through all the struggle. It made no sense. Even my friends, nobody understood like, “Why are you going through all this struggle,” I was like, “You guys, I just know it.”
After all this time, they both qualified for the Rio Olympic games in 2016, and on the same day, August 19, Cheick Cissé became the first Olympic champion in the history of the Ivory Coast. Ruth Gbagbi became the first woman Olympic medalist. That was a beautiful day.
Anja: Were you there with them?
Marlene: Of course, I was standing by the ring, actually doing the common thing on French television at the same time. When Cheick won, it was the last second, it was one second left to the fight and he was losing by two points. He scored a hedgehog on the last second. On the comment on French television, I was saying, “One second, is it possible? It is possible.”[unintelligible 00:08:34], “It is possible,” and at the same time I’d removed my headphones and I started running to the ring, I jump on him and oh, my God he was sweaty.
It was archaic for me, I just jumped on him and then he ran with his flag from Ivory Coast, and then he fell. He ran. The stadium was huge. He started spraying him with his flag and he ran many times and then he just crossed on the ring, and then he came back. Oh, my God, that was, it was the most beautiful day ever. The emotion I felt that day, it was so much more powerful than when I won my medal because when I won of course it was crazy and it was my dream, but to share this all the experience and to share all the journey and see them succeed and win gold, it was the best feeling ever. It’s the best feeling ever, and even these four [unintelligible 00:09:35] he was the president of the jury, so now the roles are completely reversed where he’s the Olympic champion, he’s always the one. He is introducing me now, but I’m so grateful for that and the link and the experience it’s the best life experience ever.
Anja: Have they continued, Ivory Coast?
Marlene: Of course, next year and the following year Ruth Gbagbi the woman, became the first world champion in the history, men, women, first gold ever. Tat was in 2017 in South Korea, the World Championships, and they’re both qualified for Tokyo 2020. I’ll be there with them this summer to watch and to support.
Anja: Are they studying?
Marlene: Yes. They are both studying. I tell them how important it is because now I’m back at school, is there for an MBA at the International University of Monaco. I tell them it’s very important to have a side project and also it’s very important for me that they give back to the community to contribute when they retire as well. I want them to prepare as much as they can. For now, they’re doing, obviously, that’s well. They got that, and they’re heading for international sport of the nation. Then hopefully, [unintelligible 00:10:55]. They’re great. They are just perfect, and-
Anja: [crosstalk] Bearing all of this mindset where you consider yourself a woman and not just, [unintelligible 00:11:06].
Marlene: [crosstalk] No, but sometimes I feel like a girl. Sometimes I feel like a girl because I feel like a girl when people ask me if I work. I feel like a girl because I feel like I’ve never had a job in my life. Because I’ve always been so passionate about what I do, this every day for me is still growing. I still I’m so passionate and so driven, love what I do. After Wendy won they came back to the country, they got decorated by the president, it was huge. It was huge in Ivory Coast and in the region of West Africa along. That’s how I got and then I go as well with Peace in Sport because I felt that the goal I had with my foundation that I had launched to [unintelligible 00:11:58] had been achieved, and I wanted to have an impact on other places in the world as well, to inspire and to give back, and I got a role with Peace in Sport and I became a champion for peace in 2016.
Peace in Sports, an organization is based in Monaco, and it’s placed under the [unintelligible 00:12:19]. The goal is to promote sport as a tool for involvement in peace worldwide. There’s a club, it’s called The Champion for Peace or 100 Champions, and there’s Didier Drogba [unintelligible 00:12:36] both football players, but there’s also [unintelligible 00:12:41] tennis, there’s Alice, all these sport, and you see the nice [unintelligible 00:12:49] track and field, [unintelligible 00:12:53] . You probably know it’s key. I just felt that all too many athletes were involved. So many athletes had Organization Association, so many athletes were contributing, and I just felt that it would be nice once a year to unite all of these athletes that have charities and organization and do a field action all-together to give more impact and give more power to the message.
That sport has to be used for peace, so I decided to launch a project that’s called the Caravan for Peace, we did the first vision in 2017 and [unintelligible 00:13:34] World Champion in track and field games and that [unintelligible 00:13:39] the world champion from Mali in Taekwondo, and Baratsi from Senegal came along and we toured in the country and in Senegal and we had events through all sports with kids. But also I felt it was important to have sustainability in our project, so what we did is we [unintelligible 00:14:03] water fountains near sports stadium.
Marlene: Awesome, because at first I was touring, and I was promoting sport, but then I felt, ‘Oh wow, what if we don’t have water?’ Then it’s instead of contributing to the goods, then there’s a risk attached to it and I wanted to learn the risk, so I figured, ‘Okay, well, if we put water fountains near a sport base, sport field, then now the kids, obviously they’re going to go to the sport field to get the water back.” I thought it was nice to do both so we did that. In 2019, we went to Mali and we visited this place camps, we toured the region in Mali’s [unintelligible 00:14:45] trip. It was very complicated situation right now, and if the power of sport was just to give a smile to those kids and make them dream, make them hope, give them the happiness. If sport has the power to change [inaudible 00:15:03]
Anja: Did you ever think, “How can I make a difference? How is it even possible, little me, kind of?”
Marlene: Yes. It’s, that’s a giant mix. The impact or the story had we check-in will be the two hours from Ivory Coast. It’s not the mats that I brought or the equipment that made a difference. What made a difference I think is the fact that I believed in them and I supported them and I cheered for them. I think for them they were just, they believed in themselves even more because even, “Oh my God. If an Olympic champion believes we can do it and make it possible and she’s running under the rain with us. Wow, then maybe it’s possible”. I think that it’s that faith that pushed them to believe in themself and become the heroes they are now today. I always felt that just supporting someone, inspiring someone, a word that had a power to develop someone, and I just wanted to use that power of sport and see as many kids as I could and just tell them.
For me it was Taekwondo, but I think that– I love sport, obviously, with at the end of the day it’s try to have a passion, whether it’s music, whether it’s poetry, whatever it’s maths. Just have a passion, every night go to sleep, and when you wake up, go to sleep with a dream, and when you wake up do everything in your power to make that dream come true. That’s just the word or the speech that I want to pass along.
Anja: I assume that even though it’s all been so glorious and happy endings that there’s been some deceptions along the way.
Marlene: Of course, because every success is like there’s the failure part. Like you don’t become an Olympian or an Olympic medalists without losing some fights, and then these struggles they make you reinvent yourself, progress. Of course, there were many challenges in Africa. There were many, many challenges all the way along. There was the funding challenge, there was the condition challenge, we are having the partners in inter– There were so many challenges but you just have to find solutions all along the way.
Anja: Let’s go back to the studying part because I know that you studied journalism while you were still competing.
Marlene: I studied journalism, I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from when I was at Inseec in France. I took journalism, I had my journalism degree, and then I did a Masters in sport management through [unintelligible 00:17:47] which is to give you the validate, your experience requirements and-
Anja: Why journalist?
Marlene: I was curious I guess. Why did you really, you did journalism as well, so I guess I was just curious, and I love learning all the time. I love learning and I have interest in so many different fields that journalism for me, “Oh, I’m going to get to learn all day and share conversation and talk. Wow, that’s awesome”. I took journalism, and now I’m having more, I’m doing [unintelligible 00:18:22] National School at International University of Monaco. Because I want to explore the entrepreneur way of maybe finance, business, corporation, and acquire the skills as a manager whether it’s, I have a lot of experience in the nonprofit, but it comes, I think you reach a point where you have to generate profits to be able to afford giving back to nonprofits.
I would like to find a balance, and I think it’s through sport, and now to the nonprofit experience all over the world, I require lots of experience but I wanted to acquire the academic skills as well in accounting and finance, marketing, management. I’m taking a year off this year to learn that and-
Anja: So good to be back on the school bench.
Marlene: Oh, you know what? I love it. I love being back at school. I’m like the first row always like raising my hand. I love it. I love being back in school because, and it’s especially doing an MBA because an MBA there were 15 people are in class, it’s very emphasized. You have so much diversity in terms of we all there’s, I think 10 different nationalities in my class, different backgrounds, different areas, some were finance, some other were in, like trade industry. Everybody comes from a different background. I come from a nonprofit. It’s the experience from all of us that makes it. a very good class and inspiring at the same time.
Anja: It’s funny because I often say to the athletes that are following Athlete’s Story that remember some people have an MBA to lean on, but you, you have the athlete story, and you’re going to come out with both.
Marlene: That’s what [unintelligible 00:20:18].
Anja: Plus humanitarian. Wait, you’re going to be a superwoman. [chuckles]
Marlene: One step at a time. That’s what I felt. I felt that it was always either you have your Olympic background or athlete background, or either you were academic. I just felt it was important to get a bit of both. The more experience I have and the more knowledge, the more I can structure my project and give them a bigger dimension as well.
Anja: Is that a little bit of what you’re looking for as well, getting a bit of structure in life after sports?
Marlene: Yes, of course. You need structure to have– To reach goals, you obviously need to be very, very structured. It’s very different to be structured training-wise to reach a sport goal than acquire your accounting. I needed the proper skills [unintelligible 00:21:19].
Anja: What does that mean to you to be a former athlete here in this envi– Is it something you think about in your daily life? Is it part of your identity?
Marlene: It is. Of course, it’s part of my identity being a former athlete. See, I don’t say, “I was an Olympian.” I say, “I am an Olympian,” because I feel that this sport is that– It’s not going away, but what I want is– It’s carrying on. I feel that it made me who I am, and I’m proud of it. Through sport, I’ve acquired so many important– just the mindset, the values. It’s funny because when I’m in class, most of the time I say, “Well, we do that in sport.” Everything is human resources or organizational behavior related. For me, it’s so natural because coming from the sport community, you work with teammates, you work with coach, you work in an environment, and you know how the team is important, and that in a corporate environment, it is important. You need to collaborate, to have great partners, to work in a team, to produce and achieve a result as well. It all translates. I think I raised something to the class as well coming from the [unintelligible 00:22:43].
Anja: You hinted that a little bit in the beginning. Your story has been– There’s been a little bit of politics involved in your-
Marlene: Of course.
Anja: -career as well. First, you came to France being a Canadian but, it actually changed nationality, and maybe not everybody was 100% welcoming, or how was that?
Marlene: Well, in France, at that time, they have a program. It was the International [unintelligible 00:23:12] Solidarity. Basically, I came from Canada, and I had a scholarship to train one year in France as a Canadian. It was perfect for me at that time. I came, and that year, I won all the tournaments representing Canada. They said, “Wait a minute. We’re funding, we’re hosting you. We’re training her, and she’s beating us? No, it’s not working.” They said, “Well, if you want to pursue your training here, then you have to become French.” I took the French citizenship. [unintelligible 00:23:49] as I said before, it’s really important to have a a team, to work as a team. It’s difficult. The relationship I had with my coach was very difficult. As much as I tried, sometimes it’s not possible. I wasn’t allowed to change coach because she was also the national director, and she was also the [unintelligible 00:24:14]. There were no selection criteria like in tracks. If you are in the mini log, then you’re qualified. Us, in our sport, there were no selection criteria. It was up to the national coach. A complicated thing because it’s hard to work with a coach, and the coach makes the selection. Then when I qualified for the Olympics, my quota at that time, it was non-nominative.
Anja: What did that mean?
Marlene: It means that when I qualified for the Olympics, the federation could send anyone in my weight. I qualified twice in my weight category, so then they can send whoever. There are no selection, essentially they can send whoever they want with the quota. That made it quite confusing. I was trying to make the best out of that environment, but it came to a point that if I trained for 40 years, I’m the best, I am two times European champion, I’m rank number one in the world. I qualified, and you want to send someone else with my quota to the Olympics? It’s hard. I finally went to the Olympics and medaled, but if the story could ever read itself. It was very hard. Because I couldn’t change coach, so I just go back to Canada, but with the IOC, there’s a rule that says for athletes with dual nationalities, if they want to change country, they need to be released by the former country. Otherwise, there’s a three-year delay that applies. France didn’t want to release me, and then with the three-year delay I couldn’t qualify for Rio anymore. The context of my sport retirement was very different than a traditional– Well, I say traditional, but you know what? I don’t think that anyone retires in a traditional context because when you’re on top, you always continue, and when you consider retirement it’s either due to injuries or there was like– There was always something. I think for everyone, it’s a process. It’s a process. There are ups and downs. When something happens in life, everybody tells you, “Everything happens for a reason,” and I did time. I was like, “It’s impossible. No.” When you try to make the best out of any situation, that’s when you see, “Wow.” In that day in Rio, I said, “Oh my God, yes, it really happened for a reason.” Otherwise, [crosstalk] Even today, I’m so happy where I am in life, who I am. With all my choices, I wouldn’t change anything. Even though I’m schooling, I love the journey of just enjoying every step of the way knowing that, “Okay. I want to get there. I want to do this.” As it goes by, even with the two athletes, I was with them this weekend in Monaco for [unintelligible 00:27:28] Our best memories are under the ring and [unintelligible 00:27:33] when we struggle, now, we see each other in a beautiful context of being in Monaco as Olympic champions. Our best memories or the stories we’ll always talk about is, “Do you remember that day? Oh my God. Do you remember that day I trained when I sprained my ankle [unintelligible 00:27:52] Wow.” It’s all that that makes it beautiful. It’s the struggles that gives value to the victory at the same time. Looking back at it, I wouldn’t change anything. Well, you would always do stuff differently, but it is what it is.
Anja: Here comes the $1 million question. [chuckles]
Marlene: Oh, wooh, wooh, watch out.
Anja: Where do you see yourself-
Marlene: In five years?
Anja: -in five years?
Marlene: I was asked recently how I see myself in five years. I answered happy and passionate because I think that everything else is irrelevant. As long as I’m happy and I’m passionate, then in five years, I’ll be exactly where I should be or I wanted to be or I have to be. I really think that it really comes down to that. If you’re passionate, you’ll be successful. If you’re successful, chances are you’ll be happy if it’s a success that comes from passion. For me, it’s all linked. I think that the most important is to be surrounded by people you love, to be with a great team, to share, to be– Some people or sometimes I find that people are scared. They don’t want to share their experience, or they don’t want to volunteer. If they don’t have an immediate game, they don’t want to give. Through my journey, I really observed that the more you give, the more you get, and the more you share, the more you learn, and the more you open up, the more it creates an energy, and it’s possible to achieve. I’m never going to change that.
Anja: If you were to give advice to any other athlete who wants to do humanitarian or who wants to do some type of nonprofit, what would you say? How do you get started? Would you get involved with an association or maybe–
Marlene: I would say just try and contribute. The more you try out– I tried tennis. I love tennis now. I tried, I love skiing. I love skiing. Try out new experience and that’s how you discover new things. There’s so many ways to help, there’s are associations, there’s organization, federation, or you can just do it on yourself. Sometimes people think they have to– In Africa when I was doing journalism I had someone from, I think it was [unintelligible 00:30:28] or some kind of nonprofit organization. They came, and she spoke to us. At the end of the speech, I said, “Oh my God, I really want to this one day. How can I volunteer and do a mission in Africa?” She said, “Oh, no. In Africa, we only send our employees. You cannot volunteer in Africa.” She said the volunteer is for a donation of people that asked for a donation. I said, “Oh. Well, that’s not experience I want to have.”
Then I looked, I searched on the internet for ways to really go. I didn’t know exactly if I wanted to go build shelters, I just wanted to interview. What I saw on the internet, I had to pay to do humanitarian. I said, “Well, that’s not really my vision of doing humanitarian.” I said, “Okay, what can I give now?” That was right before the Olympics. I didn’t have a lot of money to give away in a big way. I said, “Okay. Well, I don’t have money. I don’t have a structure. I don’t have enough people, but I have expertise. I have my knowledge and my sport, and that’s very valuable to some other people. I’m just going to go and give that to people.”
That’s what I did basically. That’s why I called former teammates and I said, “Okay, and we’re going to a seminar.” We’ll just go and talk to kids in school, but also I went to the Federation, I shared my experience with that. I went to clubs, and then I just spoke with the people, with the coach and I just tried to share all the expertise I had learned in southern France. In a way, that’s how you inculcate the education to the involvement of sport. For the education I met someone that had a social library. He’s based in a very extreme suburb. He has a little bookshop, but a few books on the shelter, and it’s a volunteer process. He tried to contribute to alphabet session and learn how to read and write in his bookshop. It is a bookshop, but it’s nonprofit.
I met him, I said, “Well, we have to develop that as much as we can. Then I got books from Canada, I got books from are all over. Whenever I go to Africa I could share the books. You always try to find a solution. Obviously, the more you use books, one book is a book, you do with your means. Whoever wants to contribute whatever their expertise is, they can contribute. If it’s not money or if it’s not an object or material, your knowledge has value.
Anja: Well, thank you so much for encouraging people and for doing everything that you do. I think it’s a fantastic use of a medal, first of all, and good luck in your five-year plan and beyond.
Marlene: Of course. Thank you very much and you’ve inspired me as well. You seem like a very happy and passionate person, yourself. Good luck with the podcast.
Anja: Thank you.
[00:34:00] [END OF AUDIO]
About going to the Ivory Coast to make an impact after her sports career:
«It’s not the mats that I brought – or the equipment – that made a difference. What made a difference, I think, was that I believed in them, and supported them and cheered for them.»
About our guest
Marlene Harnois is an inspiring woman. After a brillant sports career, she packed her bags and went to the Ivory Coast to share her skills and experience with kids in local clubs. Four years later she could celebrate Olympic medals with two of her prodigies. She is also involved in the nonprofit Peace & Sport where she created a project called the Caravan For Peace. Currently she’s doing an MBA, fueled by her desire to have purpose and happiness in life.