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France's second generation Olympian Anne-Cécile Ciofani out to make parents proud
The 27-year-old is preparing for her first Olympic Games with the France team. She will also be following in family footsteps: her father Walter Ciofani and her mother Jeanne Ngo Minyemeck represented their respective countries, France and Cameroon, at the Olympics.
Throwing is a family affair for the Ciofanis. It all started in 1962 with the birth of Walter in Sedan, France. He became a French hammer throwing champion five times, from 1983 to 1987, came seventh at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, 11th at the World Championships in 1987 in Roma, and sixth at the World Championships in Tokyo six years later. In Cameroon, in 2969, Jeanne Ngo Minyemeck was born. She too was a thrower, discus and hammer specialist, African champion, and Olympian in Seoul in 1988.
From this union three daughters were born, whose fates will ultimately prove to be very close to that of their parents: Audrey and Juliette, who are two great Olympic hopes as French hammer throwers, but also Ciofani who, before turning to rugby sevens, was also, naturally, predestined to throw.
As her parents had done before her – Walter under the French flag in 1984 and Jeanne under the colours of Cameroon in 1988 – Ciofani will also participate in the Olympic Games as a member of the French women's rugby sevens team.
“I took a completely different path, but I thought for a long time, that I had to throw like my parents. And finally, it was my dad who threw me into heptathlon. I started with the hammer, let it go, came to heptathlon, and rode with the discus. Maybe it is in the genes, it's true," she laughs.
“My father was always 'Walter Ciofani, the record holder for France'… it was always the image of the man highly respected, admired, and I was in the same state of mind every time we went out. After that, I switched to a search for my own identity, which is to say, I tried to detach myself from the image of "daughter of".
"I saw some videos; they pop up from time to time in the archives. I have images of my father, of my mother, although it is a little rarer for my mother. We have some pictures of them younger, it is kind of funny to see that.
"And then over time my image of my mother also changed. I saw her more as a mother than a former athlete. And me, going through that today is a bit special because I tell myself that she stopped her career for her desire to have children. I put myself in parallel because today we, as women and top athletes, aspire to combine the two. And today I see my mum more as a mum than a sportswoman and my dad still as a huge athlete that he once was."
A choice between heart and reason
Ciofani turned to sevens, rather than throwing, and it is no coincidence. She discovered rugby at the age of 18 and it was rather a fierce ambition that brought her to where she is today.
"It was complicated, a very difficult choice between a love of the sport and the pursuit of the high level which was more attainable in rugby," she admits. "I made the choice to try rugby sevens and I fell in love with the sport for the atmosphere around it. This is something that we do not know in athletics in terms of values, relationships.
“It took me a while to invest in it but once I understood the importance this sport was taking on in my life, the choice was clear to me. But it's true that it hasn't been easy."
What is certain is that her athleticism and skills greatly influenced her success in sevens. Ciofani, who signed as a professional rugby player with the French Rugby Union in September 2017, boasts 160 points in 63 games played in 11 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series events. When she gets her long legs going, she is a real threat to any opponent.
"It is true that the physical qualities of athletics allow us to have a certain 'ease' on the field, even if it is absolutely not the same," she said. “The harshness of training in athletics gives us a picture of the harshness of training in rugby, but it's still different. Even the team athletics is not strong enough to describe what you experience in this group."
In August 2016, Ciofani did not have a foot on the planet sevens. And Rio 2016, the first Olympic tournament in which France finished sixth, was not her focus.
"In August 2016, I was on holiday with my family, and I admit that I followed athletics more than other sports," she smiles. "My sport of heart was athletics. If you're passionate about a sport, it's hard to quit. And at that time, I was not passionate enough about rugby to follow the rugby sevens closely. I watched the matches later."
Very quickly, Ciofani became indispensable in the team, winning the Tudor Breakthrough Player of the Tournament award at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018. Qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Games was not a long quiet river. As coach David Courteix admits: "We had three chances to qualify, we chose the third".
It was at the repechage tournament in Monaco in June. “Obviously that was a relief, but it was a pretty weird feeling. After Kazan (the qualifying tournament for Europe won by Great Britain in 2019) we took a serious blow to morale and the COVID year and the year that followed prepared us for a single goal. Although it was a relief, it was our primary goal. We couldn't see ourselves doing anything other than qualifying."
A different Olympics
Like all French rugby sevens fans, Ciofani is now completely focused on the women's tournament which will take place from 29-31 July, 2021. France sit in Pool B and will play Canada, Fiji and Brazil.
“The matches will be close to the World Series because these are teams that we meet all year round. I think that everything that will be done alongside will make the Olympics more impressive: the Olympic village, the preparation on Japanese territory," she said.
“But audience or no audience in the stadium, we will go for one thing. A busy stadium helps, especially when you know there is family in the stands. They won't be there, but they better be up in the middle of the night to watch us!"
Before leaving France, Ciofani had time to discuss the subject with her parents and sisters. “We talk about it a lot with my father. He often tells me about his experiences, his feelings, how he approached the competition. I think we will have a lot to share when I live it because things have changed a lot and there, given the health situation, it is even more unprecedented. It will be so different.
"And then my sisters are behind me all the way, it's so funny. COVID has been very complicated for individual sports. They made the choice to move away, to start school again. The hammer is in parentheses for now. But it would have been fabulous to meet in Tokyo all three of us, or in Paris 2024, if I ever go."