Victim, survivor, warrior: The transformation of Genevieve Jeanson
Canadian speaks to Cyclingnews about abuse and healing, finding happiness, and giving back to cycling
Genevieve Jeanson will join the thousands of cyclists seeking adventure and fun as part of the fast-growing gravel cycling scene across Canada and the US in 2022. It will be the first time she commits to bike racing of any kind since her doping suspension was lifted and she told her harrowing story of the abuse she endured as a young teenager through adulthood under a former coach.
In an interview with Cyclingnews on December 10, Jeanson said that her decision to return to cycling comes after the long and complex healing process of recovering from the effects of long-term verbal and physical trauma.
She hopes to give back to the sport through participating in select initiatives while also taking back her power and joy for cycling.
"I never thought that I would be in this position again," Jeanson said, while speaking to Cyclingnews from her home in Saint-Lazare, Quebec. "My main purpose is to learn who I am in a cycling environment, make my own decisions, learn how to have fun, and the bigger goal is to be able to help other athletes and give back."
In the past eight months, Jeanson has re-connected with the cycling community in ways she never thought would be possible again. She said the doors began opening for her after writing an open letter to the International Cycling Union (UCI) in April that expressed her concern that the sport needed to do more to protect its athletes from abuse.
She met with President David Lappartient and Director General Amina Lanaya to further discuss how the UCI could better handle abuse cases. She said that her guidance was well-received. She also applied for the new role of Integrity Manager at the UCI, a position that was created off the back of several highly-publicized abuse cases in cycling in recent years.
"The full experience following my letter and of applying for that position... we had a good Zoom meeting with David Lappartient and Amina Lanaya, which was positive. I felt listened to. I felt like they cared," Jeanson said.
"It was a moving-forward conversation on their part, and I felt like they wanted to make a difference. They had been faced with a situation that they had never dealt with before, and now it's coming out more and more, and big issues are happening in women's cycling. Our conversation gave me some confidence."
Jeanson met with Cycling Canada and the Quebec Cycling Federation following the publication of her letter, both of which she said were productive conversations. She also intends to assist Sport'Aide (opens in new tab), an organization that pushes for a healthy, safe and harmonious sporting environment for young athletes and provides a support service to the various players in the sporting environment, on both an elite and recreational level.
"These were all positive reinforcements. I felt that if I didn't get the position at UCI, I wanted to keep contributing to the sport and share my experience. I wanted to figure how I could make a small difference with my actions," Jeanson said.
"If I went back to cycling, it could be in some way as a positive figure for women and men who have lived through the same things as I did or for anyone who had a tough time with abuse, and also when stuff happens and you think that your life is over. I could make a difference by exposing myself to that world again."
In addition, Jeanson reached out to The Cyclists' Alliance, a women's cycling association, to share her experiences in its mentorship programme. She said that offering guidance to women in the sport has been rewarding but has also shown her what she missed as a young athlete.
"I was paired with a 24-year-old rider who is in her third year in a pro team, and it clicked. I saw her enthusiasm for the sport, the fun she was having on her adventures on her bike," Jeanson said.
"It got me thinking about my career and that I had fun for maybe one year in the beginning. Everything got so serious, and my situation degraded so fast that it was difficult to have fun in all the years after that. I was not in charge of my process. I was living something decided by someone else, and that's all I knew. I'm going to take back that power. I was robbed of that fun. It's time that I fight for myself. I will never know if I don't try.
"It would be sad if I didn't ever experience [the joy of cycling] in my life. I can't stop without having experienced having fun in cycling, to not be afraid of going to a race or afraid the consequences would be bad. I need to recreate the connection in my brain not to feel sick-to-death or scared but to look forward to it and find a way forward."
Jeanson, currently a trainer at Orangetheory Fitness, said that her taste for gravel cycling started during the Covid-19 pandemic when her workplace closed down due to health restrictions. Joined by her husband Paul Hillier, they took to the gravel roads in the Saint-Lazare area outside Montreal, Quebec.
"Paul and I have been rediscovering everything that cycling can be - a fun adventure with friends - and it's comforting for me to come out with what I've lived and that I've been received and accepted," she said.
"I've enjoyed my long rides with friends, and it was always fun, through beautiful areas and super fun to explore all the gravel roads. It was a different way to enjoy cycling, and I really liked it; the views were better, there was less traffic. It appeals to me.
"I am looking forward to the inclusive, adventurous environment of gravel riding. I want to do 200km and go through 20 different emotions and feelings, and have conversations with people who are looking for an experience, too. My first love of gravel was for the adventurous component."
Jeanson has applied for a racing licence through the Quebec Cycling Federation first, and then Cycling Canada, and has committed to four events in 2022: Black Fly Challenge, Rooted Vermont, Big Red Gravel Run and Les 100 à B7. She is also planning on participating in seven events in the US pending Covid-19 health restrictions: Mid South Gravel, BWR San Diego, Battenkill, Crusher in the Tushar, Big Sugar Gravel, BWR Kansas, and Afgravelstan.
She will be racing as a member of the Floyd's of Leadville Racing off-road team and riding sponsored bikes from Patrice Lemieux at Squad Cycles.
"The goal is to explore the limits of who we are as humans and to have fun. We want to do well, but it's not the main goal. For me, it was important not to have pressure for results," she said.
"I've been away from the sport since 2005, and it's been a long time. My main purpose is to learn who I am in a racing environment, make my own decisions, learn how to have fun, and the bigger goal is to help other athletes and give back. If you asked me if I would be doing this last April, I would have said 'never',"
Taking the risk
Jeanson started cycling at 13 years old, went on win world titles in the junior road and time trial, and later won La Flèche Wallonne Feminine World Cup and four times the Montreal World Cup, among other victories. In 2007, she confessed to using erythropoietin (EPO) during most of her career, beginning as a teenager in 1998 and through her early 20s until 2005.
She was subsequently issued a reduced 10-year ban for cooperating with an investigation conducted by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) into her allegedly abusive coach Andre Aubut and Montreal-based physician Maurice Duquette. CCES handed Duquette and Aubut lifetime bans.
In an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews in 2015, and a follow-up interview, Jeanson detailed allegations of verbal and physical abuse as a teenager and an adult, as an athlete and in her personal life outside of sport.
(Aubut did not respond to Cyclingnews’ request for comment concerning Jeanson’s allegations of verbal and physical abuse during our reporting of this story in 2015. According to an Enquête interview published in 2007, Aubut refuted allegations that he pushed Jeanson into using EPO.)
Jeanson, now 40, has not been part of the cycling community for more than 15 years and said that she anticipates her return to the sport to come with many emotions.
"I have two big emotions. First, I’m a little scared. It’s been a long time, and the sport changed. Being on the start line with a thousand people, I’m rusty, yes, I want to do well, but the stronger feeling I have is excitement. It is sad and beautiful at the same time and in the same intensity."
Asked how she feels the gravel cycling community might receive her, Jeanson said: "I have thought about that. The people who have read about what happened to me will see this as being positive. But I know that I’m going to have push-back. I’m doing this for myself. I want to have these experiences so much that I am willing to go all-in, even if there is some negativity.
"I think I have come to a point in my maturity as a person and understanding of my story that doping, for me, was not a choice I made. It was a choice that was made for me under very harsh circumstances. Yes, I am part of the blame. I was not doped without knowing, but it was extremely hard to get out of it [the abusive situation].
"Having maturity and understanding - knowing 100 per cent inside me - and understanding the circumstances of why or how I got into taking performance-enhancing drugs has made me a peaceful person, and I can go forward. I don’t expect that it will be all flowers and pink ribbons everywhere or ‘yay, Gen is back’, but I am willing to take this risk to have a good experience."
Survivor to warrior
Nearing the end of our interview, Jeanson paused for a moment and then said that she felt that she was in a good place in her life, surrounded by healthy relationships with her family and friends. She has seen a therapist for more than a decade and said that she makes an effort to acknowledge happiness daily.
"When you’re happy in life and when you have gotten used to being happy in life, and when you’ve created that happiness for yourself, it’s a big positive reinforcement. I have been harvesting happiness every day since my life changed, and it’s been really good.
"I know that I can go into a sport and have fun, and I deserve to have fun. Yes, stuff happened to me in the past, but that doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever. This is what I believe, and I know it might not be a unanimous decision for everyone, but I do believe that I deserve to be here and that I can contribute to this sport."
Jeanson is now part of The Spirit of Trust (opens in new tab), an independent survivor-led nonprofit organization that provides trauma-informed holistic care through access to a digital gateway and peer-to-peer programs for abuse victims in sport worldwide.
Jeanson believes that she has completed the transformation from a victim of abuse to a survivor and, lastly, a warrior.
"It’s truly a progression. First, you are a victim, and then you become a survivor, but then there is a switch that flips, and you become a warrior. I think I’m there now," she said.
"I don’t wish this life on anybody. I wouldn’t do it again, and I would choose a different life. At the same time, I’m glad to be where I am right now. I am truly at the warrior stage. I’ve found the same zest for life and for fun that I had when I was a kid."
Jeanson's tentative gravel calendar for 2022
- Mid-South Gravel (March 10-12)
- Belgian Waffle Ride #1 – San Diego (May 1)
- Black Fly Challenge (June 6)
- Crusher in the Tushar (July 8-10)
- Rooted Vermont (July 29-31)
- Big Red Gravel Run (August 13th)
- Les 100 à B7 (Sept 24)
- Big Sugar Gravel (Oct 22)
- Belgian Waffle Ride #4 - Kansas (Oct 23)
- Afgravelstan 1.0 (December 9-11)
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.