By achieving seven world titles, she leads a particular list, being the most acclaimed MTB orienteer of all times. But she also ran the Athlete's Commission since it's conception and, for many years, until Sandor Talas took over as the MTBO Commission Chair, she did their job too. Basically, for many years, not only was Michi Queen of MTBO during competition, she also was Queen of MTBO behind the scenes. Please, welcome Michaela Gigon.
The turning of one more year leads us to a meditation on what is past and what is future. What wish will you make for 2016 when the clock sounding midnight the next 31st December?
Michaela Gigon (M. G.) - I just wish to stay healthy and to enjoy my life.
Over eight years - between 2004 and 2011 - you've never leaved the World Championships without, at least, one gold medal on your chest. What memories do you keep from those days?
M. G. - In 2008 I didn't win a gold medal at the World Championships, actually, but three other medals. That was really an amazing time of my life with lots of good memories. In some races I was really lucky to win the medals. For example, at my first gold, in Australia, when I was late for the start and forgot to clear my SI-chip. In the finish the readout showed a really long list of strange controls and I first thought I had mispunched. Luckily there were not too many controls in the WOC-race and the race before because the old SI-chips only registered 30 punches… In other races I could have won more without some stupid mistakes. Like when I folded away the best route choices twice in the Long Distance race in Slovakia 2005 and ended up 4th, just 2 minutes behind the winner.
Is there a particular episode that you would like to share as your most pleasant memory?
M. G. - Winning the Relay World Championships with Sonja Zinkl and Lisi Hohenwarter in 2009. It’s much more fun to win with some friends than alone. We had won some other medals before and really wanted the gold. When Sonja came in 6th after the 2nd leg I thought that gold was too far away but I was lucky to have all the short forks and felt really strong that day. When I came to the last control I did not know my position and could not hear what the speaker said but the other Austrians were cheering and celebrating so much that I thought: “This must be gold, otherwise they would not cheer so crazily.” I still get tears in my eyes when I think of that moment.
Your dedication to MTB Orienteering led you to create, from 2004, follow up mechanisms for the international events, which made of your personal webpage - www.michigigon.at - the center of the MTB Orienteering's small world. What led you to take this responsibility? How much work is on those pages over eight years?
M. G. - It was important to me to find the links to all important events fast, so the easiest solution was to put them on my website. From 2003 to 2011 I was a professional sportsman in the Austrian army so I had lots of time for doing things like that and didn't count the hours which I spent. In the years 2004 to 2009 I was also responsible for calculating the World Ranking List but was quite happy to hand that job over to Ray Barnes in 2010. I like doing things with Excel. The dreamteam competition, which Andy Conn and I started in 2006, is also one of the things that take a lot of time. It helps riders to get to know other riders better and leads to more communication between the riders. Having a personal website is very important for a sportsman, otherwise you don’t exist for sponsors. I guess my website could be a little more professional but I don’t know too much about making websites and I wanted to keep it in my hand because making changes is too difficult and slow if somebody else does it for you.
Looking even for those important moments, we can see you leading the Athletes' Commission at the time of its foundation in 2007. What challenges the MTB Orienteering faced at the time?
M. G. - In 2007, before I got the job as speaker of the Athletes’ Commission, I produced a paper called “My dream of perfect MTBO World and European Championships” because I was tired of repeated bad organisational mistakes. Raising event quality and making the mappers use the mapping standards were the most important topics to me.
Evaluating the changes that, with your determination and help, were produced, which of them would you highlight as being of great value to the sport?
M. G. - Mapping standards have been transformed from something that was very close to FootO to something that fits much better to MTBO. It is, actually, still an ongoing process because we have not found the perfect mapping standards yet. Maps have improved a lot in the past years. Mapmakers seem to be more conscious about the differences between FootO and MTBO. The rules were improved. I was shocked to see that e-bikes were not forbidden until the beginning of 2010 according to the IOF rules. Fortunately nobody had realized that loophole before it was closed. Event quality has risen. The sport has become much more professional.
From 2011 we can understand that you “slowed” a little bit. Still, your presence in major international competitions remains a constant and your activity in the Athletes' Commission is an asset to the sport. How do you see the MTB Orienteering's moment, currently? What is the MTB Orienteering's biggest handicap?
M. G. - My army contract ended in 2011. So I had to find some other way to earn money. Since 2012 I am a Mathematics, Physics and Geometry teacher in a Secondary School. That’s the reason why I am not so fast and well trained anymore. In the beginning of my “golden times” I knew I could easily win a gold medal if I made almost no mistakes. Now there are many more fit riders and good orienteers than before. If you make a mistake there is somebody else who will take the chance. Riders are much more focussed on MTBO and train much harder than before. The biggest handicap in Austria and many more countries is forest access. It is very hard to get permission to arrange races. Without races and MTBO activity in your country it is hard to attract young people to the sport. Another problem that I can see internationally is that the number of riders and nations at World Championships is slightly decreasing. One of the reasons is that those riders from small countries who don’t see a chance to win anything rather choose to take part in an international 5-days event like Plzen which is much cheaper than World Championships where just the starting and registration fees for one rider add up to 280 € if he does all races.
Emily Benham is assuming the coordination of the Athletes' Commission. Did you talk to her about your ideal for the future? What did you tell her?
M. G. - I did not speak to her explicitly about my ideals but we know each other for a few years now and talk a lot so I think she has already found out what my ideas are. Em as a much younger athlete will certainly bring some fresh wind and new ideas into the Athletes’ Commission.
At a higher level we have Sandor Talas, Chairman of MTB Orienteering Commission, Tom Hollowell, the IOF's Secretary General / CEO and the IOF's Brian Porteous. Do you think that MTB Orienteering has now a greater support than in previous years? In practical terms, how does it work?
M. G. - I have the impression that Brian and Tom seem to be much more interested in MTBO and more positive to our sport than their predecessors. Brian was present at the World Championships in Czech Republic and even tried MTBO. I think they understood that not everything that is good for FootO is also applicable for MTBO. Good communication and understanding our sport are probably the most important things and I hope it will work.
Returning to the competition, how do you rate your performance this season. The results achieved were meeting your expectations?
M. G. - This season’s performance was the poorest in my MTBO history but did not come entirely unexpected. In summer 2014 my boyfriend Tom and me bought a house which we renovated in the past year. I trained almost nothing in winter and spring. At the Mass Start race at the World Cup in Hungary I realized that I was one of the three slowest riders in the field and could only make up some places with better orienteering. In the end I was quite pleased with my 10th place at the European Championships and the 16th place at the World Championships Long Distance races.
The Austria Team's gold medal in the Men Relay of the World Championships was surely one of the great moments of the season. Could you mention other remarkable moments along the year that is now ending?
M. G. - Nothing can match with the victory of our boys in the Relay. They worked very hard to achieve such a result.
Have you already started your preparation for the next season? What are your goals for 2016?
M. G. - At the moment (end of December) we have perfect biking weather in Austria. I train much more than last winter which is not such a big challenge and hope for some Top-10 results in 2016. Medals are out of reach for me nowadays.
For how long are we going to see you doing MTB orienteering at the highest level? Do you still have plans for “the day after”?
M. G. - You will see me as long as I enjoy it. Even now that I don’t win medals anymore I still love competing against the strongest riders in the world, meeting nice people and getting to know new terrains, maps and challenging courses.