Loïc Blin: sport through the trials of war

Photography : Jérôme Prévost - Text : Elisabeth Grosdhomme

As far back as his memory serves, Loïc Blin has always wanted to work in sports. Without necessarily knowing in which field, which role, which context but his goal was there : a taste for exercising, pushing one’s limits, sharing and teaching.

This calling finally took shape through the lucky advice of a friend. As Loïc was going from dispassionate studies to small jobs to make a living, she suggested that he apply to the recruitment tests for the French air force, which has a dedicated corps of sports instructors, ranking as non-commissioned officers.

Having passed the examinations, Loïc Blin went through months of military and sports training, then a first assignment to the air force academy in Rochefort, where he was in charge of training young recruits as well as older military personnel in preparation for internal tests to reach the superior ranks, before ending up in 2003 at Creil air base. There he experiences a totally different universe: this is no longer a training facility but an operational base ; it is no longer a matter of training students but active servicemen, likely to leave for combat at any moment.

And indeed, in 2010 Loïc Blin is designated for a posting in Afghanistan. His mission: to care for the continued mental and physical fitness of French pilots participating in the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, a military coalition under NATO guidance, commissioned by the United Nations’ Security Council to help the Afhgan government pacify the country and establish its authority against the talibans.

Married, and the father of a barely one year old child, Loïc Blin has some hesitation but accepts the challenge because in the end serving one’s country is precisely the purpose of joining the military. And on he goes to the FIAS base in Kandahar.

What he discovers over there is a fortified city of 35 000 residents, of which 180 are French. A Far West-like scenery, with dust and tumbleweeds rolling through the barracks, tanks and armoured vehicles at every street corner, but also cafeterias, gyms, shops and even a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. A daily routine of enemy rockets fired from the surrounding areas and alarms forcing you to throw yourself flat on the ground. Time references that slowly disappear as each day so much resembles the previous one. A social life that has to be maintained at all costs, to let the pressure off and avoid going insane. This is how, as weird as it seems, Loïc Blin learned to dance the salsa during those months in the Afghan mountains, and built two bowling alleys in the camp providing the infrastructure to organise friendly competitions.

Beyond everyday life, there was a task to be accomplished: to ensure the mental and physical preparation of pilots. Loïc Blin arrived in Afghanistan towards the end of the conflict. The pilots were not tasked with attack missions any more, but rather surveillance flights. The risk was therefore for them to loosen their vigilance, settle into a routine and, plagued by inattention, to fall prey to unexpected enemy fire. Hence individualised training plans, up to mental visualisation of dangerous situations in order to stay ready, no matter what.

After six months at the front, the return to France is a new trial. Three days in Cyprus to let go some of the stress and get back to « real life »: the joy of walking on a sidewalk again rather than on dust and stones, of running outdoors in the open air rather than on a gym’s treadmills. Some coaching to prepare for the reunion with his family: his son who will not recognize him at first, his wife who will necessarily find him transformed and who, also, will have changed in his absence.

Difficult, after such an experience, to get back to the routine of a home base.  Difficult also to realise the lack of gratitude from the nation in general, and colleagues in particular, for those who went to the front. So Loïc Blin chooses to turn the page and give his resignation in.

From his contact with American servicemen in that camp in Afghanistan, he had brought back the discovery of a new sport: crossfit. A sport which mixes well-known exercises in gymnastics and bodybuilding, but with a mindset and a training protocol truly different from traditional practice: a communal spirit, where members of the group support each other’s efforts ; exercises inspired from daily activities (pulling, pushing, throwing, jumping, running), without sophisticated machines, going back to the origins of sport, old-school physical training, centered on the body ; a tailored program for everyone with objectives that, to some, will be geared towards a search for performance, and to others simply towards avoiding back pains or being fit enough to play ball with their grandchildren.

Loïc Blin had promised himself, upon his return from the front, to open a crossfit gym at the air force base in Creil. And this is what he has ultimately done, although not in a military setting and not in Creil. After an interval of a few semesters serving as the director of a sports center near Paris, and then a year working on his business plan, searching for an appropriate venue and setting up the equipment, he finally opens CrossFit Nemesis in 2015 in the commercial area of Villevert, at the edge between Senlis and Chamant. Nemesis like the goddess of divine justice in ancient Greek mythology, but mostly like this character that, in the jargon of athletes, embodies the alter ego who pushes you beyond your limits: sometimes an adversary, sometimes a coach, sometimes only the ideal image of yourself to which you compare.

A year after its opening, the gym is working well and Loïc Blin is already thinking about expanding. Above all, he is proud to have built a club in his image: where people come not to access the machines (of which there are almost none), but to be accompanied in a process where body and mind go together, where they cultivate self-confidence and openness to others, just as well for general well-being than for athletic performance.

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