Marion Clignet’s life changed forever when she was diagnosed with epilepsy.
Not because of what it meant she couldn’t do, but because it paved the way for achievements she’d never even imagined.
Doctors told her she shouldn’t tell anyone about the diagnosis at the time. Because back then, in 1986, it was considered “taboo”. They told her she couldn’t play sports, that she shouldn’t go out alone, that she couldn’t drive for a year, that she’d have to take medication for the rest of her life.
They didn’t tell her she’d eventually compete at three separate Olympic Games. Or that she’d win six cycling world championships and become a national champion duathlete.
Or that she’d become a towering advocate for progress in cycling, successfully campaigning for recognition of women as professionals in France.
They couldn’t have known any of that, of course. But modern understanding of epilepsy is much more nuanced, and Marion is the ultimate proof of what we can achieve with the right motivation.
A RUSTY START
Born in Chicago to French parents, Marion’s path to glory had a rusty start. Literally.
She didn’t take up cycling until the age of 22, when her epilepsy diagnosis meant she wasn’t allowed to drive and she couldn’t face the prospect of public transport for her daily commute.
“They told me not to do sports, but of course I did just the opposite. I worked 30km from my house and taking buses and trains was just not an option for me. It wasn’t reliable. So I bought this ugly, green bike that was way too big for me.”
“There was no choice – I had to get to work and back. But I fell in love with the freedom it gave me. I could control it, whether there was headwind, tailwind, rain or snow.”
Before long, simply getting from A to B wasn’t enough. Marion started setting off a little later in the morning, to see if she could still get to work on time.
Then a little later.
And a little later.
A colleague with cycling experience took notice and asked what she was training for. “I burst out laughing and showed him my bike – what could I be training for?”
He suggested she enter a race. The thought had never entered her head until that moment. However, she went along with the idea and turned up with her rusty, battered bike, no proper cycling gear and no clue about the terminology or the tactics her colleague was barking from the roadside.
And she still came in fourth place.
That was the start of a journey that would eventually include 300 victories, a pair of Olympic silver medals and six world titles.
YOU’VE GOT POWER
Marion was so hooked on the thrill of the competition that she sought advice from the winner of that first race. “Get rid of the bike, get rid of the clothes. Start from scratch – you’ve got power, but you have to learn technique,” was the blunt response.
So learn she did.
She soon became a national champion. Naturally she thought she was headed for a place in the US national cycling team, and then a bomb was dropped on her dreams.
She assumed it was a mistake when her name was missing from the coach’s list to head to the world championships. He couldn’t look her in the eye when he said her epilepsy made her too big a risk.
Most people would have been devastated by that conversation.
Marion thrived on it.
The US team was announced on a Sunday. Marion didn’t wallow in self pity. On Monday, she called some French acquaintances who had invited her to participate in races in Brittany. On Tuesday, she was on a plane.
Once there, she soon caught the attention of the French national team coach, who offered her a chance to represent her other country.
In 1991 she clinched the first of her six world championships, winning the team time trial with the French national road team.
And in 1996, six years after leaving the US, she stood on the podium at the Atlanta Olympics having claimed a silver medal in the individual pursuit.
Later that year she set a world record that stood for four years, and at Sydney 2000, she repeated her Olympic feat.
Competition and training became Marion’s medication.
She became more intune with her body, with an increased ability to recognise the warning signs of seizures.
Epilepsy comes in many different forms, with some people staying fully aware throughout seizures and others losing all awareness of their surroundings for a short time. Marion has tonic-clonic seizures (also known as grand mal), which can last from 30 seconds up to three minutes.
At times she would go more than two years without experiencing any, although they can be more frequent, with one occasion seeing her suffer three in a single day.
She had been told it would hold her back. That she couldn’t do the climbs the sport demanded. But she never limited her own beliefs. She never accepted what other people said. She used the power of her mind to propel herself forward.
And she turned that inner voice (the one we all have) into a tool rather than a tyrant.
By using the mantra “big, positive, powerful strokes” as she rode, she was able to integrate mind and body in the moment, breaking through mental barriers, and remaining with the front group.
Ignoring other people’s doubts made her push harder and achieve more, and now she believes anyone can do the same if they focus on what they can control.
“You’re the CEO of your own destiny. If you want something bad enough, you can control how you get there,” she says.
BIG, POSITIVE STRIDES
Marion adapted her mantra as she branched out into other sports, taking “big, positive, powerful strides” into mountain running, trail running and a sub-three-hour Paris marathon.
She even became a French National Duathlon champion.
Despite all this success, Marion is incredibly humble. For her, the real pinnacle of her career came in January 2021, when the French Cycling Federation finally bestowed professional status on women in the sport.
Marion had campaigned for the change through the Association Française des Coureures Cyclistes (AFCC), an organisation she co-founded to support and advocate for women in French cycling. With professionalism comes not only recognition, but also the insurance, contracts and pensions that allow women road cyclists to consistently compete on an international stage.
“For those cyclists it makes a world of difference, and it gives young girls something to dream about,” says Marion. “Now they too can dream of a career in sport.”
Multi-day women’s races are few and far between, but there are sure signs an equivalent of the men’s Tour de France could be established soon. To that end, the AFCC now aims to increase exposure for the sport by creating an international women’s tour race in the Pyrenees, which would be held in four stages over three days.
Marion also created Sport4therapie, an organisation which inspires children who have epilepsy to use sport as a “feel-good treatment”. It hosts an annual fundraising ride in the Gers region, on behalf of a school dedicated to children with epilepsy, and the prizes are well worth the effort.
“I find trophies useless,” Marion explains. “So the local chocolate factory makes chocolate trophies for us.”
MINDSET AND PERFORMANCE
Given everything she’s achieved, you might not be surprised to learn that Marion is now a mindset and physical preparation coach. She works primarily with women who have been identified as potential managers and executives.
Naturally, some of those women are around Marion’s own age, so her insight into how to keep in shape is invaluable to them.
Her own exercise regime has evolved since her elite competition days, with less focus on endurance and more on stimulating muscle.
“Short, intense strength sessions and high-intensity interval training” have the greatest benefits, she says. “It doesn’t have to be more than an hour – doing that three times a week is great for older women because you continue to build muscle and it stimulates bone density.”
As for managing her epilepsy, she practices meditation on a daily basis, which makes a huge difference to stress levels and has a positive impact on the brain. She also pays a lot more attention to the amount and quality of sleep she gets.
“Sleep is the best doping product there is, in terms of athletic achievement.”
And who understands athletic achievement better than Marion Clignet? After being told she couldn’t compete at a high level, and that epilepsy would dominate her life, she rode her way into the history books.
Now, she’s helping others – from individuals to the entire sport of women’s cycling – take their own big, positive, powerful strides into the future.