From Olympic Track to the Streets: A Sprint Toward a New Career Path

Stories From Olympic Track to the Streets: A Sprint Toward a New Career Path

Interview by: Cort Cunningham
Foto's: Thomas Nolf 29 Jul 2019

From Olympic Track to the Streets: A Sprint Toward a New Career Path

In 2016, Belgian sprinter Olivia Borlée competed in her last Olympics while launching her own performance wear brand 42|54. From sprinting to the gold medal, to launching her sustainable FW19 collection made of recycled waste from the oceans, Olivia's attraction to Cowboy is quite obvious. "I really love the speed [of the bike]. It's a beautiful object with great functionality," she says. If you’re in Brussels, there’s a good chance you might spot Olivia pushing the limit of the bike’s speed on the city streets.

“I like to wear boy clothes and no gender clothes. I didn't care if the bike was for a boy or girl. I just like the design. The black color, it's so chic.”

I hear you’re a pretty big fan of Cowboy. How did you first come across it? I think it was more than a year ago. Suddenly, everybody was talking about Cowboy. When I first saw the bike, I was impressed by the design and the technology. About two months ago, I tried the bike for the first time, and it was a great experience. I loved the speed of the bike, and everything is smooth and easy.

Oh, so you heard about it a year ago, but you’ve been riding for about two months. What was your first reaction to it? It was amazing. I'm an athlete and I love the speed. I have this feeling on the bike, "I am faster than the car. I can go anywhere I want in Brussels." It's really much easier now that I'm with Cowboy here in Brussels.

Olivia Borlée
— Photo Credit: Cowboy

Yes, tell me about that. How have you been using the bike? Has it changed anything for you? When the weather is good, I try to be with the bike as much as I can because it's so much easier. There is a lot of traffic and it's really hard to park with the car. And, yeah, it's really cool to see how Brussels is evolving with a lot of new mobility systems so it's really great to ride a bike in Brussels. It's much better than a year ago.

In terms of infrastructure or other aspects as well? Yes, exactly. It's a really green capital, too. I travel a lot, but I'm always happy to come back to Brussels. And I have the feeling that Brussels is really improving and moving fast at the moment.

Being a sprinter, speed matters. I was wondering if you see any parallels with the bike in that it powers your ride? I love the speed on the bike, of course. In fact, I used to hate biking because, for me, I associated biking with rehab when you’re injured. So Cowboy is completely different for me. It's really smooth. When you're at your best level and everything goes smoothly, that's the feeling you have on the bike.

It is quick, isn’t it. Yeah. So quick. That's what everyone's talking about, the first feeling of the bike.

And it’s not a typical ladies’ frame. Was that actually an attraction to you? I like to wear boy clothes and no gender clothes. I didn't care if the bike was for a boy or girl. I just like the design. The black color, it's so chic. It's a really beautiful object with great functionality. So I don't care if it's a boy bike or not. I feel really comfortable on it.

Olivia Borlée
— Photo Credit: Cowboy

How about colleagues or past teammates? How have others perceived it? Oh, they are all jealous of course. They all want to try it. And, yeah. When I have to switch on the bike with my phone they are so impressed. Yeah. They love the technology going with the bike. The app is like the bike, really easy and smooth.

And how much are you pushing the power of the bike? We’ll I’m an athlete so I like to go fast. I’m always pushing a lot. Sometimes I’m a bit frustrated that I can’t go faster [laughter].

“I was a bit afraid of what I was going to do after track & field, so when I realized I was able to do something else it removed my fears and gave me the power to qualify for the Olympics.”

Can you tell me when in your life you have felt the most cowboy… or cowgirl?! When I decided to launch my own brand, I was also trying to qualify for the Olympic games in Rio. It was a crazy moment, but now I know I qualified for Rio because I launched my brand. It gave me this extra energy, this feeling that I was able to do something else than athletics. I was a bit afraid of what I was going to do after track & field, so when I realized I was able to do something else it removed my fears and gave me the power to qualify for the Olympics. 2016 was an amazing year. I launched my brand, I qualified for Rio, I had been chosen to be the flag bearer for Belgium. Even that year we learned that our silver medal [in the 4x100 meter relay] became a gold medal eight years later. So yeah, 2016 was one of the best years of my life.

Oh that’s interesting. You equate having had the conviction to start something that then fueled your ability to qualify. Yes. Exactly. I’m happy that I had the courage to come with something else. And yeah, to be able to do it.

And how exactly did your silver turn into gold? I don’t know if you heard about the Russian team or the doping control. One of the girls was disqualified with testing positive. So yeah, the Russian team was disqualified and we became first. Olympic champions, eight years later.

Olivia Borlée
— Photo Credit: Cowboy

I was checking out your company, 42|54. What made you want to start a performance wear brand? I've always been sponsored by Nike and it was really great to be part of this family. But I realized that when you see a start line on the 100 meter, all the girls are trying to do something with their hair, their nails, or their makeup. But they can't do anything with their clothes because all the outfits look the same. That's Nike, or Adidas, or Puma. I know that when you feel good in your outfit, that can make a difference on the 100 meter because it gives you confidence.

So everyone’s trying to stand out in some way, right? Exactly. In athletics, there’s not much possibility to do it because we all look the same. I'm passionate about fashion. I wanted to be different and have something that not everybody has. So that's why my co-founder Elodie Ouedraogo and I came with this idea to create an active wear brand, something different that didn’t already exist.

Olivia Borlée
— Photo Credit: Cowboy

What was the inspiration for it? What’s different about it? The inspiration, it's what's going on on the catwalk, on the street, what we like. We are really inspired by the Belgian fashion in the street, of course. And yeah. We really like the '80s. So Flo-Jo and…

Oh, I remember Flo-Jo! How crazy good she was! And her outfit was amazing. She was a star on the track but also outside the track. And that's what we want, to have more fun in the clothes, to be able to perform. But yes, wear something fun and cool.

Is it mostly geared toward running? Track and field inspired, for sure. But track and field is the first Olympic sport. So if you can run in it, you can do everything.

Olivia Borlée
— Photo Credit: Cowboy

Are other professional athletes wearing your line? Yes. We have two young Belgian athletes in track and field, Kim Gevaert and Hanna Marien. They’re both on the 4x4 relay team. We’ve sponsored them for more than a year now.

Tell me about the journey from being an Olympic athlete to then retiring and focusing all of your energy on your business. How has that been? It's been difficult to quit athletics, but I had the chance to prepare the next move after my career. I think being a businesswoman is much more difficult than being a professional athlete because the stress is… it's every day. When you're an athlete, of course you have a lot of stress, but it's mainly when you have a big competition. And now, I have to manage a team. I have to pay them at the end of the month. I didn't know how to do a business plan or to find the right supplier, to get the right quality for my clothes. I had to learn everything. It's still a big challenge but I'm really happy with what I built so far and now know. And I can see what athletics taught me—to be strong, to set a goal, to push limits, and to keep going no matter what.

What’s the biggest challenge you face? It's difficult to deliver your collection on time, to keep the quality. That's the big challenge for a young brand I think, to compete with the big players in the world of fashion.

Olivia Borlée
— Photo Credit: Cowboy

It must be hard to break through. Exactly. But I love it [laughter]. It's really cool. It's a lot of adrenaline but that's what I love.

How about your next move? Any future plans in the works? To launch the brand in the U.S. At fashion week in New York in the beginning of September, we’ll present and meet the first buyers and everything.

Is it a brand new collection? Yes. It will be a brand new collection. Every six months it's a new collection. And this collection is completely made with sustainable fabrics.

Oh, nice. We’ve always paid attention to how and where we produce. We wanted to take another step in that direction. So we've started to work with a company who makes a new fibre out of recycled ocean waste. Even our zipper and all the accessories are made from recycled plastic. We work with organic cotton, stuff like that. And we’re continuing to improve the way we produce and even with the packaging and the stock.

I’m glad you’re thinking in that way. I can’t wait to see the new collection! Thank you very much!

Olivia Borlée
— Photo Credit: Cowboy