We are sending the multiple world champion and Paralympics winner Marcel Hug into a “fast and furious” question marathon
- 15 minutes to read
- 26 September 2023
- Anita S.
Marcel Hug was born with spina bifida in 1986. When he was 10 years old, he started his first junior race, and 2010 formed the start of his career as professional athlete. Today the athlete from Thurgau is supposed to be the most successful wheelchair athlete who won, among others, six world records and all track records of the World Marathon Majors.
In 2004, he was awarded “Newcomer of the Year” at the Credit Suisse Sport Awards. In 2018, he was chosen for the “Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability” at the Laureus World Sports Awards – an international honorary title, which he even received a second time in 2022. In Switzerland, Marcel Hug was awarded “Para Sportsman of the Year” multiple times; 2011, 2013-2017, 2021 and 2022. In 2021, he was awarded “Best Sportsman of the Year” by the International Paralympic Committee.
But what keeps his mind busy under the “Swiss Silver Bullet”? Marcel Hug answers our – partially quirky – questions.
Which question would you be happy to hear?
(Laughs) about the question how I am? I always enjoy if somebody is interested in their vis-à-vis.
So: How are you?
I am well, very well even. Even if I have a lot going on currently but that’s a good thing.
Translated the first name Marcel means “the warrior” and “the one ordained to the war god Mars”. Are you honoring your name?
I think there is some truth to it. For sure when it comes to sport and competition! As soon as I am wearing the Silver Bullet, I become sort of a warrior. But personally, I am not a warrior by nature – but of course I fight for my goals.
What are your other goals in sport?
Of course, I want to win more podium places and maybe even achieve the one or other track or world record. This year, for example, at the world championships in Paris and next year at the Paralympics, also in Paris. And of course, at the World Marathon Majors.
And what do your personal goals look like?
My biggest wish is to stay healthy. Soon, I also want to gain more certainty about what I want to do professionally after my sports career. I won’t be able to continue for another 10 or 20 years as I have already reached the “autumn of my career”.
Then you are definitely experiencing a “golden autumn”! The list of your unbelievable successes and awards is long. Do you have medals and prizes set up in your apartment?
Yes, they would now fill a whole room (laughs). But I have only a few medals and awards set up at home. The rest is actually at my parents. The medals are stored in three large vases.
Why is your helmet silver and not golden?
There are two reasons: First, I received the helmet as a junior from my coach. Not only do I like the helmet personally a lot; I was also immediately recognizable during competitions. My silver helmet thus became my trademark. At the World Championships 2011 in New Zealand the name “Swiss Silver Bullet” was added. The organizer named me in a promotional video – and the name stuck with me. The second reason is very simple: I prefer silver on my head and gold around my neck (laughs).
What does sport mean for you?
Sport is my passion! And it gives me a lot: strong emotions, nice encounters and experiences, important experiences for life, training and dealing with various situations, balance and, last but not least, health. As professional athlete also success and recognition are goals. But I try to not only focus on those.
So, success can also be “dangerous”?
Definitely. When the time comes and my success starts to fade, I will be the same person – independent from my success. I also consider success critically: Comparing oneself with each other and the push to be better than others carry the risk to be determined by success and to be defined by it. This can also make you become selfish and arrogant. I prefer modesty.
“Nobody is spared from defeats, disappointment, and setbacks. They are an important part in the process to success. Due to them, I learn how to categorize success and to appreciate them.”
And yet you are considered a top candidate most of the time. How are you dealing with these expectations?
As long as things go well, they are easy to deal with it. But there are also moments, especially during important competitions, when there is a certain pressure. To find the balance between performance and calm, talks with my coach or my environment help me enormously. Furthermore, I regularly work together with a sport psychologist. Because well trained and physically strong are most athletes at this level. That’s why the mental strength needs to match, too. Often the mindset makes the last bit of difference for success. I generally try to see the positive side: It is nice, to be a top candidate. I have worked hard for it.
Are you also privately an ambitious person and strict with yourself?
Strict yes, not so much ambitious. Privately, I am calmer and more introvert. As an athlete, I must be more extrovert and assert myself.
What do you mean with “strict”?
I am critical, question a lot and am not satisfied with myself easily. Often, I think I could do better. That’s why I am often a little dissatisfied with myself. Entirely after the quote by Socrates: “When you believe you are something, you have stopped becoming something.”
Your sports motto is “becoming better every day than the day before”. Can you also be satisfied with yourself and your performance?
I can also be satisfied. It is good and important to enjoy the success, to pause for a moment and to look back happily. In professional sports, being satisfied can also be dangerous, at least if this state of mind lasts too long. Then you risk standing still.
It is important for you to “be respected as athlete and person, but not to be admired as disabled person.” Have you had any negative experiences in the past?
I said that already as a Junior. I often had the feeling that I am triggering an “aw-effect”. In parasports it is obvious that we are in an area of tension between being celebrated heroes and pitiful victims. I make this experience again and again as biases and stereotypes still exist unfortunately. But the development is very positive: Interest of the media is increasing, the way they report about it is becoming more professional. An encouraging example for lived integration are also the World Marathon Majors. Here us wheelchair users are practically treated the same way as the runners.
Where are your thoughts in the middle of a race?
It strongly depends on the competition. Most of the time I am completely focused; what am I doing, what are the others doing, how is the race going, which tactic works? If I am far ahead of the other participants, it can occur that my mind starts to drift off.
Let’s also drift off topic a little… how would you describe your character?
(Thinks) Calm or even introvert, focused, attentive and considerate.
Does that mean you are not a spontaneous and decisive person?
No, not really. I am rather a planner. And I often find it hard to make important decisions. I require advice from my environment or a list with pros and cons to be able to make a balanced heart-head-gut decision.
Speaking of gut: are you following a special diet?
I try to eat a fairly balanced and healthy diet. But I am not on a special diet, and I don’t count calories. Occasionally, I like to eat sweets or schnitzel and fries. Of course, the body weight needs to be right, and I wouldn’t eat anything like that directly before a competition. Before a race, light and carb-rich foods are on the menu.
What is the last thing that you have cooked yourself?
Honestly, I don’t cook often. My last dish was pasta with minced meat.
What is the last photo you took with your cell phone?
If you had three wishes, what would they be?
My top priority number one is health. My second wish is a clear idea about my career. (Thinks) I can’t quickly think of a third wish.
But that’s a good sign! Is there anything you would want to change retroactively?
No. I always look ahead.
The look ahead is not only positive. Are you concerned about climate change?
Yes, a lot! I must admit this topic weights heavy on my heart. Also, because I am aware that my lifestyle leaves a big footprint. As top athlete, I often have to fly to the competition venues, this triggers a strong feeling of conflict in me. I therefore hardly go abroad for personal reasons, and I generally compensate my CO2 footprint.
Do you have time to do some sight-seeing at the competition venues?
It depends. For marathons there are often media conferences for which I need to arrive a few days earlier. Sometimes this allows me to explore the region. Often, however, I only arrive for the competition and return immediately after. Although I don’t like traveling by airplane: I especially like Japan. I like the special culture; I feel very comfortable there.
Where do you feel most comfortable? Do you have a favorite place?
I love spending time at my parents’ farm in Pfyn, Canton Thurgau. Many beautiful childhood memories are connected to it. I like spending time in nature, in the mountains and on the lake.
Your residence in Nottwil lies directly on Lake Sempach. Can you be found there often?
Very often! I go swimming in Lake Sempach every Sunday – all year round. In the winter it takes a little bit of effort, but I realize how it helps me to regenerate. Especially in the cold water I experience nature intensely and then I am completely in the moment.
When else do you forget the time?
When doing sport and I’m in the flow. But it can happen otherwise during a beautiful moment that I forget everything around me.
What has happened to you today that was nice?
Honestly, I haven’t done a whole lot today so far. Before our interview I have worked on my laptop at home. But if I may look at a wider period: This week I met many nice people and yesterday three strangers congratulated me.
So, people recognize you on the street and start a conversation?
Yes, that sometimes happens. Mostly congratulating or telling me that they admire my achievements. I am always very happy about that.
What was the most beautiful compliment that you have ever received?
That I am a nice guy and that I have a beautiful laugh.
How do you deal with frustration?
I try to breathe for a moment and go back one step. Then I reflect: Can I influence this? If so, I act, if not, I accept it.
Which achievements make you especially proud?
My Paralympic medals and my world records. But generally, I am happy about what I made of my life so far.
Do you have an idol?
No, I don’t have an idol, neither in sport nor personally. Of course, I like to observe how other athletes work but never in the sense of an idol. As a child, I certainly looked up to my three older brothers.
You were able to meet quite a few prominent people. Who do you remember above all?
Yes, I was lucky to meet many celebrities, among them many famous sportspersons such as Roger Federer. Or celebrities like Prince Harry, Jamie Foxx, our Federal councilors, the Japanese Emperor Naruhito (back then still crown prince), Boris Johnson and Richard Branson. I was also impressed by the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He took an incredible amount of time for each of the approximately 30 athletes and was completely soaked in sweat after our “photo marathon”.
You are used to sweating… How do you manage to balance your challenging lifestyle as athlete and your personal life?
Sometimes I manage better, other times not so well. Especially because I also take care of the management and administration myself. Despite good planning and periods of free time, it is sometimes difficult to keep a work-life balance. During a normal week, I train on six days approximately twice daily. Racing wheelchair, weight training and mental training. And the competition calendar is pretty full. I am aware, however, that as an athlete, recovery time is important. In the meantime, I have learned to say no, to sometimes postpone things or to delegate. Luckily sport and training gives me a good quality of life, recovery, and energy back. When I am stressed, conscious breathing or meditating helps me. And I pay attention specifically to the necessary deceleration, either in nature, when camping or simply at home on the couch.
When you find the time for a comfy night on the couch – do you sometimes watch a movie? If yes, which type of movie?
I enjoy watching various types of movies, from action thrillers to romantic, schmaltzy movies to comedies. Generally everything except for Marvel-hero movies or movies showing excessively much violence.
Even if you don’t like heroes: Which superpower would you choose?
(Laughs) Healing powers!
What else makes you laugh?
Oh, that can be many things: About myself, when I do mess up, when someone says something funny or a comedy on TV.
What was the craziest thing you have ever done?
I once went skydiving which was super cool, and I would do it immediately again. Also, my day with the cantonal police of Thurgau was crazy. They did an exercise about personal security, and I got to play the celebrity and fly in the police helicopter.
Is there also a special song that makes you “fly”?
Yes, there is a very special song for me which I always listen to before the Paralympic finals. When I first discovered this music many years ago, it triggered something very special in me, a mix of focus, tension, calm and confidence. Hard to explain somehow, as it’s not a traditional “power song” but a completely unknown, instrumental piece with Arabian influences. But I don’t want to give away more since it’s supposed to remain special to me.
Do you have a bucket list with things you absolutely want to do?
I am one of those people who live consciously. If I want to do something, then I do it. Given, of course, my wish is realistic. I want to live in a way that I regret nothing. Because I deal with the concept of finitude – without being afraid of death.
Which legacy of yourself do you want to leave on this world?
I hope, of course, a positive one! Obviously, I want to be remembered as a good athlete. And if I was able to inspire people or to contribute something to the integration and recognition of athletes with disabilities, even better.
Who has influenced you the most on your life journey?
This is without doubt my coach, Paul Odermatt. We have been working together for almost 27 years; he has known me since my childhood. Still today he supports me enormously during daily training and during competitions.
Every year, together with your coach, you organize the “Swiss Silver Bullet Camp”. Can you tell us more about it?
For one week, 30 international young athletes as well as newcomers in the field wheelchair athletics can use the optimized infrastructure of Swiss Paraplegic Group in Nottwil and benefit from the know-how of my coach. Aside from training together, free time and cozy get-togethers are included as well.
You are interviewed often, give talks and presentations. How is that for you?
Honestly, I am always very nervous and must get my act together, be it in front of the camera or on stage. I am even more nervous than before a competition! When giving presentations, it is a little easier because I know exactly what I am going to talk about. But I like to move out of my comfort zone. And the nice encounters and reactions help me. But even then, my self-criticism appears again and again: I should have done this better or differently.
What topics do you talk about on the stage?
My presentations are about everything that has to do with sport, also about topics such as motivation, goals, autonomy, mental aspects or dealing with victory and defeat. Even if I explain briefly why I am in a wheelchair, I don’t accept talks that are mainly about “disability” or “fate”. With one exception: Talks for children and school classes.
What advice would you recommend to your “younger self”?
To try and approach life even a little more courageous and be more open and less reserved.
What are you grateful for?
That I was able to live a good and happy life so far. And that I have been able to reach all my goals in sports.
Is there a day that you would like to relive?
If I could, then the day in 2021, on which I won my first Paralympic gold medals in Tokyo*. That feeling cannot be described: a mix of relief – as I absolutely wanted to achieve this! – and great joy, happiness, pride, and also disbelief. In that moment I did not know yet what the medals mean for me.
* Gold 800 m, gold 1500 m (with new world record: 1:17:47), gold 5000 m und gold marathon
What would you like to have more time for?
Generally, for friends and family, sharing a delicious meal together, playing board games and having good conversations. I also would like to go camping more often and spend time in nature. Since my adolescence I wanted to play an electric guitar, but my three attempts so far have failed. So, it stays on my to-do list.
Electric guitar? This leads to a question about your musical style…
I listen to everything from classical music to death metal. What I don’t like so much are pop songs and reggae.
Let’s get to the final chase with short questions: ocean or mountains?
The Swiss mountains, of course.
Summer or winter?
Summer: I prefer the heat.
Saving or spending money right away?
I am a conservative spender. But for food, an outing or sport, of course, I enjoy spending money.
Morning or night person?
I am rather a night person. I like to work at night and go to bed late. Also, during competitions, my performance is better at night – but (unfortunately) I have no influence on the start of the race.
Is the glass half empty or half full?
My glass is always half full. I have always been a positive person.
Thank you very much for your time and approachability, Marcel! We wish you all the best for your health, good luck, and a clear head (with or without Swiss Silver Bullet).
Which questions would you like to ask Marcel Hug?