RUHPOLDING, Germany – Some things on the World Cup this weekend definitely haven’t gone as planned for the Canadian team.
Let’s start with the conditions. There’s more snow than in Oberhof last week (which the World Cup team skipped anyway, giving the starts to its B squad instead), but the snow here is scarce, icy, and intermittently salted. That wasn’t what Megan Heinicke, for one, was hoping to come back to.
“I was somewhat disappointed with my skiing in both the relay and today’s race,” she wrote in an e-mail after the 15 k individual. “A part of it is that icy conditions like today are a weakness for me and have always been a challenge.”
She was feeling “energized and fit”, but wasn’t able to translate that directly into skiing on the course.
Then, there were struggles on the range. Nathan Smith and Jean Philippe Le Guellec both had four penalties in the 20 k individual on Saturday, too many for a top result (they finished 40th and 52nd).
Rosanna Crawford and Megan Heinicke had good individual races on Friday, but then had four penalties in the pursuits this morning. That meant that they weren’t able to capitalize on their 26th- and 30th-place starting positions, and were relegated to 37th and 48th.
But all is not lost: nearly every athlete came away with something to be happy about, including a top-20 finish by Smith (more on that later). It started with the relays: on Wednesday, the women placed 12th, and on Thursday the men had a strong eighth-place showing. Both teams had only just arrived from Canada, and were still dealing with jetlag, leaving them happier with the performances than they might have been otherwise.
More positive things came on Friday, after the women’s individual race, starting with Rosanna Crawford.
“I think it was a pretty good ski time, and 17 is the best I’ve ever shot in an individual,” she said at the finish. “So I have to be happy with that. It’s too bad about my first prone, but, it happens.”
Crawford was also simply happy to be racing and hitting the points at all. She thought back to last season, when she finished 65th in the sprint here.
“This is a lot different than last year,” she said. “I remember at these races last year I was feeling reallllly awful. So I’m happy that I didn’t dig myself too deep in December. I think I just wasn’t used to that many races last year. It was 11 races, whereas this year it was 10 for me. I think I am just overall fitter.”
Heinicke was also feeling good about where she’s at, after a few seasons where she’s been plagued by illness in the middle of the racing season.
“I have struggled a lot with health over the past few years and this was the first Christmas break since 2008 that I didn’t get sick!” Heinicke wrote of her winter break. “So I was pretty happy about that.”
Heinicke lives in Altenberg, Germany, with her family. Since the Canadian team skipped Oberhof and the rest of her teammates were back home in Canada, she took the opportunity to compete in the IBU Cup races in Ridnaun, Italy. It was an ideal warm-up for this weekend’s World Cups, although not for the reasons she had expected.
“The IBU Cups were important for 2 reasons - one was that they were used as some intensity at the end of a training block and the other was race shooting,” she wrote. “I struggled to bring together standing shooting before Christmas and I did a lot of high quality shooting training over the break. I wanted to use the IBU Cups as a chance to boost my confidence a bit!”
In the pair of sprints, Heinicke placed seventh with two penalties in the first, and 20th with three penalties in the second. Racing on biathlon’s second-tier circuit, she said the goal is to get on the podium, which she thought she could have done with better shooting.
“The shooting was obviously did not go as planned, but in retrospect I am glad I raced there because I think I learned from the mistakes I made and have shot much better here in Ruhpolding,” she wrote.
Both women were happy that Olympic qualification is over, for various reasons. Crawford knew for a long time that she was already qualified, but was waiting for her boyfriend, Brendan Green, to complete his own criteria. He eventually won a series of trials races just before Christmas to secure his spot.
“The break was really nice,” Crawford said. “The first week was super stressful with Brendan’s trials, I think I would have been less stressed if I had been racing myself! It’s a weird feeling. I have a lot more sympathy for my parents now.”
Heinicke completed her criteria in December, which has taken a huge weight off her shoulders.
“I actually expected myself to feel more relaxed with the Olympic qualification settled and done, but I have realized that a lot of the pressure I feel comes from myself, my own high standards and my own frustration when I do not meet my standards,” Heinicke wrote. “It is definitely good to be in a ‘safe’ position right now where I can choose to take more risk without feeling like I should always play on the safe side.”
Megan Imrie placed 58th in the individual and used three penalties to ski her way up to 39th in the pursuit, sneaking into the World Cup points.
Audrey Vaillancourt, racing in place of Zina Kocher who is competing at skiing Olympic trials, placed 62nd in the individual with two penalties, narrowly missing the pursuit.
After their successful relay, the Canadian team had a bit of a downer as they had to send Brendan Green back to the IBU Cup. With only three starting spots on the World Cup this season, they aren’t able to carry a full team.
“Even though they are all qualified for the Olympics, they can’t rest too much,” head coach Matthias Ahrens said. “They have to fight for these three spots a little bit.”
Scott Perras had the best performance in the 20 k individual, using two penalties to place 36th. His teammates Smith and Le Guellec were saddled with those frustrating four penalties each.
It was particularly dangerous since for the first time since 2003, the individual was being used as the basis for a pursuit. Usually, pursuits are based off of sprint races. With four minutes of penalty time, it would not have been surprising to miss the pursuit, especially since the field usually shoots very well in Ruhpolding with its downhill range approach and minimal wind.
“The shooting is usually really good for the field,” Smith said after the individual. “So this is a mediocre race [for me], I’d say.”
Still, he was feeling like his performance was coming together after the team’s travel over to Europe.
“The relay was the first real race thing I’d done in a few weeks,” he said after the individual. “Other than that I’d just been doing intensity by myself, so it was good to get in shape for today. I’m not surprised that I felt better today.”
And he wasn’t concerned about his shooting, either.
“My shooting has been feeling solid, I think,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with my shooting, it’s just that two bouts didn’t go perfect.”
That turned out to be a very accurate assessment. In the pursuit this afternoon, both he and Le Guellec shone on the range, surpassing Perras even though he started far in front of them. Le Guellec shot clean to move from 52nd all the way up to 32nd, and into the points; Smith had a single penalty and passed Alexei Volkov, yesterday’s second-place finisher, in the final kilometer to seal 16th place, tying the second-best finish of his career.
“It was a really good race,” he said at the finish of the pursuit. “One of my best for the year. I think skiing was pretty similar to yesterday, but my shooting was a lot better, so that’s what made the difference.”
With three penalties, Perras stayed solid and moved into 35th, leaving all three Canadians in the points on the day.
It wasn’t easy, either – the iciness that Heinicke had complained about on Friday broke down into granular, sometimes deep snow by the time the men raced today.
“Some spots were kind of deep – well, not deep, but just slow I guess, on the flatter parts,” Smith explained. “And the uphills were icy. But some of the women said it was icy for them too. On the last lap I had to pass the Russian on the last uphill, and he was on the softer part, which was a bit better. I had to go on the icy part, which was tricky.”
So, with one weekend remaining until the World Cup takes a break until the Olympics, the Canadians are feeling positive for the last three starts.
“We approach it like any other race, you warm up, you put the rifle on your back, you try to hit the targets,” Crawford said of pre-Olympic racing. “But maybe we have a little bit of load during these races. That could be a little bit different.”