HOCHFILZEN, Austria – For the Canadian biathlon team, today’s men’s and women’s relays offered a tantalizing glimpse of what is possible.
The women’s team was as high as sixth and seventh place at times in the relay, including after the second-to-last shooting – and that was despite a penalty loop and three spare rounds by Megan Imrie in the second leg. That definitely hadn’t gone according to plan.
“If we can all just use one spare round each, it will be great,” Rosanna Crawford said after finishing the leadoff leg in tenth place, just 19.9 seconds off the lead.
It was a strong opening for Crawford, who also placed 17th in the sprint yesterday.
“My plan was to go off super aggressive and really try to get to the start of the pack, because it’s so narrow here that if you get to the back you can easily lose 30 seconds without it even really being your fault,” she said. “So I was happy with my start. Bummed about my one miss in prone, but stoked to finally clean my standing.”
Ultimately, Zina Kocher had a disastrous final shooting stage, racking up two more penalty loops in standing. That dropped her to 12th place, although she passed one team by the finish to end up 11th.
It wasn’t a good way to end the relay, yet there were plenty of positives – the Canadians were just 10 seconds from the top 10, the distance of one spare round or half a penalty loop. Kocher, despite her shooting woes, skied the fifth-fastest anchor leg. Megan Heinicke was cool under pressure and cleaned both her shooting stages with no spare rounds on the third leg, gaining the team valuable spots.
In the men’s race, Canada had an even more stellar start. Jean Philippe Le Guellec used a single spare round to tag off in eighth, 23 seconds out of the lead, and then Scott Perras used the same shooting to move into fourth by the halfway point of the relay race. When he tagged off to Brendan Green, Canada was just six seconds from the lead.
“I didn’t even realize I was up there until partway through the last lap, when I looked up the hill and was like, wow, there’s really nobody farther up,” he said. “I was desperate to take the top three, but I got cut off a couple of times on the last lap and that just zapped any energy I had.”
Since Canada only has three quota spots for individual racing on the World Cup this season, Perras took a strategic rest to try to allow his teammates Green and Nathan Smith to finish their Olympic qualification, which he has already done (it didn’t quite work). This being his only start of the weekend, he had a little extra motivation to fly.
“It’s the only bit of excitement I get to have all week, so I think I had a little bit of extra [power],” he said. “Even today I was trying to get the boys going, like, guys, this is my only chance for excitement this week! … ’d prefer to have a race in the body, even if it is the day before. Especially with conditions like this, it’s kind of the first time I’ve skied on [falling snow] this year.”
As Perras tried to get his team into the top three – he had the fifth-fastest ski time of racers on his leg, impressive especially considering how Ole Einar Bjørndalen put the pedal to the metal and broke up the field with his aggressive pace – he faced off against that new snow. Hochfilzen already has a fairly narrow course with lots of twisting corners, and the weather didn’t make it any easier to pass.
“When I tried to make two passes, I have small baskets on and they just punched through,” he said. “It’s okay, you just get back in the group, but I did have to yell at someone.”
When Green took over, he kept the team in a good spot through prone, but then accrued a penalty loop in standing. Anchor leg Smith took over in 12th place, and was able to move the team up to ninth with perfect shooting. He finished the race in a pack with Simon Hallenbarter of Switzerland, Leif Nordgren of the United States, and Lukas Hofer of Italy.
“I didn’t know the Swiss guy behind us,” Smith said. “I could hear someone behind me, but I couldn’t tell who. He went for it, and had a little more than Leif and I, so I kind of lost it on that last hill. But I started to recover coming down, and then I had a pretty good sprint to the finish. It was hard.”
The ninth place finish was still strong for Canada, which has had just three other top-ten men’s relay results in the last decade.
“Unfortunately Brendan got a little choke in his standing, but other than that it was probably one of our best relays ever. And the finish was really close from third, so with one less penalty loop or whatever, we could have moved up a lot.”