Few nordic ski racing and biathlon venues are as awe-inspiring as the Canmore Nordic Centre in Alberta, Canada. Just south of the venue, amidst the geologic upheaval that is the Canadian Rockies, punches the Three Sisters — a string of iconic Canmore mountains. While descending from a technical route on the Middle Sister earlier this month on Aug. 9, Richard Boruta, a seasoned climber, died in a climbing accident. He was 49.
At the time of the accident, Boruta was attempting the Three Sisters Traverse as part of his 50th year, as he was turning 50 in October. It was Boruta’s first time on the climbing route.
Boruta was a fixture of Canadian biathlon’s high performance and development scenes since 1998 when he immigrated to Canada from his native Czech Republic. Most recently, he was named Biathlon Canada’s male coach of the year for 2017. It was his third time receiving the award.
His Canadian coaching career began with Canmore’s Rocky Mountain Racers (RMR). Boruta advanced to become the Canadian national team’s head coach in 2002. He remained in that position until 2006, after seeing his athletes compete at the Torino Olympics. Post-Torino, Boruta left the national team to become more involved in the development side of the sport.
In 2011, Boruta became the head coach of the newly formed Biathlon Alberta Training Centre (BATC).
Zina Kocher, a three-time Canadian Olympic biathlete, fostered a deep connection to Boruta as she emerged onto the Canadian biathlon radar. Kocher told FasterSkier on the phone that she qualified for the national championships in 12th grade at age 17. To her surprise, she placed in the top 10, and Boruta took notice.
At biathlon nationals, the arrangement was for athletes to attend with the regional coach, not their specific club coach. Boruta was the Alberta regional coach for the event and by default helped guide Kocher. Boruta asked Kocher to join RMR, where he was then coaching.
“I had friends already on that team,” Kocher said. “I decided to try for the summer.”
That short-term arrangement quickly evolved. Kocher decided to bump the summer commitment up to a year long stay.
“I was enrolled in college and then I decided to train full time and do it for one year and see if I could make the world junior team,” Kocher recalled. “They had a lot of faith in my ability and they pushed me to go for it. I made the world junior team … I made my first Olympics in 2006, and I spent all that time being coached by Richard.”
Kocher remained on the national team from 2006 to 2011. During that time she worked primarily with other coaches. After a performance downturn in 2011, Kocher decided to train with Boruta and BATC. Until her retirement in 2016, Kocher was coached by Boruta for all but the year following the Sochi Olympics when she trained with the national team. (For the 2016 competition year, Kocher was coached by Boruta as a member of BATC.) From 17, until her retirement at 32 years old, Boruta helped shape Kocher.
“I feel like he changed a lot himself from the time he was first coaching to the end,” Kocher reflected. “At the beginning, he was quite Eastern European, he was strict. I cried a lot. It was hard. He pushed me, he constantly challenged me, he always expected more from me. If he said ‘good job,’ you did awesome. Those comments he kept to the end, but he turned maybe more Canadian. Near the end, if I got emotional, he would just give me a big hug. He didn’t say anything. It was just a hug.”
Macx Davies, of Biathlon Canada’s national senior team, was also mentored by Boruta at BATC. For his first two years after high school, Davies said Boruta helped him form a knowledge base that eventually led him to a national-team nomination.
“During those two years we developed a working relationship and he taught me how to be a full-time athlete,” Davies wrote in an email. “From how to train in proper zones, to hitting targets, to being a well-rounded individual, Richard helped shape who I am today.”
Davies reiterated a point that Kocher made several times: that Boruta was even-keeled, calm and perfectly suited for a sport like biathlon where unsteady nerves can sink an otherwise stellar ski performance.
“As a coach, Richard was the most calm and soft-spoken I ever had,” Davies wrote. “Whether you are racing for a spot on the Olympic team or doing a time trial at home, he was the same calm, supportive and helpful coach, always there to give you a smile, head nod, and if you did really well an illusive high-five!”
Boruta’s life work was still firmly immersed in the present as he coached Megan Bankes, a rising star for Biathlon Canada. At 19 years old, Banks is coming off a season where she won two individual gold medals at the 2017 IBU Junior World Championships. Despite being named to the senior national team, Bankes still trained with Boruta as a member of BATC.
Helping athletes reach their potential was Boruta’s bread and butter. And for Boruta’s clan of biathletes, that potential often meant the international stage. According to Roddy Ward, Biathlon Canada’s high-performance director, half of the current national team moved through BATC under Boruta’s tutelage.
“Richard was a key player in helping Canada close the gap to the international podium,” Ward wrote in an email.
Ward first met Boruta while competing as a junior biathlete. In 2006, when Ward returned to Canmore for a coaching position, he became professionally linked to Boruta.
“Since 2011, Richard coaching BATC and myself coaching National Team we worked more closely together, often working together with athletes in a NT camp based program (Megan Bankes, Julia Ransom, Emma Lunder, Sarah Beaudry), combining for many training sessions, camps, testing, races etc.,” Ward explained.
The data and spreadsheets, the periodization and hours trained are part of developing an athlete. A coach may tinker with more technique one year, more volume the next. Yet one aspect of the coaching equation difficult to change is the personality each coach brings to the athlete-coach relationship. Ward noted that by observing Boruta, he came to understand that some of what Boruta practiced could, in fact, make his own coaching more effective.
“Early in my career I would notice a contrast to Richard and myself on the range while explaining the day’s training,” Ward emailed. “I would be almost yelling the directions while athletes chatted among themselves and ran around not listening (I’d often have to give directions multiple times), while Richard would talk very quietly (like he always does) while all his athletes listened very closely so they could actually hear the directions. I thought there was something to that and started to apply this technique in my own way.”
Kocher said Boruta understood his inherent strengths. “One time we did this one truth and two lies,” Kocher said. “I’ll never forget because the truth was ‘I believe in nonverbal communication.’ That was him. He didn’t say a lot of words and what he said was valuable and it meant a lot.”
Ward also absorbed the Boruta “less-is-more” tenant.
“Talk less and listen more,” Ward wrote. “When you do say something it will have a bigger impact. I used to talk too much, give too much direct feedback, be too assertive. Now I let the athlete lead more, don’t always give them answers immediately, try to listen more than talk. It’s made me a better coach and teacher.”
But there were days when Boruta could scream encouragement. And in those moments, when the coaching lessons had been ingrained, Boruta revealed his love for seeing others achieve.
“He was someone who didn’t show a ton of emotion,” Kocher said. “Yet when he showed emotion it was passionate. I remember this happened a few times. A long time ago, for the first time, I was going to make a pursuit. I was a first year senior and had just done a World Cup as a junior. Back then I had never made the top-60. Then in the third World Cup in December, in 2003 I guess, I was in Slovakia. It was a windy day and I shot zero-zero. I just remember leaving the range just like super confidently. I had just shot clean for the first time in my life. Literally, Richard was running beside me on the hill. Somehow he had left the range and he was on the hill and he was cheering me on telling me I could get a top-10. And the course was really open and he was able to come out while I was finishing the climb and hitting the next downhill. Then he was suddenly on the next hill. He was cheering me on that one, and then he was near this bridge near the finish. He just found his way onto all these spots on the course to get me to go harder, and he was at the finish line. I remember his passion a lot from that day.”
Boruta is survived by his wife Kamila and three sons Michal, Thomas and Lukas, his mother Jirina, father Richard, and granddaughter Sophie.