POKLJUKA, SLO—After contemplating retirement last spring, and at risk of losing his start position on the World Cup circuit due to poor results, Canada’s Robin Clegg proved to the world he still belongs.
The 30-year-old Ottawa native stormed into the top-10 for the first time of his nine-year career after finishing in eighth place, two minutes 47.0 seconds behind the leader, in the men’s 20-kilometre individual start race at the Biathlon World Cup in Pokljuka, Slovenia on Thursday.
â€œFor years my biggest goal was to break the top-10 and to do it today just means so much to me,â€ said Clegg, who added he had extra motivation to maintain his spot on the World Cup as the fields are going to be limited to 80 athletes, and he was ranked 77th. â€œI was on the edge and definitely couldn’t sleep last night.â€
Norwegian Emil Hegle Svendsen scored his first career victory today, winning the Pokljuka Individual in the total time of 51:58.1 minutes. In a race that saw all of the favorites suffer at the shooting range, Svendsen profited from his clean shooting record. Germany's Alexander Wolf missed one of his 20 targets and finished second (+48.6).
Even more noteworthy than Wolf's first decent performance of the season, however, was the performance of two Ukrainians in spots three and four. Oleg Berezhnoy, 23, hit all of his targets today and held on to a podium spot until the very last athlete in the race, his teammate Serguei Sednev, also 23, relegated him to fourth. Overall World Cup points leader, Ole-Einar Bjoerndalen (NOR) finished 20th.
Clegg took advantage of wearing bib number one in a field of just under 100 athletes, to be the first skier out of the gate and maintain his focus. Athletes start in 30 second intervals in the individual start race.
â€œFor someone like me, with what I was dealing with, being first is an advantage because I was able to go out and do my own thing,â€ said Clegg, who only missed two shots — one prone and one standing — in his four trips to the shooting range. â€œI didn’t see anyone around me for the first 10-to-12 minutes of the race so it was nice to be out there on my own.â€
Not performing to the level he expects of himself, coupled with getting married this summer, Clegg was ready to pack it all in last year and retire from the sport.
â€œI wasn’t supposed to race this year, but it was a pretty big commitment, both time-wise and financially, to continue on,â€ said Clegg, whose wife has also gone away to law school this year. â€œThat just makes today that much more important. I will take what I can from it, but it is important to remember, tomorrow is a new day and a new race.â€
The eighth-place finish matches the best-ever World Cup result by a Canadian male previously achieved by Canada’s Steve Cyr in the 1990’s. Cyr also had an eighth-place result at the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France.
Lowell Bailey was the top US finisher in 50th. Bailey missed 3 of his first 5 targets while spending four minutes on the range (compared to under a minute for the eventual winner), digging himself into a significant hole. He rebounded to hit 14 of 15 over the rest of the race, but was unable to recover. Teammates Jeremy Teela (73rd, 7 misses) and Jay Hakkinen (79th, 8 misses) also competed for the US.
Like Svendsen in the men's race, Russia's Ekaterina Iourieva also scored her first career victory today. Shooting flawlessly in all four sessions, the 24-year-old won in the time of 43:47.3 minutes. Michela Ponza (ITA) was a surprising second, thanks to an equally flawless performance at the shooting range. Ponza was 55.1 seconds behind Iourieva in the end, but held off Martina Glagow (GER). The German had one error today and maintained her run of podium results, finishing 1:18.2 minutes behind the victorious Iourieva.
The Swedish squad and German youngster Magdalena Neuner als delivered noteworthy performances. Swedes Anna Carin Olofsson, Helena Jonsson and Anna Maria Nilsson finished in positions four through six and thus logged the strongest team result of the day.
Neuner was by far the fastest skier on the course, and looked like a sure bet for the podium until the final shooting session. She recorded the best course time on each of the first four laps and had a commanding lead before she missed the first four targets in the last standing shoot. After another amazingly quick final lap, Magdalena Neuner logged a course time that was 55.5 seconds better than that of second-fastest Anna Carin Olofsson.
Tracy Barnes, the loan American woman, had a strong day at the range, with only one miss. She finished 40th, just under six minutes behind the winner.
Three other Canadians suited up on Thursday in Slovenia. Jean-Philippe LeGuellec was 59th (+7:15.0) in the men’s race, while Megan Imrie, of Falcon Lake, Man., was 49th (+6:39.1) and Calgary’s Sandra Keith was 63rd (+7:58.6) in women’s action. Zina Kocher, of Red Deer, Alta., who became the first Canadian to win a World Cup biathlon medal since Myriam Bedard did more than a decade ago when she won a bronze in Sweden last year, will rejoin the team following the holiday break.
The Biathlon World Cup continues on Saturday in Slovenia with the men’s and women’s sprint races.
Sources: Biathlon Canada, www.biathlonworld.com