Neither Tracy Barnes-Colliander nor Casey Simons got what they really wanted this winter, which was a trip to Vancouver to compete in the 2010 Olympics.
But after today’s 10/7.5k sprint in Fort Kent, those two have pretty good consolation prizes: a North American biathlon title. Pushing through mushy trails, Barnes-Colliander and Simons were the winners of the first event of the three-race championships here, overcoming fields that included Olympic competitors in both genders.
While Barnes-Colliander had to shoot clean to win her race, Simons found himself still in the thick of things despite three misses in his first of two stages.
There were just six elite competitors in the men’s race, and none of them shot well in their first round, either. In fact, out of all of them, only one, Russell Currier, could knock down even four targets. (Currier squandered his chances with three misses in the final stage) Everyone else had a couple of penalties, and the race was still tight as the skiers left the range.
There’s no scoreboard in Fort Kent, so Simons had no idea where he stood after those misses. All he knew was what he could see, which was a few of his competitors chasing him out on course.
Then, in his second stage, Simons cleaned, hitting all five targets standing, which he said gave him a big boost on his final lap.
Hot on his heels, though, was Walt Shepard. Starting a minute behind, Shepard came into the range for his last shooting stage only to see a stoked Simons leaving—without a single penalty.
“I needed to shoot fast, trying to have a chance to ski with him in the last loop,” Shepard said.
With retirement on the horizon at the end of the year, Shepard went for broke, squeezing off five rounds, machine-gun style, in the space of about ten seconds. Amazingly, it almost worked, as he hit four of five targets.
“Not too many races left—gotta go for it,” he said.
But that one miss left Simons with just enough of an opening, and he held off Shepard by nine seconds for the victory. Bill Bowler was third, 26 seconds back, with two penalties.
The two Olympians on the start list, Wynn Roberts and Marc-Andre Bedard, were neutralized, respectively, by poor shooting and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Bedard, a Canadian, was stopped at the border, and without the necessary paperwork to bring his rifle into the U.S., he had to turn around. He still hopes to compete in the races on Saturday and Sunday, according to Pierre Pepin, one of the Canadian coaches.
Roberts said that he never felt good skiing, and as a result, tried to pick things up in shooting.
He emerged from the prone stage relatively unscathed, but then felled himself with four penalties in standing, ending up nearly a minute and a half off Simons’ time.
The women’s race also came down to a two-person duel, between Barnes-Colliander and Claude Godbout, a 23-year-old Canadian who skis for the country’s national development team. Out of nine senior women in the race, they were the only two who could hit more than six targets.
Barnes-Colliander’s clean shooting was enough to put her seven seconds ahead of Godbout, who had one penalty in the standing stage. But while that lone miss quashed Godbout’s chances for a win, she had problems during the prone shooting, as well.
A couple of shots in, the breezy wind that blew all morning picked up into a strong gust. Rather than force her last few rounds and risk missing, Godbout waited patiently until the blowing subsided, then knocked down the rest of her targets.
The time she took may have cost her the race, but Pepin said Godbout didn’t have any options. While there might not have been a way to beat Barnes-Colliander today, a miss might have cost her third place over Haley Johnson.
“It’s either [being patient], or spend more time in the penalty loop,” Pepin said. “I think it was a very good move.”
While there’s no money to be won at the races here, Barnes-Colliander did actually have more on the line today than just bragging rights. She said she has a bet with her twin sister Lanny, who’s currently competing in Europe, about who will miss fewer targets over the last races of the season.
The competition is called “don’t waste a bullet,” Barnes-Colliander said, and the loser has to buy ammunition for the fall elk hunt.
Lanny put the pressure on by shooting well at the Olympics (impressively, she hit all 20 targets in the 15k individual race). But now Tracy is firing back.
“It will be tough [to win the bet], but it motivates both of us,” she said.
Johnson, in third, was clearly was the fastest skier on the day. She said that she likes the tricky courses in Fort Kent, which aren’t “highway skiing” like
some others. But she couldn’t overcome her four misses.
While Johnson wasn’t complaining about the trails here, she was one of few who didn’t struggle. Temperatures here stayed above freezing last night, and the loops were quickly chopped up as 128 athletes made their way around three times each.
“Really tough conditions out there. It was getting really deep, and so that made the skiing portion really slow and really tough,” Barnes-Colliander said–though she made it clear that it was through no fault of organizers or volunteers. “It was just kind of pushing yourself through it.”
A few wondered whether the race start could be moved earlier for the next set of races, when the courses might be more firm, but Patrick Coffey, a jury member, said that without a hard freeze at night, a time change won’t make a difference.
Caitlin Compton, who raced cross-country at the Olympics, struggled through six misses to finish seventh today. Straight off the plane from Norway and using a borrowed rifle, Compton said that the last time she picked up a gun was this summer.
“I definitely came in a little bit shakey in the range…I’d never seen a rifle shake quite that much,” she said. “But once I settled down, I hit the last two of each stage, so 40 percent isn’t bad for not my rifle, and coming over from Europe, I guess.”
Numerous other classes raced here today; full results were not yet available. FasterSkier will post a link on the Continental Cup blog as soon as possible. Maine Winter Sports Center CEO Andy Shepard has a photo gallery from the race, available here.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.