It doesn’t happen that often, but when Russell Currier gets hot on the range, there’s not a lot that can stop him.
The Maine native is a notoriously fast skier—but also a notoriously inconsistent shooter. Sunday, at the North American Biathlon Championships, he wasn’t exactly on fire—more of a slow burn, perhaps—but the fifteen of twenty targets he hit was just enough to net him a satisfying win in the 15 k mass start race, at the tail end of a frustrating year.
“15 out of 20 is okay shooting,” said Gary Colliander, one of Currier’s coaches, “but when you show it head-to-head like it was today…this was a great performance.”
Currier’s victory wasn’t assured before getting past the last shooting stage. Having skied most of the previous loop glued to Canada’s Marc-Andre Bedard, the pair headed into the range together.
As they stepped up to shoot for the fourth and final time, their movements were practically synchronized. But Currier had a big advantage over Bedard before they even started firing: He was using his own rifle.
Bedard, who had been barred by the Border Patrol from bringing his own gun into the country, was using one that he’d borrowed from Maine Winter Sports Center.
“I’m still trying to learn how to shoot with this [gun],” he said. “Standing is especially hard.”
To make matters worse, Bedard jammed his second bullet after hitting his first shot. He had to stop and hand-feed the next round in, as Currier blazed through the stage with just one miss.
Standing right beside him, Bedard said that by then, he knew he had to hit the next four targets to give himself a chance—then proceeded to miss two.
By the time Bedard made his way over to the penalty loop, Currier was already heading back out on course, done with his one lap. And from the way Currier was skiing—huge, crisp strides—it was clear that the race had been decided. His coach let him know the size of his advantage, and he skied off assured of the win.
“A whole penalty is…a good 25 seconds,” he said. “We’re about even on ski speed, so I knew I’d be safe.”
Currier said it was his first win in a mass start race, and it was particularly satisfying since the winter had been such a tough one. He had hoped to qualify for the Olympic team this year, but shot poorly and didn’t even make the initial selection.
“This has probably been my worst season actually,” he said. “A nice little break like this definitely does the self-esteem good.”
It did his hometown fans some good as well. Maine Winter Sports Center’s men had been close to breaking through all week, as Walt Shepard took second place in each of the first two races. Today, they finally got a victory.
Shepard was third Sunday, in what was his last competitive biathlon race; he’s retiring at the end of this season. He was right with Bedard and Currier halfway through, but shot himself in the foot—not literally—with a handful of uncharacteristic misses.
He had three penalties in his first round, then worked his way back into the race by cleaning the second. But in the standing, he “threw it away again,” with three misses in the third stage and one in the fourth.
It was especially frustrating, Shepard said, because he felt so good skiing on Sunday. But he was still content with a third consecutive podium finish, giving a big bow to the crowd as he crossed the line.
“It worked out,” he said. “I’d rather be on the podium than not at all. I had written a little bit better end to the story—it just didn’t come true.”
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.