When the World Youth and Junior Biathlon Championships kick off in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic on Saturday, both the U.S. and Canadian teams will have high hopes.
In 2010 in Torsby, Sweden, Canadian Rose-Marie Cote won a bronze medal in the youth 10 k individual. In 2009 in Canmore, Canada, American Grace Boutot won silver in the same event, and Canadian Yolaine Oddou was one spot behind her. That was a banner year for the home team: Audrey Vaillancourt won bronze in the youth 6 k sprint, and the youth men took silver in the relay. That’s to say nothing of the multiple top-10 finishes by these and other athletes in the last two years.
The good news is that all of the medal-winning athletes are returning this year except for Canada’s Kurtis Wenzel, who is focusing on skiing with the Alberta Ski Team.
And they’d better not rest on their laurels, because their own teammates are gunning for the podium as well. For instance, Boutot finished second at the U.S. trials, behind Corrine Malcolm, a freshly converted skier who is in her first year of training as a biathlete.
To understand the event, if you’re a ski fan, think of the youth division as more like World Juniors for skiing (athletes are born in 1992 or later) and the junior division more like Under-23 Championships (athletes are born in 1990 or 1991). The junior division is incredibly competitive and often includes a significant number of World Cup athletes.
For instance, Leif Nordgren, the top American junior last year, recently contributed a stellar relay leg to the 9th-place relay at the Antholz World Cup. And in Canmore just two years ago, podium finishers included Miriam Gossner and Simon Schempp of Germany and Benjamin Weger of Switzerland – all of whom have stood on the World Cup podium – as well as current overall World Cup leader Tarjei Boe of Norway.
This year, it may be slightly less competitive because the World Cup circuit has moved across the pond to Aroostook County, Maine. As a result, it will be hard for top juniors to split their time between the World Cup and World Juniors.
Boutot (Maine Winter Sports Center/Fort Kent ME) is the most successful of the American biathletes, but she’s joined by Ethan Dreissigacker (Craftsbury Nordic Ski Club/Morrisville VT) and Raleigh Goessling (Maine Winter Sports Center/Esko MN) in having the most experience: the trio has been teammates since the 2008 Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany.
“I’ve been on teams with Ethan for a couple of years, and I think that both of us have the potential for some very respectable results,” Goessling told FasterSkier after the trials races in Jericho, Vermont in December.
As noted, Boutot has some competition in Malcolm (Maine Winter Sports Center/Hayward WI). Last year, Malcolm qualified for NCAA Championships racing for Montana State University, and she was on the podium in the sprint at junior nationals for the past two years. At the end of last winter she jumped in a biathlon race and never looked back.
This weekend, the athletes had a chance to race on the Nove Mesto trails in a series of warm-up races with a few of the other junior national teams. Malcolm and Boutot each raced once: Malcolm finished seventh in Saturday’s sprint race and Boutot eighth in Sunday’s relay-format sprint.
For Malcolm, the experience was quite valuable.
“As far as my first international race goes, I kind of gave myself a pep talk at the starting gate that went something like this, ‘Corrine Malcolm settle the f&*! down…” and then the lady started to count me down in German,” she said in an e-mail.
“The last few days going into a big race kind of reminds me of studying for college exams. I always felt like if I didn’t know it the night before I wasn’t going to get any smarter in the next eight hours anyway, so I’m trying to stay relaxed. The work is done. We put in the hours all summer and fall and knowing that I worked really hard is all I have to rely on. I’m excited and it’s only going to amp up as we get closer to the weekend. I really have no idea what to expect… I just expect myself to ski hard and shoot just like I’ve practiced. That’s all I can really ask for.”
Boutot didn’t need the experience as much, as she had raced in Nove Mesto before.
“I knew what to expect this year coming into World Juniors since I was able to race in Nove Mesto in the IBU Cup last year,” Boutot told FasterSkier. “I had a top 30 finish in the IBU Cup, and that has encouraged and motivated me for this upcoming weekend.
“I wasn’t able to train very well [this year],” she continued. “Because of that my expectations are not quite as high as I had previously set, but I know that I am still capable of having some good finishes. My goal now is to get a few top 20 results and qualify for Under-26 Championships in Italy in February. I’m excited, I’m going into these races to have fun and with no pressure on my shoulders.“
In the junior men’s division, Dreissigacker and Goessling are joined by Ben Greenwald (Maine Winter Sports Center/Saint Paul MN). The three have been very competitive with each other so far: Greenwald and Dreissigacker both won races at junior trials, but Goessling was never far behind.
This weekend it was the same as ever. Greenwald and Dreissigacker finished 15th and 16th in the men’s sprint race, separated by only 0.3 seconds, and Goessling was 23 seconds back in 18th. In the relay format, they opted to race as juniors, and improved their placings. Dreissigacker led the way in eighth, followed by Greenwald and Goessling in 11th and 12th.
Silke Hynes (Vermont Collegiate Biathlon/Burlington VT) and Kelly Kjorlein (Mount Itasca/Grand Rapids MN) are returning for a second year representing the U.S. as youths. In Torsby last year, Kjorlein moved up from 58th place in the sprint to finish 40th in the pursuit. And in Sunday’s relay-format race, Kjorlein led the group with a tenth-place finish.
“I’m feeling pretty confident going into the races,” Kjorlein said in an e-mail. “Unfortunately I just came down with a pretty nasty cough but hopefully it will clear up by Saturday. But it was really nice to have the chance to get used to the trails and venue before the important races. I’ve been lucky enough to have plenty of time to get adjusted to the new surroundings. The trails here are fantastic, the crew out at the venue has been doing a wonderful job laying down snow and keeping things groomed nicely.”
Hynes has experience, but she is more of a shooter than a skier. Her best chance of a good result will be in the individual race, where each missed shot comes with a one-minute penalty.
Hynes and Kjorlein are joined by a pair of newcomers. Carly Wynn (Saratoga Biathlon/Queensbury NY) was the top qualifier at junior trials, and undoubtedly the fastest skier on the squad. Just before leaving for Europe, she finished 13th in the Lake Placid SuperTour 10 k skate – the top result by a high school skier. Wynn has good shooting days and bad shooting days, so she’s something of an unknown quantity.
But her unpredictability is nothing compared to the other newcomer, Tara Garaghty-Moates, a former medalist at the junior national sprint. Shooting isn’t Garaghty-Moates’ strong point – in the races this weekend she shot 30% and 25% – but if she has a good day on the range, she could have a very good day indeed. As it is, she beat Kjorlein by 35 seconds in the sprint on Saturday, so despite a few trips to the penalty loop she’s capable of leading the team.
“Even though our youth team is a little less experienced, I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of results we can post,” Kjorlein said. “Carly and Tara are both very experienced in the nordic world, so they’ve been doing a great job transitioning over to biathlon.”
The youth men’s squad features only one returning member – Casey Smith (Methow Valley/Winthrop WA), who finished 32nd in the sprint last year in Torsby. There, he was the junior member of the team behind Dreissigacker and Goessling. But now, he is undeniably the leader of a young, inexperienced squad. In the races this weekend, he finished fourth and fifth.
“I felt that my races this weekend went well,” Smith told FasterSkier. “They were for sure not perfect, but that is okay because there is still a few more days before the world junior races start. Those races were very beneficial to help prepare for World Juniors.
“I feel prepared for the upcoming races,” he concluded. “I am adjusting pretty well, I have finally adjusted to the time difference, and the food is good so I don’t have to worry about that. The trails are nice.”
But Smith’s experience is the only reason he is the squad’s leader. He was actually the fourth qualifier at junior trials, which were won by a pair of young biathletes with similar names: Sam Dougherty (Alaska Biathlon/Anchorage AK) and Sean Doherty (Saratoga Biathlon/Conway NH). And Doherty bested Smith in Sunday’s relay-format sprint, finishing fourth.
They are joined by Dougherty’s teammate Ray Wonders (Alaska Biathlon/Anchorage AK).
“I think that the youth men’s team will be able to hold their own as long as the shooting stays good,” Smith said.
With five returning medalists, it’s hard to pick out just a few Canadian athletes to focus on.
One athlete, however, has already had some experience racing in Europe this year. Scott Gow, who has competed in four Junior/Youth World Championships already and has three individual top-10 finishes and one relay medal, was part of Canada’s IBU Cup squad in December. His top finish was 15th place in the individual in Martell, Italy.
“I am confident going into Worlds after racing the IBU Cup earlier this season,” Gow told FasterSkier. “I had good results before Christmas and I know that if I can put out a good race I will be able to place within the top twenty and hopefully within the top ten. I am still very focused on making sure my skiing is in good form and that my shooting is still on target.”
In the junior men’s division he is joined by David Gregoire, Aaron Gillmor, and Vincent Blais. Gillmor has the next most international experience: it’s his third trip to the Championships, and he joined Gow on the silver-medal relay team in Canmore. Gregoire competed in Torsby last year with a top finish of 30th in the individual.
The youth men’s squad also has a Gow on it – Scott’s brother Christian.
“Christian and I started biathlon at the same time around ten years ago at a summer camp at Canada Olympic Park,” Scott Gow said. “We both did a biathlon demo and loved it, so we signed up for the biathlon bears program and soon after joined Rocky Mountain Racers. Christian and Stuart [Harden] will be good ones to watch in the Youth Men category.”
Christian Gow finished 16th in the sprint in Torsby last year. He is joined by Harden, Macx Davies, and Albert Bouchard.
The youth women’s squad is led by Cote and Julia Ransom, who finished 11th in the individual in Torsby and was part of the fourth-place relay team. They are joined by Danielle Vrielink and Sarah Beaudry.
And finally, the junior women are led by former medalists Oddou and Vaillancourt, and rounded out by Emma Lunder, who competed in Torsby last year with a top finish of 30th in the individual.
“Look out for the Quebec girls: Yolaine, Rose Marie, and Audrey,” Gow advised.