While many international biathletes have successfully competed in cross-country skiing events over the past few years, North America has seen little intermixing. While there is talk of biathletes chipping in for cross country events, most recently American Tim Burke pinch-hitting for the USST at a major championship relay, it rarely seems to happen.
Enter Aaron Gillmor, a 19-year-old Canadian who just wrapped up his first World Junior Championships (WJC) in cross-country in Otepaa, Estonia.
Gillmor, a native of Calgary, Alberta, has been to two previous WJC – but in biathlon. He even owns a medal from that event, as part of the silver-medal relay team when the championships were held in Canmore in 2009. In addition, he has two top-30 finishes from that same year.
This season, Gillmor actually qualified for WJC events in both disciplines. While it has been possible in the past, this year, the scheduling did not allow him to compete in both events, so Gillmor was forced to choose.
“It’s easier to make World Juniors for biathlon, as there is less national competition than in cross-country,” he said.
At biathlon trials, held in Whistler, B.C. before just before Christmas, Gillmor skied well enough to make the team, but he wasn’t happy with his racing.
“I was getting over a lung infection, and was not in good physical shape,” he said, “The skiing actually hurt me a lot while in Whistler, and was actually a factor that persuaded me go to Thunder Bay.”
Gillmor wasn’t aiming high in Thunder Bay. He and his coach, John Jaques, only decided to attend the races in order to improve Gillmor’s skiing form.
“I didn’t really have any sort of idea about what I had to do to make cross-country World Juniors,” he said. “I entered the Thunder Bay races with no expectations, only the desire to go ski my heart out.”
On the very first day of racing, he did just that. During the 15 k pursuit, Gillmor classic skied to the 13th fastest time, and then skated his way up the field to finish sixth overall, with the third-fastest skate leg on the day. It by no means guaranteed him a spot on the team, but with a 15 k freestyle event remaining, there was a chance.
In that 15 k freestyle, Gillmor actually tied for third with Jordan Cascagnette. Gillmor started very early in the field, and as a result, the splits he received told him little about where he was compared to his main competitors.
“I didn’t know how the day would pan out,” he said, “I’m thankful that I lunged at the finish, even though I had no idea where I was.”
After the skate race, Gillmor knew he was on the bubble, but the phone call was still a surprise.
“I was shocked,” he said, “Getting asked [to go to WJC] was a really great end to a good trip.”
Gillmor had some internal debate over whether to head to cross-country or biathlon WJC.
“I was very torn about cross-country versus biathlon, but my coach, along with some friends and my parents, helped me reach a conclusion about which to pursue,” he said.
It came down to two factors. First, Gillmor wanted to compare his ski speed against the best cross-country skiers in the world. Second, he has another year of junior eligibility in biathlon, while this is his last year as a junior in the cross-country system.
As a result, he chose to head to Estonia.
Gillmor began his skiing career with the Biathlon Bears club in the Calgary area, and pursued only biathlon. But along the way, his coaches encouraged him to pursue cross-country racing as well.
He believes this early emphasis on cross-country has helped him immensely in both disciplines. For Gillmor, the more biathletes who race cross-country, the better – especially at a young age. In his mind, ski speed and effort are far more important than shooting ability.
During high school, Gillmor attended the National Sports School in Calgary, which allowed him to train during the day in addition to doing course work. That, he said, played a “pivotal” role in determining his dedication to athletics, regardless of whether his sport of choice was biathlon or cross-country.
Currently, Gillmor lives in Canmore, and trains with Rocky Mountain Racers (RMR), a club with many members who race both disciplines. According to Gillmor, RMR’s training is organized in such a way as to allow any member of the team to attend any session.
While the biathletes do more strength work, and a larger amount of zone three training – to practice shooting with a similar heart and breathing rate to a race – the training is not much different.
Often, the most difficult thing for biathletes when they cross over is tackling classic skiing, as biathletes never race on classic skis. Gillmor said that he probably classic skis much less than some of his competitors, especially during the dryland season.
However, he said, he does try to do his longer workouts during the ski season on classic skis, keeping him at least familiar with the technique.
As for the age old question of which sport he prefers, Gillmor has a unique answer.
“The truth is that I enjoy both sports, because of the other sports,” he said, “Biathlon requires mental discipline and physical control, but when I just want to race as hard as I can and go as fast as I can, the place where I can do that is cross-country.”
Gillmor’s long-term goal? To become as fast as the Norwegian biathlete Lars Berger – who won a gold medal at the 2007 cross-country World Championships in Sapporo – “but with a bit better shooting.”