(Note: This is the fourth in a series of interviews with athletes who will be competing at the first-ever winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria this winter. The first interview was with Sean Doherty, the second with Anna Kubek, the third with Nick Proell, and the fourth with Aleksandra Zakrzewska, all U.S. biathletes.)
2011 was a big year for Canadian biathlete Danielle Vrielink.
Perhaps the most obvious accomplishment for the Calgary native was a trip to the World Youth Championships in the Czech Republic, her first international competition.
But the season was filled with other milestones as well. Vrielink was selected as one of four members of Alberta’s team to the Canada Winter Games, a two-week, 21-sport event for athletes 20 years old and younger. In Halifax, Vrielink finished fifth in the individual, tenth in the sprint, and then skied up to seventh in the pursuit.
The kicker? She was only 15 years old and competing against skiers more than four years older. In the individual race, for instance, she beat 2009 World Junior Championships medalist Yolaine Oddou.
Just over a month later, Vrielink won the senior girls’ individual race at Canadian national championships by almost a minute and finished second in the other two races.
It was no surprise when Vrielink was named to Canada’s team for the Youth Olympic Games, but the young racer is humble and said that if she learned anything last season, it’s that she has a lot to work on. She’s focusing particularly on ski speed.
FasterSkier interviewed the sharpshooter to see how her training was progressing and what her hopes were for the competitions in Innsbruck.
FasterSkier: Can you tell me a little bit about your history as a skier? How did you get into skiing when you were growing up?
Danielle Vrielink: My family was very much into downhill skiing when I was growing up. We tried to make it to the hill every Saturday during the winter. Both of my parents were also backcountry skiers, so we did a little classic skiing, but I didn’t really enjoy it that much, until I took up biathlon and learned how to skate ski.
FS: When did you take up biathlon and what made you want to do it?
DV: I started biathlon when I was ten. We went to Canada Olympic Park in Calgary where I got hooked up with a program that was offered there, called “Biathlon Bears.” [Note: Biathlon Bears is a nation-wide program offered through Biathlon Canada.] This was a sport that really caught my interest, not like the other sports I tried such as basketball, horseback riding and soccer. Shooting guns and skiing was a lot of fun for a ten-year-old!
Since then, the physical and cardio demands of the sport, combined with the mental control of balancing speed and precision, have kept me challenged and engaged in the pursuit of doing my best. The excellent sporting facilities that the Calgary/Canmore area have been a real factor promoting this sport and keeping me engaged.
FS: Can you expand on that – how does being at Canmore affect your understanding and appreciation of international racing? Does having world-class athletes come through make the international scene seem more familiar, or more intimidating?
DV: Participating in the World Juniors as a forerunner in 2009 gave me a small opportunity to observe and be a part of the Championships. I think that made me feel more comfortable with what it takes to race internationally. As well, training regularly with other athletes who medaled during those Championships gives me more confidence racing internationally.
FS: You train with the Rocky Mountain Racers, right? It seems like that’s a really strong club. Can you tell me a little bit about the training atmosphere?
DV: I have been training with the Rocky Mountain Racers for only a year and it’s really helped me improve both my skiing and my shooting. What really makes the atmosphere great is that all of the athletes want to be there. There’s always a positive vibe when we’re working out which, I think, really makes training fun.
Being one of the younger athletes, I really appreciate the diversity within RMR. There are older and more experienced high performance biathletes and cross-country athletes to train with, who can push me to go harder and give me someone to chase. My coach, John Jaques, also provided us with a diversity of training opportunities that include cross country running, mountain and road biking, rowing, speed skating and a number of other activities, which keep me involved and enjoying training.
FS: Do you feel like you’ve learned a lot from being exposed to senior training groups?
DV: Although many senior racers train out of the Canmore Nordic Center, I haven’t really had that much exposure to them. Even though I don’t see the senior racers that often, I’m lucky enough to have some amazing biathletes in my club like Aaron Gillmor, and Kurtis Wenzel. Watching them medal at World Juniors in 2009 was incredible and now being able to train with them is quite motivating.
FS: You made the trip to World Junior Championships last year – how did that go?
DV: Going to Czech was a wonderful experience. I was able to experience my first international competition and get a feel for the pressure and stress of racing abroad. It was great to be able to rank myself at an international level.
FS: Now that you have your international debut out of the way, what are you focusing on to improve for the Youth Olympic Games?
DV:When I was in Czech, I realized that my shooting was pretty good but my skiing was definitely not at the top of the pack. For the upcoming Youth Olympic Games, I’m really looking forward to seeing the improvement in my skiing times, as I’ve been working on my skiing technique throughout the summer.
FS: Did the fact that you were named to the team so far before the competition change your approach to summer and fall training at all? Are you doing anything differently to prepare?
DV: It’s been great knowing so far ahead because I don’t have to worry about trials anymore; I can really focus on the Youth Olympics. Another bonus is that I can plan my training accordingly so that I will be able to peak during the races at the Youth Olympics.
FS: What are you most looking forward to about the Youth Olympic Games?
DV: I’m really excited to travel to Austria, and I can’t wait to take in the atmosphere of the first Youth Olympics. I’m most looking forward to giving it my all during the races and seeing how I will compare to the other top girls from different countries. I think that the Games will be another amazing experience and I can’t wait to be there with my fellow teammates, Maya MacIsaac-Jones and Stuart Harden, along with the rest of the Canadian team!