A couple of days ago, Canadian biathlete Megan Imrie couldn’t tell which way was up.
Luckily, she’s feeling better – and up was where she landed on Wednesday, near the top of the results sheet in a World Cup individual race in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. Despite a case of vertigo, Imrie finished a career-best 20th place.
Athletes have to deal with a lot of variables when they’re preparing for competitions, but vertigo – a syndrome of dizziness and disorientation – isn’t usually one of them. Imrie, however, woke up one morning last week to find the room spinning. She hasn’t been able to do much besides wait it out.
“Our flight left on Friday, and I still was too unstable to ski until Monday here in Nove Mesto,” Imrie told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “Walking was a trip, and skiing was out of the question – ditto shooting. I felt like I was on the lurching deck of ship.”
Unable to train, Imrie had little hope for her first competition of 2012.
“On Monday I wasn’t sure if I would race,” she said.
But by Tuesday morning, she was able to ski, and decided to at least give biathlon a try.
“I feel…not 100%, but it’s no longer affecting my skiing like it did earlier in the week,” she explained. “Getting in and out of prone position brought it on the most.”
Incredibly, Imrie cleaned both of her prone stages in Nove Mesto and one of the standing stages as well; it was only in the final stage, a standing test, that she missed two shots. Until then, the clean-shooting Canadian had been in the top ten. Thanks to the individual format, however, a minute was tacked onto her time for each miss and she dropped to 18th, before slipping to 20th over the final three-kilometer loop.
Imrie managed to keep her head straight and to adjust her shooting according to the wind, which she said was one of the main reasons for her success.
“I am usually very diligent about wind and how it moves my bullets around,” she wrote. “Here it seems there is always a strong wind. Since it was also an individual race, I made a point of knowing exactly what kind of games the wind might throw my way.”
All in all? She was “relieved” to have made it through the race, and the result was icing on the cake.
“I’m very pleased with the race and a personal best,” Imrie said. “Skiing was tough, a soft slushy course, which I was mentally ready for. And shooting was with focus but without pressure.
“I guess a little vertigo acted as a counterbalance for any unstable shooting.”
Imrie’s one teammate in the race, Zina Kocher, didn’t have quite the hardship that Imrie had faced, and as such turned out an even better result. Kocher had three penalties, all in the first two stages, but used the 10th-fastest ski time to jet to 15th place.
“The race wasn’t going very well after the first two shootings and I successfully turned it around with two clean bouts,” said a satisfied Kocher. “We arrived Saturday, so I am still feeling jet-lagged and could feel that heavy feeling in my legs halfway into the race.”
It was her second top-20 performance of the season, and Kocher felt that she was laying the base for even better results.
“With clean shooting today, I would have won, and that would have been an excellent day!” she told FasterSkier. “This isn’t impossible, it’s within reach… My misses were misses, but we are talking less than a centimeter to an inch or two of missing the target three times. It will come.”
The Canadians skipped the first World Cup races of 2012, which were held in Oberhof, Germany last week, in favor of training on home turf, and both Kocher and Imrie felt it had paid off. Kocher said that it was “no secret” that recovery leads to better performances.
“[The break] allowed us to recover from the last set of World Cups and get in a good amount of training to sustain us before preparation for World Championships,” she said. “Recovery is important after a racing trimester and a long flight, then it is just important to do a load of training without getting too punished.”
Imrie said that as a North American, it’s also important to “refuel on family time,” something that European racers can get more easily as they travel the World Cup circuit. She, too, was able to put in solid training thanks to the longer break; before leaving Canada, she had done an interval session with ski star Chandra Crawford.
“Family time was a blast, [and] in Canmore, training was perfect at the nordic center,” Imrie said.
World Championships don’t start until March, but the Canadians seem primed for success in Nove Mesto and the next three World Cup venues.
Especially, Kocher said, now that they have a little inspiration.
“[Imrie] gets bonus points of awesomeness for putting together such a great race,” she gushed.
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The American team perhaps wished that they couldn’t tell up from down – none of the four women had a great day, and no doubt would have liked to swap with Finland’s Kaisa Makarainen, who picked up a 22-second win over Sweden’s Helena Ekholm despite having two penalties.
As it was, Susan Dunklee again led the way for the U.S. when she placed 49th. Sara Studebaker was 59th, and Annelies Cook and Tracy Barnes in the 60’s.
“The race today wasn’t very satisfying,” Dunklee wrote to FasterSkier in an e-mail. “Shooting was solid for me, but my skiing didn’t feel sharp at all and I wasn’t able to catch even a brief ride with the top names when they passed me. Usually that’s my favorite part of the race, the challenge of staying with them.”
Dunklee had four penalties and the 46th-fastest course time. She believed that her added caution due to the format – which is both the longest distance that the women ever race, and features the most severe penalties for missed shots – actually hurt her performance.
“I purposefully tried to pace myself a little smarter today than I did in my last individual, in Ostersund [Sweden],” she wrote. “But I think I made the mistake of going out too easy and never getting into race mode.”
Barnes, who landed 66th, had a different problem. It was her first World Cup start of the season, and to earn it she’d had to beat out several other American women in a series of trials races that included the IBU Cups in Forni Avoltri, Italy last week. While Barnes had excelled there – she placed 7th in the same event there on Saturday – it had used up some of her focus and energy.
“I was a bit mentally fried from the trials last week and that carried over to my skiing and shooting,” Barnes told FasterSkier. “Normally my standing shooting is my strength, but I just didn’t have that aggressive mentality in I normally do to hit my targets. The same went for the skiing. I was tired from last week, but that really wasn’t the problem, I just couldn’t get myself to be aggressive.”
Barnes said that she’ll take Thursday completely off from skiing and shooting in an attempt to recharge for Friday’s sprint race. She’s excited to be back on the World Cup, so she doesn’t anticipate any difficulties in regaining her focus.
“The course [in Nove Mesto] is really tough, but fun,” she wrote. “It’s really great to be back on the World Cup and I will be fighting hard to try and stay here and have good results. It’s a great group to be around.”
The Americans might not have been pleased with their results, but they were able to find things to be happy about anyway.
“On the bright side, it is inspiring to see a couple North Americans near the top,” Dunklee said.