As soon as biathlon World Youth and Junior Championships ended on Sunday in Kontiolahti, Finland, the Canadian team headed for home, making for a hectic afternoon. Because of the quick turnaround time FasterSkier was unable to touch base with the athletes directly after their races, but now that they’re back on home turf – along with the medals they earned – a few of the top competitors were willing to talk about the week.
It seemed like things couldn’t start off much better than they did for Canada, with Kurtis Wenzel winning gold in the junior men’s individual on the second day of racing. But if anything, the last day of competition just might have been better.
Wenzel raced from a start position of 23rd up to seventh place; youth Stuart Harden made a similar move, improving from 25th to sixth; and Julia Ransom advanced from fifth to second, missing out on a second Canadian gold by just six seconds.
In short, the pursuit races on Sunday were the culmination of a successful week for the entire squad.
“More than anything, I enjoyed every race and am so proud of Team Canada’s performance on a whole,” Ransom told FasterSkier. “Our coaches worked incredibly hard, putting in about 15 hour days, to make everything run smoothly. The wax techs nailed the skis every race and were so fun to work with. It was a great couple of weeks.”
In the first race of the morning, Ransom shot out of the start and into the lead, much to the delight of her teammates.
“It was an exciting race, especially when I moved into first,” Rnasom said. “I tried not to think about position, but about skiing well and keeping my nerves under control! My plan was to just enjoy my last race, stay sharp and let the results take care of themselves.”
With clean shooting, she held her lead until the final standing stage. Then, things started to get interesting.
“I will admit that I lost a little bit of focus on my last shooting,” Ransom explained. “Hilde Fenne of Norway had come in right behind me and I was probably a little too interested on what her shooting was.”
That slight distraction led Ransom to miss two shots, but Fenne missed several of her own. It was Grete Gaim who took the lead while Ransom and Fenne were stuck in the penalty loop; the Estonian had a two-second lead going into the final loop.
“When I left the range, Grete was completely in my sights,” Ransom said. “I tried to make up as much ground as I could, but I think she had a little more left in the tank than I did.”
Despite losing the lead, Ransom had no regrets about her race.
“My goals going in were top 5 and hopefully a podium, so I am really happy with how everything went,” she said, adding, “[Gaim] is a friend of mine and a great athlete; I’m really happy for her!”
Harden Is the Biggest Mover
Harden, racing in the youth men’s division, could take a bit of inspiration from Ransom, but taking the lead in his race was clearly out of the question. Johannes Thingnes Bø of Norway had started with a 50-second lead based on his win in the sprint, and in the pursuit he only extended it, ending up with a two-minute victory.
“After racing against Johannes it’s obvious he is in a league of his own,” Harden said of the top youth this week. “But once I met him is it was obvious that he’s a great character. He’s got the confidence you’d expect of an athlete of his caliber, and a it’s easy to see why he gets so much attention.”
Since he couldn’t go for the win, Harden focused instead on making up places from his 25th-place starting position, which wasn’t exactly where he had been hoping to begin the final race of the week.
“I knew even before arriving in Finland that the Individual and Pursuit races would be my best chance for a good result, and after my poor shooting in the Individual I really wanted to make it happen in the pursuit,” he explained to FasterSkier.
Make it happen he did, using clean shooting to charge all the way into the top ten; he was the biggest mover in the race. Harden explained that the pursuit is a good format for him because it combines two things he’s good at: shooting, and head-to-head competition.
“My favorite racing style is one where the first to cross the line is the winner – the intensity and pressure of the race always seems to bring out my best performances, and they’re often the most memorable,” he said. “Everything just felt so effortless on the range and the pieces fell together, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The result was vindication of a sort for Harden, who made a disastrous error in a pursuit earlier this season. At the Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, Harden was leading the race after the final shooting stage – but he missed a penalty loop. After briefly celebrating the win at the finish line, he was assessed a two-minute penalty and bumped down to seventh.
“My clean shooting didn’t leave a chance to miss any penalty loops,” he joked of Sunday’s effort.
But regardless of the mistake he made in Innsbruck, the racing there prepared him well for being near the front in Kontiolahti, where he found familiar faces even though the field as a whole was slightly older.
“I left the range on my fourth loop with Aristide [Begue], one of my main competitors both here in Finland and in Innsbruck and was able to gap him on the tracks,” Harden said. “After my final shooting bout I leapt up a few more places in the standings and found myself skiing right behind Nick Homberg, so it was essentially a rematch of the YOG pursuit for gold.”
While it was “daunting” to be racing right up with the world’s best, Harden said that Team Canada made the task much easier.
“I had tremendous trail side support from my wax techs, coaches and awesome teammates,” he said. “I dug deep on the major hill to hurt Nick as badly as I could and it paid off with a secure sixth place.
As for the week as a whole, I’m greatly satisfied,” he concluded. “I knew there were some expectations of me going into these races, but I stuck to my goal of simply improving on last year’s top result (18th in the pursuit). It came down to the last race, but I met my goal and I’m going home content.”
Wenzel Banishes the Demons – Again
The last race to go off on Sunday was the junior men’s pursuit, where as in Harden’s race the sprint winner (in this case Maxim Tsvetkov of Russia) took off and added to an already huge lead. And just like Harden, Wenzel was left looking for redemption after a sprint where he said he lost focus and got caught up in the competition around him.
Luckily for Canada, Wenzel had plenty of inspiration to work with, and said that he was “really excited to go and rip it up” as soon as he woke up on Sunday morning. His teammates’ performances only added fuel to the fire.
“It was really exciting seeing Julia on the podium,” Wenzel told FasterSkier. “She’s been flirting with a medal position all week and she really earned it. To do it on the last day is huge. However, I was probably more inspired by Stuart Harden’s race. He shot clean and got crazy on the last lap making up a huge number of positions. I was also inspired our awesome cheering section!”
Wenzel quickly jumped from 23rd place into 13th after 2.5 kilometers and a single round of shooting, which he said was a conscious strategy.
“I needed to be in the mix for the top ten early on to see my best racing, and so I could be skiing with people who were faster than me,” he said. “It wasn’t too long of a race and I couldn’t afford to be conservative. I knew I couldn’t keep up my first lap pace and I was prepared for that.”
Wenzel’s ability to deal with pressure has been something that both he and others have questioned, thanks to a breakdown at 2010 World Juniors, but on Sunday he did just fine – helped, in part, by his unimpressive starting position, which made the race a bit more low-key.
“I was more aggressive on the range, just getting shots off before I had time to let the competition get to me,” Wenzel explained. “I was able to ditch the pressure I felt Saturday, and although I was caught up in the race I was in control of mine. In the past, before 2010, I was the kind of guy who could lay down a fast five out of five under intense pressure. I am ecstatic that I am back to that form.”
That was Wenzel’s main takeaway: he’s back, and it feels good.
“Four perfect races in a week is a lot to ask for,” he said of his sprint performance. “It was hard to manage my energy and prepare for the sprint after my success Tuesday. I was still buzzing off that a bit. In the end I was just happy to be racing so well on the last day.”
All three racers will be back next year, although Wenzel will no longer be a junior. With the burgeoning confidence gained by a World Junior title, though, Wenzel said he was ready to tackle senior racing.
“I have finally shaken the mental shackles of my breakdown in Torsby in 2010,” he said. “I can take home the knowledge that, with my results, I can get the support I need to keep racing. In terms of the next season, I can have the knowledge that I’ve got a good thing going right now and I should be cautious about changing the formula too drastically.”
Ransom, too, will be leaving her age group, although she’s simply moving from youth to junior racing. She’s hoping to eventually get a business degree, but that doesn’t mean she’s willing to say goodbye to biathlon.
“I potentially have two more World Junior Championships,” she wrote. “I love biathlon and cross-country skiing, so I definitely see myself racing for quite a while. I am going to stick with both sports and see where they take me!”