Canadian biathlon has been on the upswing all year, with top-ten performances from three different athletes on the World Cup and wins and podiums on the second-tier IBU Cup circuit. At World Youth and Junior Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland, the Canadians had been hoping to continue their success, and started off well with a top-ten finish by Julia Ransom.
But the athlete most likely to make waves was a young man who was also surrounded by the most questions. Calgary’s Kurtis Wenzel won the sprint title in the youth division in 2009, but since then, he’d basically dropped off the map in the sport of biathlon.
“My last biathlon race before this season was at Torsby World Youth Championships [in 2010],” Wenzel told FasterSkier in an interview. “During the sprint race I broke down under the pressure of trying to repeat my performance at Youth Worlds in Canmore.”
Wenzel’s 2010 season ended in pretty poor circumstances. After placing 17th in the individual race in Torsby, he wound up being disqualified in the sprint and didn’t compete for the rest of the year.
Part of that, Wenzel said, was deliberate.
“My hiatus was always intended to be temporary,” he explained of the decision not to return to competition after that disastrous sprint. “I took the rest of that year off to race cross country so I could get away from biathlon to refocus and gain perspective.”
When he tried to return to biathlon the next year, it just didn’t work. He spent 2011, too, focusing on ski racing.
“I tried to continue with my training like normal the next year, but I had all sorts of trouble,” Wenzel said. “I felt overly tired often, and I was too shaky to shoot standing at my usual level. I made the call in the fall that I would stop shooting and train only for cross country.”
The Canuck also had to deal with health problems; in August he was diagnosed with Graves disease, an autoimmune disorder typified by an overactive thyroid gland. Since the diagnosis, Wenzel has changed his diet and started taking medication, which he said has minimized his symptoms of shakiness, irritability, and insomnia.
This year, Wenzel is back in a big way. In his first race at World Junior Championships – where, at age 21, he is now competing as a junior, instead of a youth – he picked up a huge 42-second victory in the 15 k individual race, beating out Marius Hol of Norway for the win.
This time around, Wenzel isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I was really excited to be racing in the international scene again and lucky I could have one of my best races so far this year at Worlds,” he said. “We had great skis from our wax team and good coaching support which really helped!”
Taking a break didn’t completely relieve the pressure felt by the former champion, and he said that he’d been “nervous in the morning.” But once Wenzel hit the trails, things began coming together and he was able to settle into the familiar rhythm of racing.
“I felt confident and comfortable, realizing quickly I was skiing within striking distance of the leaders,” Wenzel said. “I took my time on the range and never felt rushed or stressed. I was on the verge of cramping up on the last lap, so I was glad I could just hold it together.”
Over the course of four shooting stages, with five targets each, Wenzel missed with only a single bullet. He was the best shot of the 81-man field, and in an individual race, that’s particularly important. Each missed target is penalized not with an extra loop of skiing – which typically takes 20 to 25 seconds – but a minute of added time.
“He has always been the most talented shooter and he really showed that today,” teammate Aaron Gillmore, who finished 19th, said of Wenzel. “Honestly I was most impressed with his skiing as it was very relaxed and you could tell he was emphasizing a long glide.”
Wenzel downplayed his shooting prowess, saying that as is so often the case in biathlon, there was a bit of chance involved.
“The wind was tough, I was zeroing until the bitter end, but I was able to make the best of some hard winds and snow,” he said. “I also got lucky not to have any bad gusts.”
As for the skiing, the self-imposed break from biathlon did plenty to help with that as well, and today Wenzel had the tenth-fastest ski time.
Wenzel had made a goal of qualifying for skiing’s junior world championships in his “off-year”, but he didn’t make it. That doesn’t mean that he didn’t ski fast though; he placed 20th in the 10 k at Canadian national championships, within ten seconds of racers like Steffan Lloyd, David Greer, and Americans Glenn Randall and Matt Gelso.
In December, he qualified seventh in the NorAm sprint at Black Jack, ahead of Graeme Killick, Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess, and Karl Nygren.
“I had a few hints of this kind of form in December and January,” Wenzel said. “I was not in good form [mid-winter] though, so I didn’t have much in the way of expectations. I know that I always have the potential to be at the top, but you never know what’s going to happen.”
Wenzel is also hoping that the rest of his team can grab more podium finishes, and doesn’t see himself as the only threat for victory.
“I am feel proud too see others on our team in good form too, like Julia yesterday,” he said. “I was on the edge of my seat watching her last shooting. Our team has set a goal of taking home some medals, and it’s looking good. We have a strong team and if everyone is racing their best we can be one of the best Junior/Youth teams in the world.”
For now, Wenzel is satisfied to savor the moment.
“ was a fun year of racing, and by the end of it I missed biathlon and was eager to shoot,” he said. “This was what I hoped my break from biathlon would achieve. I couldn’t have made it from Torsby to now without my great support network of friends, family, sponsors, coaches, team-mates and all those who contribute to our club.”