ÖSTERSUND, Sweden – How do you go about winning a World Cup?
For career athletes, that’s the goal for years at a time. Maybe they come a little bit closer, maybe one year they fall a bit further back in results. Especially in biathlon, they can come heartbreakingly close, over and over again – all it takes is one missed shot in the final stage to ruin an otherwise podium-worthy performance. So what makes the difference to really succeed at the top?
“My coach Jean [Paquet] was saying, you know man, you’ve got to stop putting pressure on yourself,” Canada’s Jean Philippe Le Guellec told FasterSkier after Saturday’s IBU World Cup sprint race, his first career victory. “He said, the day you’re going to be on the podium is going to be the day you least expect it. Every day you’re – your goal is to be on the podium, at some point. And just coming into standing it was just like, well, position yourself well for the pursuit.”
Saturday was certainly one of those days he didn’t expect it. But his process goals for the 10 k, two-stage race were to stay calm, ski relaxed, and knock down his targets. As Paquet later told FasterSkier, smiling, “I always tell him, you have to start in a good position in the pursuit, to eventually get in a mass start. First place is the best you can be. It’s good to chase, but it’s preferable to be chased.”
Achieving those process goals, Le Guellec said, turned out to be the perfect way to think about his race. It made winning seemingly simple, at least on a day where the weather made strong shooting so important.
“It’s really funny because after the individual I was really bummed,” said Le Guellec, who placed 62nd in the 20 k race on Wednesday. “I felt jetlagged, I didn’t feel good skiing although my ski time was decent. It wasn’t fast, but it was all right… And then with the clean shooting, everything is possible. And ski strong on the last lap. That’s all it is.”
Notably, Le Guellec’s win was made possible by his clean shooting on a gusty day that resulted in many of the sport’s big names racking up multiple penalties. But at the World Cup level, hitting all the targets isn’t usually good enough for victory; there are so many strong competitors that ski speed is absolutely necessary, too. And that’s something that has been coming back for Le Guellec, who contracted mono after the Vancouver Olympics and only began to train at full capacity again this summer.
“For sure, there was a good indication that he was going to do something good,” Paquet told FasterSkier of Le Guellec’s summer training. “The tests were good this summer, with big improvements, physically. And shooting-wise also, but mostly physical. But the year before that was bad, he had mono and he needed to recover from that. So it’s always that you don’t know if he’s going to recover, how long it will take. But this year I definitely had some indications that were better than last year.”
While Paquet was confident in his athlete’s fitness – after coaching him for six years, “I kind of know the guy” – how much better was up for debate. A good summer of training doesn’t automatically mean a World Cup victory, and early season races are even tougher to predict: more or less the entire field comes into the openers in Östersund every year wondering how they will stack up.
“He started off with a good relay [on Sunday], good clean shooting,” Paquet said on Saturday. “The next day was a bit rough on the 20 k, because mostly he felt jetlag and the skiing was not so good. So I didn’t know what to expect today. I was expecting something better, that’s for sure, but a win by 18 seconds, I was not expecting that.”
Neither was Le Guellec, nor the rest of the biathlon community. As he skated around his final lap in the race, the stadium announcer talked about how the Canadian was stunning the field, how unexpected it was to see Le Guellec leading the race.
Yet the competitors and fans seem to forget the trajectory that Le Guellec was on before he got derailed by mono. In Vancouver, he placed sixth in the sprint, 11th in the pursuit, and 13th in the individual. While the sprint was famously marred by weather conditions and the pursuit depended on the sprint, the consistency with his finish in the individual should have indicated that the Canadian was on a trajectory towards a future win – or many.
“For me, I was expecting a medal for six years, and it’s finally happening, so I’m really happy!” Paquet said. “I didn’t know when it was going to happen. But today, with the clean shooting – we’ve been talking about that for a while, that you have to do zeros or maybe one.”
The Aftermath: Sunday’s Pursuit
Starting out number one in a pursuit isn’t an experience that many racers get to have. When asked in the press conference on Saturday what his strategy would be for Sunday’s 12.5 k, four-stage race, Le Guellec laughed: “I’m going to run for my life!”
But all joking aside, he knew that he had to focus on the same process goals that he had in the sprint. Besides the Olympics and Saturday’s win, Le Guellec’s previous best result had been seventh in a World Cup. As he told FasterSkier after the race, he hadn’t been the fastest skier on Saturday, so he knew he wasn’t going to win again just on ski speed. But if he could shoot carefully and not lose too much ground on his skis, he thought he’d be able to get another result that might match his previous career best.
“Just the same thing as today, concentrate on skiing and have fun,” Le Guellec said in the press conference. “I’ll be the hunted instead of the hunter, which has never happened, so it will be to embrace that, I guess. And just to have a blast.”
After finishing 16th with three penalties, Le Guellec felt it was mission accomplished. He wasn’t pleased to miss two shots in the final stage, but he was still smiling as he walked through the finish pen and had his timing chips removed. Part of that confidence came from the fact that he did manage the ski portion of the race well.
“It’s different,” Le Guellec told FasterSkier of going out first. “It’s the first pursuit where I was actually skiing all by myself for two laps, which makes a big difference, especially when you know that the guys behind you are sometimes nearly 30 seconds faster per lap. So to do that, I guess I really had to dig in there for the first two laps, and then after that it – well, it’s wasn’t actually easier to follow these trains, but I held my own.”
That’s definitely true; Le Guellec only dropped to fifth after missing a shot in the second prone stage, and then skied well enough to maintain that position when he cleaned the initial standing stage. It was only on the final stage that he lost ground when he got stuck in the penalty loop.
“It was good racing,” he said. “17 for 20 isn’t bad, but you kind of expect to stay top ten with that shooting, and it’s just not the kind of speed I’m skiing with right now.”
If that doesn’t send a warning to the rest of the circuit, what does? Paquet confirmed that Le Guellec, like the rest of the Canadian team, is focusing on peaking for World Championships; both Zina Kocher and Megan Imrie, for example, said that they were very far from optimal ski shape right now, and still absorbing their fall training load. Pacquet referred to this weekend’s performances as something to build on for World Championships.
And Le Guellec believes that if he finds more success, he’s perfectly capable of managing it. When asked whether the emotional high from Saturday’s win affected him at all coming into the next day’s race, he said no.
“I felt good today,” Le Guellec smiled. “I think my race shows that. I was able to deal with whatever happened yesterday after the race, and it was still a good race. I was able to be focused and aggressive.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.