When Canadian biathlete Jean Philippe Le Guellec stood on the starting line of the 10 k sprint in Hochfilzen, Austria, today, two things were different than usual.
For one, he was in the red bib, signifying that he was the World Cup points leader in the discipline. That’s a first for a Canadian man.
And secondly, he had a bad case of the nerves.
“It was totally related to last week’s performance,” Le Guellec told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “At any stage, for any athlete, I think it’s safe to say that when you reach personal best performances, you always want to be able to back it up in the following event, thus confirming to yourself it wasn’t just a fluke performance. So my nervousness was definitely in line with: ‘OK, let’s see if I can back that race and repeat something worthy.’”
Luckily, once he left the starthouse he was able to focus on the race and ditch the nerves. Le Guellec missed a single shot and skied the 18th-fastest course time, good for tenth place on the day.
So, in response to the question he had been asking himself: “I’m very happy that that was today’s case… I’m totally happy with following up last week with a top 10.”
Hochfilzen definitely didn’t feel the same as last week’s races in Östersund, Sweden, Le Guellec said; for one thing, there’s snow everywhere, and not of the saved or man-made variety. Despite slower snow, the clear skies made it a perfect day for racing, and Le Guellec reported that he had fast skis. There was only a bit of wind on the range, which he almost mastered. But not quite.
“It was slightly windy on my standing, so my rifle was being pushed a little,” he wrote. “In an effort to compensate for the wind, I ended up overcompensating and missing in the left quadrant. I’m still happy with 9/10 though. Like [French Olympic champion] Vincent Jay said after the race when we spoke: ‘you can’t clean all the time!’ … although it’s always the goal for sure!”
It was also a good day for teammate Scott Perras, who missed a single shot in standing and finished 25th, a career-best. Nathan Smith, however, didn’t fare as well, placing 73rd with four penalties. While he missed making the cut for the pursuit, Perras and Le Guellec are fired up.
“Focus for tomorrow will be the hunt, which will be totally enjoyable once again given such a tight field! To be continued…” wrote Le Guellec.
For the Americans, Tim Burke placed 22nd, Lowell Bailey 36th, and Russell Currier 56th; Jay Hakkinen and Leif Nordgren missed the pursuit, placing 67th and 81st.
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A few hours later in the women’s 7.5 k sprint, Rosanna Crawford not only joined Perras in collecting a career-best finish, but one-upped him by placing 24th.
“I was hoping for some good shooting because last week was pretty bad, for me, so I knew that was going to be key today,” Crawford told FasterSkier in a skype interview. “My prone had definitely come full circle since Östersund and my training had been really good, shooting-wise.”
The single penalty, coming in standing, helped her achieve the result, which put her a minute and 19 seconds behind winner Darya Domracheva of Belarus. It was a huge breakthrough for the Canmore-based biathlete, who is a 2010 Olympian but has been bouncing on and off the World Cup.
“I think my best result before this was a 51st,” she said. “There were the World Cups in Maine where I was 46th, but there were only [ten more] women so I don’t really count those results… It’s pretty exciting to finally crack that. Top 40 had been my goal at the beginning of the summer, and then at the end of the summer after testing I thought maybe I could make my goal the top 30. It’s a pretty big weight off my shoulders to know that hopefully this will become a reoccurrence.”
After “spending ten years of my life training for biathlon,” as Crawford says, she was due for a breakthrough.
“Are we surprised?” Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay wrote in an e-mail. “Not entirely. Rosanna has been on a very impressive upward trend for the past two years. In our regular testing, in the field and the lab, she has been improving very quickly. We are beginning to see her potential. She has always been a fantastic shooter but now the speed is increasing and we see no evidence of her reaching a limit.”
Matthias Ahrens, the head coach of the national team, agreed.
“In my opinion the main improvements happened in all her summer training, partially to great commitment to all the training prescribed, being highly motivated and wanting to know how to improve in every aspect,” Ahrens told FasterSkier. “The other reason is great improvements in upper body strength and ski technique. But as she has good biathlon shooting faculties, when everything comes together a performance like today becomes reality.”
While Crawford has historically been a very strong shooter in IBU Cup and national championships races, she has struggled to put that into practice on the World Cup, which had been the main thing holding her back.
“It seems to me that I can always shoot really well to make teams, and at trials and the end of the season, but even last season the first three World Cups were awful, I was shooting 60 and 70 percent,” she explained. “I was worried that trend was going to happen again. So maybe it’s just that little bit of more pressure that there is on the World Cup.”
For this weekend’s competition, she took a page out of Le Guellec’s book and focused on the process, not how she’d stack up a the end of the day.
“After seeing my ski speed in the individual, I saw that with some good shooting I could have a good result,” Crawford said. “I think I got a little bit ahead of myself last week, and then this week it was a lot more not focusing on results and just focusing on my shooting and my skiing, and that will get the result I want. Not dreaming of the top thirty!”
For tomorrow’s pursuit race, Crawford admitted that she was nervous; many of the women who will be starting around her had more penalties in the sprint, but skied faster. She knows that she’ll have to try to stay calm on her skis and relay on good, fast shooting to gain spots on the range.
But with the momentum the Canadian team has going right now, there’s no reason not to be optimistic.
“When people start doing well, the rest of the team can just sort of build off of each other,” she said. “A lot of us, we train together every day, so if you see them doing well, you know that you’ve done the same training, you’ve shot on the same range, so we should all be able to be up there.
So it was pretty exciting with JP’s result and Zina’s tenth last week,” she concluded. “And JP getting to start with the red bib today made me start my race with a nice big smile on my face.”
Megan Imrie and Megan Heinicke will join her in the pursuit after placing 56th and 57th today, while Zina Kocher was undone by shooting errors and wound up 73rd with five penalties.
For the Americans, Susan Dunklee notched a much-improved 31st place finish, and Sara Studebaker will join her in the pursuit – and perhaps work with the Canadians – after placing 58th today. Annelies Cook just missed the cut in 63rd, and Lanny Barnes placed 71st.
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.