Just one week ago, Canadian biathlete Kurtis Wenzel told FasterSkier that winning his first national championship was “a perfect way to end the season.”
Hidden inside that statement, though, was a bigger one: Wenzel contacted Fasterskier yesterday to announce that he is ending his career as a biathlete. The 22-year-old had raced in his first World Cup only a month or so before.
And he joined another national team member in calling it quits. After a difficult season where her body never really got going, Melanie Schultz also decided to hang up her skis and move on. Both were probably outside shots for the 2014 Olympics, and would have had to fight hard to unseat more seasoned World Cup veterans.
So it’s not so much the Olympics where Canada will feel the loss, but rather what comes after – for instance, what if there’s a spate of retirements by older athletes, as often happens after a Games?
“Athlete recruitment and athlete retention are definitely two issues we face, being such a marginal sport to start with,” World Cup winner Jean Philippe Le Guellec told FasterSkier in an e-mail.
Wenzel’s biathlon career was marked by ups and downs: in 2009 he won the World Youth Championships sprint, then in 2011 took the year completely off from biathlon after feeling overwhelmed. He was as surprised as anyone else when he came back to win the World Junior Championships individual race in 2012.
The rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story was certainly one of the most compelling of a 2012 Championships that also featured the first win by an athlete from the Netherlands; it was a good year for underdogs.
“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 at the time.
Yet in his first senior year, 2013 put the young Canadian back at the bottom of the heap. He did an IBU Cup tour and then, by the end of the season, had begun to climb upwards, starting the World Cup relay in Sochi, Russia and then winning the national championship pursuit. As he earned more and more start rights, it seemed like he might be able to mimic the path of Scott Gow, who finished his junior career just one year before Wenzel and was the youngest competitor to make the pursuit race at World Championships.
So the Sochi trip could have been a preview for an Olympic bid next year, but Wenzel says he realized he no longer felt that drive.
“I don’t actually dream of going to the Olympics anymore,” he said. “When I realized that, the decision was easy. However, I was very luckily to live out my long time fantasy of racing a World Cup in a packed stadium. I am also luckily to have had such a great support network of people to help me through my career and with this decision. I cannot thank them enough!”
Wenzel had first considered retirement back in December, but knew he wouldn’t decide anything final until the end of the season.
“Now I have had some time and it still feels right,” he said.
As for Schulz, the 27-year-old struggled to find her ski speed at the beginning of the season. A few health issues had slowed her down during dryland, and when she hit the IBU Cup she couldn’t get going. Concluding that her body had just had too much training over the past few years, she spent a month relaxing in southeast Asia, hoping that the rest would help her find some energy.
But upon returning to the sport later in the winter, Schultz still couldn’t get up to full speed.
“After nine years of focused training and racing where I continually pushed myself to my limit and beyond, it was apparent my body and mind were saying, ‘Enough!’” Schulz wrote on her website. “Listening to my intuition, I decided it was time to hang up my skis and rifle for good and give myself a much needed and much deserved rest. I definitely have mixed feelings about my decision, as I imagine most athletes do when they retire from sport.”
The departure comes just one year after Schultz seemed to be really making a leap in results; she was named Biathlon Canada’s Female Athlete of the Year in 2012, and also received the Ruedi Setz award for “exemplary standards of sportsmanship and significant contribution to the development of biathlon.”
… Aren’t Enough
Le Guellec, who is the same age as Schultz but has been involved in the sport much longer, has seen athletes come and go from the national team – mostly, go.
But the spate of younger athletes calling it quits seems a bit new to him. For one thing, there wasn’t always such a strong cohort of older athletes to fight against for starting spots. He explained that back in 2004, both junior and senior athletes qualified to receive financial support from Sport Canada. Now, the national team is “saturated,” Le Guellec said, making it much harder for younger athletes to get paid.
“In this day and age, we have a full flock of seniors all getting carded by Sport Canada,” he said. “So if you’re a youth, a junior and even a senior, you have to train and race on your own dime for the most part: season in, season out. When you add up the costs for a full year of training, it can’t surprise you that that can be a deal breaker after a certain time.”
Just making it as far as Wenzel and Schultz did requires a large and diverse support network, and both said they appreciated the many people that had made their careers possible.
“I want to say a HUGE THANK YOU to all my sponsors, coaches, teammates, support staff, family, friends and fans of my biathlon career for the last nine years,” Schultz wrote on her website. “I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all I have without all of you!”
Both athletes were part of Canada’s national team last season, but that’s hardly a guarantee of financial security.
“I’m not aware of numbers for budgets and such,” Le Guellec said, “but I guess comparing our federation to a family of say 14 kids while being a single parent on welfare could be pretty spot on. They’re in a situation where they have very little money to make an entire sport run in a huge country. Their biggest challenge is, unfortunately, finding the resources to fund development squads, camps, cut costs for travel to competitions and so, and so and so on… with pennies.”
Biathlon Canada could not be reached for comment.
Having a significantly more robust senior national team is obviously a boon to the sport. But it’s just one reason that young athletes might look at the years ahead and begin to wonder if they can hang on for long enough to finally reach the top: Gow, Wenzel, and teammates Yolaine Oddou and Audrey Vaillancourt were unusual in their ability to translate success at the junior level to World Cup starts in just a year or two, but none spent the entire season on the top circuit.
And while none of the debuts went badly, it’s a tough transition to make. Le Guellec thought that seeing the real level of competition might make athletes think differently about what lay in store in the coming years.
“Having an Olympic dream is nice,” he said. “Being motivated is also nice. Resources and passion aside, I’ve seen athletes be exposed to the international field and it can be very intimidating. It doesn’t take a math degree to start adding up the work you’ll need to do in order to climb the ranks – plus this is a process that can be long. I wouldn’t say they scare off, but when you add up points 1 and 2, maybe its just a lot of work for not much in return to at least help you through it.”
All of that is, of course, harder when you are from North America. The amount of time spent on the road is difficult for many athletes, who may not return home to see their families for months at a time.
Wenzel confirmed that after one long tour in Europe this year, he was a bit overwhelmed.
“The decision was spurred by a combination of my difficulty dealing with life on tour and a desire to expand the other parts of my life that were put on the back burner,” he said.
The most common thing that athletes give up is school, and that’s where Wenzel will be headed in the fall, if all goes well.
“I will hopefully be studying economics at the University of Calgary, but I still have to apply,” he said. “I have done a couple courses at U of C before and I was accepted into the Kinesiology program, but I realized that’s not what I would like to study.”
A few elite-level biathletes and skiers have been able to make school work, somehow, while still competing on the World Cup: Alex Harvey is in law school, Astrid Jacobsen is in medical school, Maurice Manificat is studying biology. But Wenzel knew that he couldn’t be like them, at least not with any level of success.
“I have definitely been putting school on hold because of training,” he explained. “It would have been impossible for me to hold down my job in Calgary, go to school in Calgary and train properly in Canmore. I am also a horrible procrastinator at times so correspondance courses wouldn’t have worked for me. Honestly, this winter was the first time I really started looking forward to going to school. I think that helped make the decision for me.”
Schultz, meanwhile, will be transitioning from part-time to full-time work as a patent agent at an intellectual property firm in Canmore.
“I’m transitioning into the life of a non-athlete,” she wrote on her website.
That’s never an easy transition, but Wenzel hopes to stay involved with the sport just enough not to miss it. Coaching was a possibility, he said.
But just “a little bit.”
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.