The Canadians had a feeling that their team was improving a lot over the course of the last training year. But by all accounts, even the coaching staff wasn’t quite fully prepared for the results of today’s IBU Cup sprints in Idre, Sweden.
The headline: Nathan Smith second in the men’s 10 k, just 3.9 seconds away from the win. He was one of three men and two women in the top ten. Two more in the top 20. In total, six athletes shooting clean.
One day into the 2013-2014 season, Canada is leading the IBU Cup nations standings, ahead of Norway, Russia, and Germany. Sure, it’s not the World Cup, but the second-tier circuit, which is organized in the same way, is nothing to scoff at – there were 140 men and 107 women toeing the start line today. If a country can’t do well where developing athletes typically compete, it doesn’t bode well for the future of the program.
Plus, there’s the fact that these will be the most competitive races of the year for the circuit, with many teams using them to select World Cup teams. The top twenty was packed with athletes with Olympic and World Championships credentials. Timofey Lapshin, the Russian who edged Smith, has two World Cup podiums; the winner of the women’s race, Weronika Nowakowska-Ziemniak of Poland, is a 2010 Olympian who had a seventh-place World Cup result last season.
“To your question of whether I was expecting this, from our in training season performance testing and latest trial races we had good indications the we were on the right track, but since we are quite isolated in North America it is quite difficult to put a perspective to this until you race internationally again,” Canadian head coach Matthias Ahrens wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “I am super happy about both races, especially great performances in shooting as a team overall, but also the skiing is showing that we are on the right track.”
In many ways the top performances came from athletes who have something to prove as they head into the Olympic qualification season. Take Smith. The 28-year-old had made his first World Championships appearance in 2008, and also represented Canada in the 2011, 2012, and 2013 editions. But last year, after lackluster results in the first two weeks of World Cup racing, he was moved back down to the IBU Cup.
“Last year was extremely frustrating for me,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. “Although I still got to race a few World Cups, I ended up pretty much being the extra relay guy a lot of the time because our team only has three men’s starts. Relays are a nice bonus but ultimately biathlon is mostly an individual sport. Luckily I managed to make some national team criteria at my very last chance (World Championships relay) where I basically had my only great performance of the year.”
That leaves him at a major disadvantage for Olympic qualifying. The most surefire way to make Canada’s Olympic team is to have two top-16 or three top-30 World Cup results. Two men have already fulfilled those requirements (Jean Philippe Le Guellec and Scott Perras), while several others (Brendan Green and Scott Gow) are partway through. Athletes have until the Christmas break to get those results on the World Cup, after which point qualifying is kicked back to trials races in Canmore for any remaining spots. Team size will be four men and four women.
“Nathan has been on fire over the past few weeks, his skiing has been very strong,” Canadian coach Roddy Ward told FasterSkier. “Today he skied like he has been and also put together a clean race. He has been very motivated and focused in his training this year and it has paid off for him.”
Smith is looking good now, both in the Idre sprint and at previous trials races in Canmore to qualify for this trip. But that leaves him just three weeks to get his two or three results on the World Cup. And there’s a catch: Canada has only three quota spots for men. With Le Guellec and Perras taking two of them, only one more man will have the chance to try to achieve their Olympic qualification on the circuit this fall.
That seems to have been a powerful force driving the team to go faster and shoot straighter.
“The remaining Olympic spots that are up for grabs are definitely a big motivator,” Smith wrote. “Judging by our team’s shooting I think the pressure is being handled really well. For myself, I’m managing the pressure a lot better than a year ago.”
With his second-place finish, Smith nabbed the remaining men’s spot and will try to make the most of it in the next few weeks.
“In the spring I had time to reflect on what I had done the previous few years and decided that if I wanted a change in results I would also have to have a different approach to training,” he wrote. “I really tried to focus on quality and working on specific skills. Already halfway through the summer I knew that things were going in the right direction through testing, team time trials, and just general training… In the last few team races my skiing has been excellent so I had a lot of confidence in that going to Europe. But still, you never really know, so theres always some doubt.“
The next Canadian, Marc-Andre Bedard, tied for seventh; he is another former World Cup and World Championships competitor who did not see World Cup action last season. Just two seconds behind him in ninth was Green, who sat out last season with a back injury. Gow placed 13th with one penalty.
Yet even though the men are competing against each other – intensely – for World Cup and Olympic spots, they were supportive of one another’s results. Team spirit doesn’t seem to be a casualty of the cutthroat competition, in fact, maybe just the opposite.
“I’m also really happy for Nathan, he totally deserves those results and I’m excited to see him try to get his Olympic criterias on the World Cup!” Bedard wrote in an e-mail. “(If they let him of course!!!) (they better ;))”
Bedard also made another comment on the team’s cohesion in explaining why his results seem to be on the upswing this fall.
“I’m finally feeling supported by my coach and teammates and I was really excited to race against the world with my new dry land season with all the changes is done for the last six months,” he explained. “I’ve always needed a few weeks of racing before I was actually able to turn it on and I think today is a really good sign for what might happen this year. I’m hoping I’m progressing still and will be able to actually hurt myself in the next few weeks. Today felt pretty easy so with a good result on a really strong and deep field, it sounds good!”
Although the team will also compete in Idre tomorrow, coaches ultimately made the choice of World Cup athletes based off of today’s race, and Smith got the nod. Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay acknowledged that the men hadn’t made it easy for them to pick just one, but the entire coaching staff pointed out that the increasing competition within the program is a benefit for all.
“It is clear our men’s team is extremely competitive, which had led to improvements through the training year,” Ward said. “We saw that in the results today.”
Competing a few hours later, the Canadian women’s team took the momentum and ran with it.
“The girls and I were really inspired by the guys performances before our race,” Megan Imrie wrote in an e-mail. “They’d all killed it! If they could do it, so could I.”
Imrie, coming back from her own lackluster season last year that saw her take a midwinter detour home to Manitoba to rest, recover, and decide how to approach biathlon from that point forward, hit the circuit again with a bang. She placed sixth with clean shooting, over a minute behind Nowakowska-Ziemniak but only 23 seconds behind second-place Fanny Welle-Strand Horn of Norway.
“I committed to working every possible place on the course and was extremely focused on the range,” Imrie said of her race. “I was a bundle of nerves going to the start. But I stuck to the basics. In the words of Simon Whitfield, just chop wood and carry water. I’m relieved I’m coming back okay from last year. I’ve worked hard and stayed healthy. Now I’m feeling privileged to enjoy racing again.”
Just behind her was 2010 Olympic teammate Megan Heinicke in seventh place. The pair, like Smith, earned the nods for the next period of World Cup racing and will travel to Ostersund, Sweden, with Smith and Rosanna Crawford. Imrie and Heinicke both need a single additional top-30 result on the World Cup to complete their Olympic qualification.
Crawford is pre-qualified for Sochi, but raced the Idre openers anyway. She finished 35th with three penalties.
“The girls were also impressive with Megan I, Megan H and Audrey [Vaillancourt, who placed 16th] cleaning,” Ward said. “Rosanna had been dealing with a number of injuries lately so I was just happy to see her ski form was solid. The next few weeks should be good very for her. Megan I has been incredible this training year with self monitoring her training and recovery – she has made some wise decisions that has kept her healthy and progressing.”
Several younger Canadians also competed, with Macx Davies placing 84th in the men’s race and Julia Ransom 58th in the women’s race. Claude Godbout, a senior, placed 50th ahead of Ransom.
“Even that it is only one race and the first race of the season, it should give everybody great confidence into the next races, be it on the World Cup or the IBU Cup,” a happy Ahrens concluded.
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.