Audrey Vaillancourt has had a pretty crazy season so far: two IBU Cup tours, a few appearances on the World Cup, and possibly more travel than anyone following just one of those circuits would expect. Heck, the Canadian made trips to both the IBU Cup and the World Cup in a single weekend in January.
But all of the hustle paid off in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, today, when Vaillancourt won gold in the Open European Championships 15 k individual race. With two penalties, the best shooting of the entire 58-woman field, Vaillancourt eked out a 2.1-second victory over Natassia Kalina of Belarus. It was the first time a Canadian has ever won gold at the event.
On her blog, Vaillancourt wrote that individual races are the ones which most frequently have surprise winners, since missed shots carry a one-minute penalty, heftier than in other formats. That means that clean shooting can get many different athletes to the top.
That creates pressure to shoot well, but Vaillancourt wasn’t feeling it.
“Shooting conditions were really tough today, the wind was gusting and swirling, but I still felt quite confident on the start line,” she told FasterSkier. “After all, it’s the same conditions for everyone! I was really focused every time I entered the shooting range, but I didn’t want to overthink it either. I think individuals should be approached the same way as other races. Otherwise you put too much pressure on yourself to shoot well and the opposite happens in the end.”
Vaillancourt started in bib six, so she didn’t have much information out on course.
“I don’t really like starting this early, because you don’t get a lot of splits, but the others do!” she said.
However, Iryna Kryuko of Belarus set a blistering pace early in bib four. When Vaillancourt left the final standing stage, she had a 26-second lead on Kryuko, and also some information about competitors who were earlier in their own races.
“I had a good last lap, especially after one of our waxtechs told me I could be in top three,” she said. “I have to say I didn’t expect to win though!”
As more and more racers trickled in, Vaillancourt’s time held up, as did Kryuko’s. Kalina was one of the latest starters in bib 56. She left the final standing stage in third place and was able to charge past her teammate Kryuko, but despite the information and splits wasn’t quite able to Vaillancourt.
Another secret for the Canadian was shooting speed. She had consistently some of the fastest times on the range, which gained her more than 30 seconds on Kalina over the course of the race. That helped her fend off the competition, although she had only the 21st-fastest ski time.
Vaillancourt said that the recent instability in her schedule had not affected her too negatively. At the second World Cup weekend after Christmas, she replaced Zina Kocher, who was at home racing Canadian ski team trials. The next weekend in Antholz, she was called up from the IBU Cup to fill a spot on the relay after a team member got sick, but the World Cup race was called off halfway through due to heavy fog obscuring the targets, so she ended up with no race start at all that day.
“The instability did make my preparation harder, but at the same time I learned to adapt to these kind of situations, so it doesn’t bother me that much. I’d rather be the one who fills in the World Cup spots at the last minute then never go at all!”
While European Championships is always a big event, functioning as the championships of the second-tier IBU Cup circuit, the field was particularly deep this year. The World Cup has been on break for over a week now, and won’t resume until after the Olympics are over. With teams unable to take their entire teams to Sochi due to limited starts, a number of World Cup athletes turned to European Championships to fill out their schedule.
That included Galina Nechkasova of Russia, who is expected to fill Irina Starykh’s place in Sochi after the top-ranked Russian had a positive doping test. Kechkasova placed fourth. Other World Cup stalwarts included Fanny Welle-Strand Horn of Norway in seventh and Sophie Boilley of France in eighth.
“I genuinely think the field is stronger this year,” Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay told FasterSkier. “I suspect many of the names we are seeing will be making up 2018 Olympic teams… The location in Nove Mesto is helping this too. It is easier for “western” teams – France, Italy, Netherlands, USA, CAN, Germany, Austria, et cetera – to attend when it’s not held deep behind the old iron curtain.”
It’s a good sign for Canada as the “A” team heads to Sochi. Vaillancourt was competitive to get World Cup starts this fall, where she could have worked towards Olympic qualification.
“We are very happy with Audrey’s result,” Lindsay said. “She had a third place earlier this season in the IBU Cup so we know she is capable of podiums at that level. Certainly the ‘A’ team women at the Olympics take this as a positive sign: if our fifth-place female athlete is winning medals then they should feel confident in their abilities at Sochi.”
And Lindsay fully expects Vaillancourt to be among those who will be named in 2018.
“We are very excited to see Audrey continue to sharpen her racing skills on the IBU Cup this season in preparation for the 2015 Canmore IBU Cup, 2016 Canmore World Cup, and 2018 Olympics,” he said.
As for Vaillancourt? After making her first World Championships appearance last year, not making the Olympics was a bit of a bummer. But she’s moving on. A gold medal just might help.
“It was very disappointing not to make the Olympic team, but those who made it earned their spot, so there is nothing I can do about it now,” she said. “I am also still young!”
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Also in the women’s 15 k, Vaillancourt’s teammates Emma Lunder and Emma Lodge placed 38th and 55th.
In the men’s 20 k, Scott Gow represented Canada well with a ninth-place finish. With two penalties, he finished 2:50 behind Andrrejs Rastorguvevs of Latvia, who routinely has some of the fastest ski times on the World Cup and has earned his first top-ten results this season. Even more than the women’s race, the men’s race was packed with World Cup talent.
Vincent Blais placed 63rd for Canada, Andrew Chisholm 69th, and Jasper Mackenzie 71st. For the United States, Casey Smith of the Maine Winter Sports Center led the way in 22nd with two penalties, and Wynn Roberts placed 68th.
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.