RUHPOLDING, Germany – There are a number of things that the Canadian biathlon team has done differently than their competitors coming into this week’s World Cup race series.
First of all, as usual, the “A” team skipped the last weekend of racing in Oberhof in order to enjoy some more time at home, for both recovery and a training block. On the one hand, that means that they were a little less race-ready for today’s 4 x 7.5 k relay than other teams that already have three races under their belts in the new year.
“Considering that we only arrived on Sunday and it’s still within our jetlag period, everybody was sort of so-so feeling,” head coach Matthias Ahrens told FasterSkier.
But a good athlete can take potential negatives and turn them into positives. Scott Perras? Missing last weekend didn’t bother him in the slightest. In fact, he thought it might be an advantage.
“We’re pretty used to it, and who really wants to go to Oberhof anyway?” he said, hushing his voice so no Germans would get offended. “And I think it gives us an edge, because people start to get run down and tired during the week. Whereas we should feel better, because we’ve only been here for four days.”
Regardless of how the pros and cons balanced out, the team managed a successful relay, finishing eighth with eight spare rounds and no penalty loops, 1:17 behind the winning Austrian team.
Le Guellec had a strong first leg, shooting clean and tagging off in sixth, 16 seconds off the pace. Perras thought that he skied well, and he did – he had the fifth-fastest course time of any of the second-leg skiers.
“But my shooting was, I think I should have shot a little better,” he said.
With four spare rounds, Perras dropped the team to eighth, but Green was there to pick them back up. He used only a single spare and brought Canada back to sixth position. Smith needed two spares in prone and bounced back down to eighth, a position he maintained for the rest of the race.
Things didn’t go perfectly. But they went well enough, and the team seemed pleased enough.
“I’m very happy,” Ahrens said.
The other thing that is different is that the Canadians have already finalized their Olympic team. They will send four men: Jean Philippe Le Guellec, Brendan Green, Nathan Smith, and Perras. That’s the team that raced today.
And getting team naming out of the way lifts a huge weight from the athletes’ shoulders – none more so than Green, who had a tough route to qualifying this fall with several races where he was just portions of a percentage point outside of the times he needed to qualify. Failing to do so on the World Cup, he had to fly back to Canada and earn his spot in a series of trials races against the best other Canadians.
“It’s so sweet, I can’t even describe it in words,” Green said of racing without the specter of qualifying looming over him. “It was such a stressful few months before Christmas. I was pretty deflated after Hochfilzen, being so close to qualifying. I was feeling mentally drained when I got back to Canmore, but I was able to recharge and refocus for trials, and they went, well, they couldn’t have gone much better. It was pretty much perfect. So that’s a huge relief and I’m just really happy to be back racing.”
Even for Le Guellec and Perras, who were pre-qualified before the start of the World Cup season, having everything official just feels different.
“The first tour really wasn’t fun because of it, even though I was done, it just wasn’t fun,” Perras said of all the stress his teammates were going through. “So I’m excited to just be here with the Olympic team and get racing again.”
Smith and Perras, who will be competing in their first Olympics in Sochi, might be even more excited than the rest of the team, who raced on home turf in Vancouver. Some of the Olympic promotional commitments, like a team naming ceremony last week at the Olympic cauldron in Canada, could seem like they were getting in the way of what was really important: physical preparations for the Games.
“If anything, it’s just like, what are your priorities in the next 40 days?” Perras asked. “it was pretty cool but I just wanted to get back racing.”
But he also admitted how cool it was to be at an event like that, and have it sink in.
“I think that Nathan and I were the only first-time Olympians, so it was more special for us,” he said.
These may be the same four guys that were on the World Cup in the first period, but now they have a different thing going on: they are a team.
“It definitely changes the energy a little bit,” Green said. “Now I feel like, now that I’ve earned my spot, it’s just a little different and I can just go about business without any further consequences.”
Ahrens saw it in his athletes, too.
“For sure, for feeling as one team now, having that load away makes a difference that they can concentrate more on the team,” he explained. “Especially for the relay.”
Watching the youngsters
While the World Cup team was at home training and getting fêted in Calgary, a new generation of Canadian biathletes were gaining some World Cup experience in Oberhof. The IBU Cup squad was used to fill the start quotas, including a few experienced athletes like 2010 Olympian Marc-André Bédard, but a few first-timers as well: Macx Davies, who finished 42nd in his inaugural start, and Julia Ransom and Emma Lodge.
The World Cup squad was watching the races with bated breath. In a way, it might have inspired them a little bit, too.
“We all train together,” Perras said. “I mean, I remember my first World Cup, so I was pretty excited, especially for Macx because he trains with us all the time. I was telling him how cool Oberhof was going to be. It was cool to see what he could do. It makes you think how lucky we are to be where we are still at.”
So does this mean it’s ready for the current Olympic team to step aside? While Le Guellec, at least, has concrete plans to retire after this season, a few others might stick around.
“I hope to compete,” Perras said. “I think, last Olympics when I didn’t make it I committed to four more years. Now it’s just one year at a time. I’d really like to be at the World Cup in Canmore in 2016, but that would be my last season I think.”
Maybe some of the newcomers like Davies will be on his team.
“I hope so!” he laughed. “They’re already nipping at our heels, so hopefully I’m racing with them, not them instead of me!”
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.