SOCHI, Russia — Megan Imrie was painting dolls when she got the call.
To be fair, the photo her Biathlon Canada teammate Rosanna Crawford tweeted at 5:37 p.m. made it look like she just started. Either way, she wasn’t going to finish.
Her coach, Matthias Ahrens had called Imrie 10 minutes earlier to let her know she could relax. The fourth woman out of the top 30 allowed to start in Monday night’s 12.5-kilometer mass start, Imrie initially heard that two people pulled out. Close, but no cigar.
“I waited here until 5:15 and looked at the start list, and she wasn’t on it,” Ahrens said. “The assumption was that she would not race, so I called her to tell her … and then I started to walk down to the village, and then I got a phone call that she actually could start. So I called back, and from there we went.”
Meanwhile, Imrie and her teammates started to paint Russian “Matryoshka” dolls, those little wooden dolls that contain smaller wooden dolls. The arts-and-crafts session in the Olympic Endurance Village ended with the second call from Ahrens, informing her that two others were out and she was in.
“He called again and said, ‘Actually you’re in! Do you want to start?’ ” Imrie recalled. “I said, ‘Of course I want to start!’ so I jumped up and got in my race clothes as fast as I could.”
Her teammates followed soon after to watch the 7 p.m. race, which went off according to plan despite impenetrable fog throughout the day — a visibility issue that derailed the already postponed men’s mass start from the night before. Originally scheduled to race Sunday night, the men wouldn’t get to start until at least 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, Moscow time.
Either way, Imrie had to get to the venue, calibrate her rifle, and warm up, all in an hour’s time.
The 28-year-old, who celebrated her birthday last week, pulled it off and pumped herself up for the first mass start of her career — and Canada’s first for a female biathlete at the Olympics.
“Because it’s so soft and slushy out there … it’s the kind of day you don’t want to overdo a warmup,” she said.
Starting in bib 30, Imrie was a little intimidated at first.
“But then looking around, these girls are my buddies and I have to keep reminding myself that I earned this spot as much as any of them,” she said. “I just kind of chilled out in the back of the pack for a while and did my thing on the range.”
Her first time in the range, Imrie recorded the eighth-fastest shooting time, missed one and had to ski a penalty lap. She left the range in 27th, and after cleaning the second prone, moved up to 20th.
Focused on her two key words, just like always (“center and squeeze” for prone; “relax and react” for standing), Imrie tried to relax each time she entered the range. She skied the 16th-fastest time on the third 2.5 k loop, then missed one in the first standing. Leaving the range in 22nd, she skied the 18th fastest on the fourth of five loops.
Her last time shooting, she missed three standing. The penalties put her back toward the end of the pack, and Imrie had to fight for 28th. The result tied her Olympic best from the preceding pursuit and bested her results in two other races in Sochi: 30th in the 15 k individual and 31st in the 7.5 k sprint.
“I didn’t want to come across the line last, and I didn’t so that was OK,” she said. “I actually got better and better on my skis. In the individual [race] I just died, absolutely died, so today I felt quite good, but I just didn’t get those last three targets. My sights were just sitting a little bit on the right and I couldn’t get them.”
All things considered, Imrie was glad to check off another Olympic race — after a season in which she hardly competed — and even waved to stadium spectators just before the finish.
“Given that it was a last-minute thing for her to jump into it, I’m really happy for her that it worked out,” Ahrens said. “Unfortunately, the last shooting cost her a few places, but up to that point it was really nice, a really excellent race.”
Imrie finished 3:33.4 behind Belarusian Darya Domracheva, who won in 35:25.6. The lone Canadian in the mass start, she finished 8.7 seconds behind Slovakia’s Anastasiya Kuzmina in 27th and 10.5 seconds ahead of Franziska Hildebrand in 29th.
“I was representing our whole team,” Imrie told CBC. “I’m happy to put our stamp on this race and show Canada belongs in this elite group.”
With soft conditions resulting from moist, tropical-like weather, Imrie said it hasn’t been easy to log the most efficient workouts, but she did some race prep on Sunday in the event that she’d race Monday.
“It’s usually very unlikely, especially in Olympic Games that it would go as deep as 34 [in a mass start] so I had my fingers crossed,” she said. “I did my training and leadup yesterday as if I would be racing. I wasn’t going out and partying like crazy, but I was definitely surprised.
“It’s been difficult conditions for the organizers to deal with,” she added. “They’re really doing their best to manage the snow, which has been fantastic, but it doesn’t leave much quality ski training for us. So it’s nice when you can go out there and have some prime conditions for intensity work.”
On Monday night, she was going to meet with her teammates and boyfriend, who came to the biathlon stadium to cheer her on. Then maybe she’ll finish those dolls.
“It’ll probably be a gift,” said she with a laugh.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.