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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Usually when you’re trying to fend off Martin Fourcade at the end of a race, it’s for the win.
But today’s Olympic men’s relay – the last biathlon event of the Games – didn’t go quite the way it usually does for France, who had seven spare rounds but was more undone by slow ski times. And it certainly didn’t go as planned for Canada. Jean Philippe Le Guellec led part of the race but then got shaky in his standing stage and ended up skiing a penalty loop, dropping the team to 16th. He gained back a few spots with strong skiing by the time he tagged off to Scott Perras, and the team continued to climb through the rest of the relay.
So there they were: by the anchor leg of the relay, Canada’s Nathan Smith left the range in seventh place, and French anchor Martin Fourcade 11 seconds behind in eighth.
“We were watching Nathan go up the last hill, and we had [wax tech] Tom Zidek on top of that hill. “The feedback from Zidek was that Nathan was pushing as hard as he can, and this is good. Then the radio went silent. Then the radio came back on again and said, oh shit, Fourcade is going.”
Partway around the loop, Fourcade – who won two gold medals at this games and is a several-time overall World Cup champion – caught Smith. But from then on, it was even. In fact, Fourcade seemed to be playing tactical.
“It seemed like he was holding back a little bit – he was drafting me a little bit on the last lap,” Smith said. “He didn’t want to pass me on the last uphill. So I saved a little bit too for the end. To be sure that he wouldn’t outsprint me.”
Smith led on the downhill into the stadium, and wouldn’t let Fourcade past as they cruised across to the far end.
“Nathan was not going to let it go without a fight,” Lindsay said. “Whether it’s by an inch or a mile, it’s all that counts.”
It was a battle coming back down the finishing stretch, but Smith emerged victorious to salvage seventh place for Canada, a best-ever finish in an Olympic relay. The team finished a minute and a half behind the winning Russians, with one penalty loop and ten spare rounds compared to eight spares by Russia and even fewer by the other podium teams, Germany and Austria.
So did Smith think he was going to win that sprint against the best biathlete in the world?
“I thought I had good chances,” Smith said. “I’m usually pretty good at sprint finishes.”
After Le Guellec’s shooting woes, Scott Perras took over and skied a flawless leg, using one spare in prone and none in standing and skiing his way up to eighth place. He made an impressive move leaving the range after standing, passing a group of racers on the inside of a corner and leading them to make up time on the leaders.
“I knew we were fairly close to the top three so I didn’t care what position I was in,” Perras said. “I just wanted to close down that time to the top three even if it meant they were going to pass me later on.”
From there, Brendan Green used a spare in each stage to move up to sixth before Smith took over for the final anchor leg.
On one hand, the result was a bit disappointing based on what the Canadians thought they were capable of.
“Last year we were top eight at World Champs, to do that again, it wouldn’t be our potential but it would show some really good consistency,” Perras said. “I definitely woke up this morning thinking a top three was possible, probably third more than first, but just after the mixed relay I knew Nathan and JP had rested and they’re already in good shape and their shooting has been so solid this year so I was pretty confident.”
But it was still a best-ever result, and carried all the accolades that come with that.
“This is redefining where the new basement on performance has to be for the Canadian squad,” Lindsay said. “Eighth is the new norm. If we’re getting less than eighth, we’re doing something wrong.”
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.