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SOCHI, Russia – In Vancouver, Canada, four years ago, Jean Philippe Le Guellec made history in by placing sixth in the sprint, the best finish by a Canadian man in an Olympic biathlon race.
After winning a World Cup sprint at the beginning of the 2012-2013 season, hopes were high that he could do even better for Canada here in Sochi, perhaps even winning the men’s team’s first medal (legendary fellow Québécois Myriam Bedard won bronze in 1992 and two golds in 1994).
Le Guellec may not have gone quite that far in today’s 10 k sprint, but he came very close – and his eventual fifth-place finish still upped his Canadian record by one spot. Le Guellec cleaned all ten of his targets, had the fastest shooting time of the field in his prone stage, and skied the ninth-fastest course time to land 9.7 seconds behind Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway, who captured his sixth Olympic gold medal.
“It definitely breaks the ice,” Le Guellec said of his performance. “If you think back to Vancouver, it was just awesome that I could shoot clean [today]. In Vancouver I had one penalty…. Performance-wise, [today] was an awesome race.”
It wasn’t just Le Guellec who had team Canada smiling. In his first Olympic appearance, Nathan Smith finished 13th after also shooting clean. Brendan Green picked up a single penalty to place 23rd, while Scott Perras finished 74th with a frustrating three penalties.
To accomplish his fifth-place result, Le Guellec had to stick to a very specific strategy. When the Canadians raced here in Sochi at the World Cup last season, Le Guellec told FasterSkier that he “definitely [had] my work cut out for me given the profile of the course.” The Canadian didn’t feel at the time that the huge hills played to his strengths as a skier.
“The course is very difficult,” he said. “We have an uphill right here out of the range, and we have another really big uphill behind the range. And the downhills, there’s no rest on this course. It’s a continuous grind.”
But with a conscious strategy – “you have to be disciplined” – Le Guellec completely turned things around in just a single season. Today he started conservatively, ranked just 25th after cleaning his prone stage. But little by little, he ratcheted up the ski speed. His middle lap was the eighth-fastest of the field, and his closing lap the sixth-fastest.
“It’s really easy to start the race, be a little overzealous, and blow up on the third lap,” Le Guellec said. “It’s not something you want, because these hills are, pardon my French, it sucks. You don’t want to blow up in there. You really have to be careful.”
By the time he left his standing stage, he was ranked fourth. With a bib 65, it was unlikely that he would be surpassed by later starters. He pushed as hard as he could on the final loop in his bid for Canada’s first men’s medal.
“On the last lap I kept getting splits where I was two seconds from third, six seconds from first, and it was like that every time I passed one of the techs,” Le Guellec said.
There was a lot of moving around in the final 3.3 kilometers of the race. Le Guellec put a few seconds on Simon Eder of Austria, who had been ranked third but dropped to seventh by the finish. However, Bjørndalen and Dominik Landertinger of Austria had even faster last laps and moved into first and second, respectively. Jaroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic, who had been the leader after the standing stage, ended up with the bronze medal and Anton Shipulin of Russia in fourth place.
“Then when I crossed the line in fifth I was honestly a bit disappointed at first,” Le Guellec admitted. “But performance-wise I couldn’t have pushed any more on the last lap. I gave it my all and that’s the game, that’s sports.”
With his clean shooting, it would have been reasonable to expect a better result than he’d had in Vancouver, where he attained a similar placing despite one penalty. But the Sochi shooting range is considered quite easy, with a gradual approach to the range and high retaining walls breaking the wind. The entire field had relatively strong shooting: the top 24 men were either clean or had a single penalty.
Le Guellec is an expert shot. His sprint victory in Östersund, Sweden, in 2012 came when he cleaned his targets in windy conditions which tripped up the rest of the field. On this easy range, you might think that Le Guellec’s skills were less at a premium. Yet that’s not how he sees it.
“On the contrary, I think that it’s really important to hit ten out of ten…. you look at [Bjorndalen] and he had one penalty,” Le Guellec said. “The others were without penalties. So what you have to do to win is just like any other course.”
Now, the Canadians know that they can do what it takes to win.
“Those two and a half or three weeks that we had in between [the World Cup and Olympics], you start to get restless and anxious,” Green said. “The last few days, we’re all here and just wondering if our form is there or not. I think today was a good sign that we’re skiing well. As long as you drop the targets, we’re capable of good results like JP and Nathan.”
As for Le Guellec, his mind seemed to be fairly swimming with the possibilities he and his teammates had created for himself: Monday’s pursuit race is based on the results from the sprint. He will start 9.7 seconds out of the lead, Smith 36 seconds out, and Green 58 seconds out.
The sprint and pursuit results, along with those from the individual race, will also be tallied into a Games-long ranking. The top 30 athletes from that list will be taken into the mass start competition. The top three Canadians have all positioned themselves well to earn that honor.
“It’s going to be great leaving in fifth on Monday, with nine seconds to the lead,” Le Guellec said. “And after that, we have the individual, which is also a very promising race. Mixed relay, relay, you name it, we have so many events. The chances are there, you just have to jump on it.”
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.