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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Zina Kocher brought Canada both the most exciting and most frustrating moments of yesterday’s women’s biathlon relay.
To be sure, the whole team contributed to getting her to that moment. Rosanna Crawford, Megan Imrie, and Megan Heinicke had skied strong legs to bring Canada from fifth to sixth and then up to fourth. Canadian head coach Matthias Ahrens described his feeling as “overexcited” watching the early stages of the relay.
When Heinicke tagged off to Kocher, Canada’s habitual anchor, she was just 40 seconds from the lead, and 15 seconds from second-place Russia and third-place Norway. Late in the game, Canada was in a place it had never been in Olympic relay racing before. At a World Cup in Annency, France, earlier this season, they had finished fourth. But their previous best Olympic relay was 15th.
What Kocher did next was nothing short of inspirational: she skied so aggressively that she caught both Tora Berger of Norway – no small feat – and Olga Vilukhina of Russia, and led them onto the range. Canada was in second place.
“I was really excited,” Kocher said. “I was really trying to focus on what I did in [Annency] and the thing was that I knew I was in fourth, and that my skis were really fast. And that I was suddenly with the top. I lay down in second place, and all of a sudden I was fighting for a podium.”
That’s where things started to go off the rails for Kocher. In prone, she used two spares rounds while Berger and Vilukhina cleaned. She lost time, but still had almost 30 seconds on fifth place. It seemed very possible that Canada would tie their World Cup result, which was a best-ever.
But in standing things continued to unravel. Kocher missed shots again, but also lost count of how many spare bullets she had used. Athletes are only allowed three in each stage, but she also had one left over from the prone stage, which she would have been penalized for using. Kocher had to stop and count her bullets.
“I was so close and but I think I really spent myself in that first lap trying to catch up and I paid for it in the standing,” she said. “I was really struggling to actually stand (laughs). I was a little bit out of it when I went to my spare bullets, I lost count of how many I had left and almost gave us a penalty by putting in an extra one until I started counting.”
She avoided the penalty, but kept missing shots. Kocher spent a painful 50 seconds on the shooting range – up from the 25 to 30 in a clean shooting bout – and then had to ski two penalty loops. She went from being 25 seconds away from a bronze medal to being almost two minutes behind.
Despite the heartbreaking mistakes, Kocher went back out on the trails and skied another hard loop, to turn in the fourth-fastest last-loop time.
“Thank God she did take the extra time to go through, because if she’d shot the extra round, that would have been it,” Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay said. “And she came out of it in ninth, immediately was able to pass the Swiss, and put us back in the top eight.”
The mood of the Canadians oscillated between pride and disappointment even long after the race was over. The same four women had placed 16th in the relay in Vancouver, and late-stage mistakes and all, they were thrilled to see how far they had come.
“It was a tough ending but Zina skied her heart out that last loop,” Heinicke said. “This is the same four girls [as Vancouver in 2010] so that’s a really cool way to see how much progress we’ve all made as individuals and as a team in four years. We’re halfway closer to the top then we were then. With the two penalty loops it also shows us what our potential would be if we were all to have that day on the same day.”
And there were other moments of brilliance. Crawford, for example, skied aggressively out of the start and was actually leading the relay for the first few hundred meters. Seeing Canada at the front of an Olympic relay was a goosebumps moment for many.
“It’s certainly wonderful to watch,” Lindsay sighed.
And Heinicke had perhaps the most brilliant performance of the day, shooting fast and perfectly cleanly in both stages while skiing the fifth-fastest course time of her leg.
“I think that I can be a good shooter, and I have been a good shooter in the past,” she said. “I feel like I put myself under more pressure than I even realized for these individual races and coming into the relay, we were in a good position so it’s not that there was nothing to fight for, but I still sort of felt like the pressure’s off. You know you have those three spare bullets there and you’re just like, OK, this is that confidence booster. I think that helped me kind of put on the blinders and do my job.”
Despite losing spots at the end, Ahrens was still incredibly proud of his squad.
“I must say, I applaud all of them, because it’s long [weeks], and this is a very tough course here,” he said. “They have had some tough conditions at times. And to pull it together at the end, I really applaud them.”
But in a race where there were even more strange results, with strong teams like Germany, France, Poland, and Belarus removing themselves from contention early, there was an even more tangible sense of what might have been.
“The reality is that we were given a few bonuses today with the unfortunate incident off the top for the Germans, and I really hope that girl from France is okay,” Lindsay said, referring to Marie Laure Brunet’s collapse on the course following a vasovagal reaction, requiring her to be carried out in a stretcher. “But [in competition] you have to be able to capitalize and unfortunately we weren’t able to capitalize. This is a relay we could have medaled in. Flat out. And it’s a good result at the end of the day, but it’s not the result we were capable of.”
“Unfortunately it ended with two penalties, which of course you can’t have in a relay,” Ahrens said.
“We were looking for a podium,” Lindsay added. “Like I said, it was within our grasp, but we weren’t able to grab it.”
“It’s a hard one to swallow,” Kocher lamented.
“Top eight is still a great result for us,” Crawford concluded. “The thoughts of ‘what could have been’ will linger for a while, but we have come a long way from 2010!”
— Alex Matthews, Seth Adams, and Nat Herz contributed reporting.
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.