Rosanna Crawford felt like many other biathletes just before the start of yesterday’s World Cup mixed relay in Östersund, Sweden: anxious.
“I was super nervous all day today, not really knowing what to expect,” Crawford told FasterSkier. “It’s been a long summer so to get that first one over with is a bit of a relief… I think I was extra nervous today because it was a team event. I’ve never started the season with a team event. You don’t want to let anybody down.”
Once the gun went off, Crawford quickly snuck her way to the front of the pack.
“Everyone went right, so there was a big opening to the left and I was able to get to the front straight away,” she said.
Near the leaders coming into the first shooting, Crawford quickly cleaned her five prone targets and headed out in first place.
The nerves were out of the way and Crawford was back on the World Cup, exactly where she left off. In her last race of the season in Oslo, Norway, in March, she got her first World Cup top ten. And as usual, it came thanks to near-perfect shooting: Crawford used only one spare round in standing.
“I had a pretty rough day on the range yesterday during race prep,” she explained. “I was missing a lot of targets. So that kind of rattled the nerves a little bit. But I just reminded myself that I’m a good shooter, and at those races in Canmore I was able to hit the target, and this is just like any other race. There’s just a few more people watching I guess.”
She went on to tag off in fifth place, less than five seconds behind the leader. It was a solid opening for Canada.
Zina Kocher took over and was quick on her skis, but struggled mightily on the range. Kocher used three spare rounds in prone, and then three more in standing – and hit the penalty loop twice in standing as well. The team sat in 16t place, almost two minutes back, by the time she tagged off.
“I missed my last shot split at 6, and then once I started the spares the wind picked up,” Kocher wrote in an e-mail about her prone shooting. “I corrected to the left but not enough, split 2 at 3, and then for the 3rd spare I checked the wind again, and it died so corrected back to where I was. Unfortunate.”
Canadian Head Coach Matthias Ahrens wrote that Kocher had “tremors which she was not able to get rid of” in her standing shooting. Besides the missed shots, it took her well over a minute to complete each shooting stage – adding to the time back.
“It’s taking me some time to debrief this race and understand the lessons learned today,” Kocher wrote. “This summer and fall I’ve spent a lot of time on the mental aspect of shooting, but today I faced the same past demons. The standing shakes got the best of me and literally I could not shake it. It’s day 1, and there’s still a whole season ahead of us.”
Kocher had not shot well this season up until the World Cup opener, including in trials races in Canmore. Ahrens explained that she had been selected for the relay based on a time trial from the day before, in which she and Audrey Vaillancourt, who had better performances at trials, competed for the spot.
“Zina showed decent shooting performances lately,” Ahrens wrote.
Canada’s chances of a top-six finish were effectively gone, but Nathan Smith and Marc-André Bédard made a go of it as best they could. The team finished 17th, 3:41 behind the leaders.
“I wasn’t supposed to race the relay so by getting this chance I was super happy however it went,” Bédard wrote in an e-mail. “I obviously was pretty bummed out when I saw what happened, but I went in knowing how far the 15th and 16th guys were so I pushed, mostly to get a good feel of this course that’s new for me and I loved it! I shot really good again and feel really solid even with the evident lack of shooting for the last months.”
Both men shot well: Smith used one spare in standing, and Bédard two. In fact, Crawford, Smith, and Bédard combined for some of the best shooting in the field. No other three-athlete combination could beat their four combined spares.
“I think they are pretty happy,” Crawford said of her male teammates. “I know Nathan didn’t feel great on his skis, but I think they were both happy with their shooting and it was good to sort of blow some steam out and get ready for the individual races.”
For Bédard, it was particularly rewarding to get to race in the opening relay. He raced just one World Cup weekend last year, in Oberhof, and only a World Championships the season before. Last season, he was primed to race and turned in strong early results on the IBU Cup – but Canada’s men’s team was so strong that despite that, he didn’t get the call.
Since then, Bédard has been focusing primarily on obstacle racing, where he and girlfriend Claude Godbout can make more of a living than through biathlon. But he turned in excellent races at trials in Canmore and found himself nominated for the opening World Cups for the first time in his career.
“It feels awesome to be here finally and to be racing with Nathan and those guys that have proven their worth last season and again, I’m just enjoying myself and giving it my best!” he wrote. “I raced long endurance events all summer so I believe my speed might not be on par but my “threshold” speed is pretty solid. My shooting hasn’t been better in 14 years so I am looking forward to the 20 k! It’s a distance I’ve never loved before, but embrace now.”
Crawford was philosophical about the team’s performance, but looked forward to doing better in the future.
“It was too bad with Zina, but that’s the way it goes sometimes,” she said. “I guess we’ll just have to think about it in the next mixed relay, if we’ll start in a different order, or put in a different team. It all depends on how people are feeling.”
As for Canada’s leading lady, she has big goals for the season – once the long 15 k individual on Thursday is behind her.
“I am definitely more inclined to the shorter races,” she laughed. “15 k will feel long. But with some good shooting I think for sure top 30 is possible, so that will be the goal on the day. For an individual race my goals are much different than for a sprint or pursuit – I think this year a podium is definitely possible with all the chips falling into place, with good shooting and strong skiing. So that’s definitely one of my goals this year.”
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.