Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Megan Heinicke, obtained via email.
Last weekend, Megan Heinicke raced a couple IBU Cup tuneup races in Beitostølen, Norway, both of which were 7.5-kilometer sprints. She placed 16th in the first with two misses, and 48th the next day with five total penalties.
Day 1 was indicative of what the 26-year-old national-team veteran was capable of, Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay said on the phone Thursday night from Canmore, Alberta.
Day 2 was not.
Still, it got what coaches and athletes like to call the “cobwebs” out.
“[The IBU Cup last weekend] gave me a chance to test the waters and get the feel for racing again,” Heinicke said in a Biathlon Canada press release after Thursday’s first individual World Cup race of the season.
In the women’s 15 k individual start in Östersund, Sweden, Heinicke broke out with a career-best 12th, with a single penalty putting her 3:31.1 behind winner Darya Domracheva of Belarus. Even Domracheva had two penalties, and just three women out of 93 finished the day with perfect 20-for-20 shooting.
Heinicke’s previous World-Cup best was 15th in sprint last season in Kontiolahti, Finland. She started 62nd on Thursday, and Lindsay said that while the snow didn’t look like it broke down too much by the time she raced, challenging conditions often play to her favor anyway — at least on the range.
“She has the ability to be an extremely strong shooter and with difficult conditions,” he said, noting she paid attention to the wind flags and her coaches’ cues en route to her personal best. She also had the benefit of getting helpful splits off top contenders who started before her.
Heinicke cleaned her first prone then missed one on the first standing, but knocked down every target in the last two stages to catapult herself into 11th at the finish. There, she sat down shortly after crossing the line, breathing heavily and smiling. Heinicke fell one spot to 12th when Russia’s Ekaterina Glazyrina finished eighth ahead of her, but held that position for the rest of the race.
“The key to success was being relaxed, not feeling any external pressure and truly being focused on a few key factors shooting,” Heinicke said. “I took my time in the shooting range, and just had one of those days where I was able to block out everything except for my keyword when I was standing on the mat. I’m heading into this season more relaxed and just thankful I’m able to pull together good performances.”
While Heinicke spent most of her offseason training in Germany, Lindsay explained the national team received regular reports from her, including time-trial results.
“This is not surprising she’s been able to do quite well in the early season,” he said. “What we’re very happy about this year is she seems to have been able to maintain her health … When she’s healthy, she can put these things down.”
“I have had a really tough summer and fall this year and I went into the race motivated, but with low expectations and feeling no external pressure to perform,” Heinicke wrote in an email. “My day was pretty relaxed too — I even had a mini nap before I left for the race site which is unusual for me.”
She explained she felt great at the start of the race and focused on her shooting tasks at hand. Above all else, her goals were task-oriented rather than dependent on results.
“I have never started the season so relaxed and feeling so little pressure,” Heinicke wrote. “I wasn’t even sure if I should start this season and I think the low expectations (from myself and others) really helped me lose that nervous ‘I have to hit’ feeling. I was careful on the range: my shooting was very controlled and not rushed in any way.”
“I have never started the season so relaxed and feeling so little pressure. I wasn’t even sure if I should start this season and I think the low expectations (from myself and others) really helped me lose that nervous ‘I have to hit’ feeling.” — Megan Heinicke, after achieving career-best 12th in Östersund 15 k on Thursday
She felt sharper in the IBU Cup races the weekend before, but was pleased to be able to pick up her pace on her last loop.
“I felt a bit dull during the whole race but I think the better lap times at the end are a result of a good base,” she wrote. “I often feel good at the end of longer races. I was certainly motivated on my last loop!! I was a bit disappointed with my ski feeling compared to last weekend, but it was tough conditions so it is a bit hard to judge. Overall, my first loop was a bit too slow but I feel ok about the rest.
“Of course I am happy with the result,” she added. “Starting the season with a PB — what more could I ask for! It does get my season started in a positive way and I will certainly go into my next races a bit more confident than I would have without this result.”
Canada’s early starter who also ended up in the top 20, Rosanna Crawford finished 16th (+3:52) with three penalties. Despite the misses, it was her career-best 15 k result by one place over her 17th two seasons ago in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
“I’ve never been a big fan of Individuals, but it’s a great race for good shooters to be in the top,” Crawford wrote in an email. “I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I was for the mixed relay. Sunday’s race was a good indicator of where my ski speed is, even though we were just 3 days off the plane, and that shooting is also there.”
She opened for the mixed relay and put Canada in fifth after the first leg.
“My zero wasn’t great today and that got some extra nerves coming before the start,” she explained of Thursday. “But things came together in the range.”
Crawford, 26, missed one in her first prone and proceeded clean her first standing and second prone. Her last time in the range, she missed two.
“I tried not to get too ahead of myself for the last shooting bout, reminding myself that I’ve hit my last 5 targets many times in a race,” she wrote. “Unfortunately my legs were pretty tired and I missed my first two shots. But was able to pull it together and hit the last 3.”
She tried to pace herself throughout the five-loop 15 k in soft-and-slushy conditions paired with what Crawford called, “sketchy downhills.” Knowing she needed to save some kick for the finish, she ended up with the eighth- and ninth-fastest course times on her last two loops. Her course time ranked 12th overall.
After leaving the range for her fifth loop in 22nd, she improved to 16th by the finish. Crawford couldn’t recall if she had ever left the range for the last time in a worse position than she finished in.
“Of course I was shaking my head a bit at my shooting, but I knew that a lot of spots can be gained on last loops. Especially in a 15km when some women might have gone out too hard,” she wrote.
With a goal of 90-percent shooting and a top 25, she was halfway there. “Top 16 is above my expectation,” she wrote.
Not Biathlon Canada’s.
“Rosanna’s ski speed and her ability to put down targets has always been strong, but it is looking like she’s legitimately a top-16 athlete in our goals this year,” Lindsay said. “I think everyone should expect we will see more of her at this level.”
Eighty-five percent shooting was nothing to scoff at either, he said, even though it was easy to speculate where she might have ended up with one fewer 1-minute penalty.
“The reality is, individual racing is challenging,” he said. “We’re really looking forward to seeing her in some of the shorter races. We saw with the mixed relay, she has the ability to mix it up at the front of the pack and not be intimidated by the other girls. She enjoys leading, she enjoys being up there, and she handles the pressure well.”
“The reality is, individual racing is challenging.” — Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay
“Hopefully these past two races are a good indicator of whats to come this year,” Crawford wrote. “I’ve worked really hard this summer and [coach] Roddy [Ward] has told me he wants a lot of TV time 🙂 !”
Also for Canada, Zina Kocher finished 76th (+9:36.0) with seven penalties (2+3+1+1), and Audrey Vaillancourt was 81st (+10:14.7) after what Lindsay described as an uncharacteristic five misses (1+1+3+0).
“I know Zina was not happy with her race; she has very high standards for herself, and we know when everything clicks for her, she’s one of the fastest skiers in the field,” he said. “We just needed to focus getting that shooting down and that’ll come.”
He noted that Vaillancourt’s ski speed has improved throughout the training season. “The first  k of the year is a difficult race … I don’t see this as a pattern at all,” he said. “I think we’re going to see in pursuit racing, some very strong results out of there because she has the ability to push herself and put down the targets.”
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.