In the last three races, Canada’s Nathan Smith has hit 49 of 50 targets, and that’s something he can be proud of — even if it didn’t beat his teammate Brendan Green’s record.
“I had Brendan’s 50 out of 50 record from earlier in the season in my mind today,” Smith told Biathlon Canada after the men’s 20-kilometer individual on Thursday in Oslo, Norway. “We were joking around a little before the race that I would try and steal that glory away from him.”
Smith was on track for that kind of performance early on in the individual race at Holmenkollen, starting 10th and cleaning his first three shooting stages with some of the quickest range times in the 94-man field.
He didn’t try anything different in the longest-format race on the IBU World Cup; he just wanted to replicate the kind of success he found last weekend in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, where he notched a career-best seventh in the sprint followed by a new best of fifth in the pursuit.
“I tried to get into the same relaxed mindset for the shooting that I used in Nove Mesto,” Smith wrote in an email.
After knocking down his first five targets, Smith found himself in fifth through nine starters. At least 14 men cleaned the first prone as well, bumping him down to 11th and then 15th, but by the second stage, he was back up to fifth with another perfect round.
“From watching the women’s race I knew there would be a LOT of cleans or near cleans,” Smith reflected. “With 19 or 20 [shooting] I thought a top 10 should be reasonable. However, once the race was underway I could tell my skiing just wasn’t quite at the same level as last week.”
In soft, draggy snow, his lap times ranked in the mid-40s for most of the race, until the last lap, where he knew he had to kick it into high gear. After cleaning his third stage and reclaiming fifth, 54 seconds behind race leader Martin Fourcade of France, Smith missed his third shot on his final standing.
“On the last standing I think I managed the situation really well compared to races before Christmas,” Smith reflected. “I felt way more calm and wasn’t worried if I had to reset or take an extra breath. It’s too bad I missed a shot but I don’t think it was from nerves.”
Despite the one-minute penalty, he left the range in fourth, 2:14.6 behind Fourcade. There, he concentrated on strong last lap to make up for what he considered “lackluster earlier loops.”
With the 27th-ranked course time on the last lap, Smith initially finished seventh, 2:38.5 behind Fourcade as the eventual winner. He ultimately placed 12th for his best 20 k individual result after five men in the top 10 cleaned all four stages.
“It was a little disappointing to miss one in the last bout, but 19 is still my best shooting ever in an individual,” Smith observed. “So despite that shot and slightly slow skiing I can’t complain at all.”
Beyond IBU World Championships, which take place March 3-15 in Kontiolahti, Finland, Smith — who ranks 25th in the overall World Cup — was looking toward the next-and-final World Cup from March 18-22 in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia.
“Biathlon Canada is sending a minimal team to Khanty-Mansiysk at the end of the season and are chasing top-25 rankings,” he explained. “12th helps a long way to move into that group.”
Nordgren Hits 19 for 20th
Another North American who put down his best-ever individual race on Thursday, Leif Nordgren of the U.S. had sort of the opposite race of Smith — missing one in the first stage then cleaning every bout thereafter.
With the snow quality deteriorating throughout the day in warm temperatures (above 40 degrees Fahrenheit), Nordgren as the 57th starter described the conditions as “fairly nasty.”
“The tracks weren’t too bad, there were plenty of parts that stayed pretty hardpacked all through the race, but a couple of the hills that get more sun were pretty deep and mushy, not to mention the entire range,” he wrote in an email.
“Skiing wise I felt ok today, I tried to start out more on the conservative side knowing that it would be a tough race, but I could tell I was having a good ski already by the second loops so I blew caution to the winds and started to push every loop a little more after that,” he added.
Like Smith, Nordgren posted course times that ranked around 40th, but it was his shooting — with the 13th-fastest range time overall and 19-for-20 accuracy — that lifted him.
Through three stages, he sat around 24th, one minute from ninth. With a clean final round, Nordgren improved to 14th, 2:22.7 behind Fourcade, and set off on his last lap chasing a top 15, which would have been a career best.
“Leaving the range in 14th the final time, was a good feeling, I knew that it would be tight and a few guys would probably catch me, but I still had some energy left so all I could do was push till the end,” he wrote.
With the 34th-ranked course time on the last lap, he initially finished 19th. Russia’s Maxim Tsvetkov in bib 67 took 10th with clean shooting, bumping Nordgren to 20th, where he’d stay for his third-best World Cup result (after placing 16th in the Nove Mesto sprint last weekend).
“I’m really happy with this result, mostly because it proves that last week wasn’t a total fluke or anything,” Nordgren wrote. “This was a new week with a new course and totally different conditions, conditions that I’ve struggled with in the past. … I’m happy with 19 for 20 shooting, to have just one bad shot in the entire race is acceptable to me, for sure it could have been better, but I had one shot in my second prone which was a split, and it barely knocked the target down, so I got a little lucky in that regard.”
Fourcade as the first starter led from the third stage on, staying just ahead of Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev, who started fourth and also hit all his targets to chase Fourcade throughout the five-lap race.
But Fourcade was faster, posting the second-fastest overall course time after Slovenia’s Jakov Fak, who ended up fourth with two penalties, 1:36.6 behind Fourcade. Garanichev had the fourth-fastest course time.
Jakov led after the first prone, and Fourcade was 21 seconds back in 12th. Two men remained ahead of Fourcade after the second shooting — Russia’s Anton Shipulin and Germany’s Simon Schempp — who cleaned the first two stages as well. After the first standing, Shipulin led Schempp by 12.3 seconds, and Fourcade was 21.8 seconds out of first in third.
But two more stages took care of that. Both Shipulin and Schempp missed two on the third bout, dropping the Russian to 18th and the German to 29th. While Shipulin cleaned the last stage to place seventh (+1:59.4), Schempp had another miss on the final standing to end up 27th (+3:45.3).
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Sergey Semenov shot 20-for-20 to land in the top three, 48.8 seconds behind Fourcade. Garanichev came up 14.2 seconds short of Fourcade, who won in 51:26.8, to finish second, 34.6 seconds ahead of Semenov in third.
“It was not easy to start with the pressure of starting with bib number 1,” Fourcade, the overall World Cup leader, told the IBU. “It was a battle against myself all day … It was a strange feeling, but I enjoyed the competition.
“Shooting was not easy,” he added. “I stopped after the third shot in both standing stages to make sure I hit the other targets.”
In all, three Canadian and three Americans competed on Thursday, with Canada’s Green placing 44th (+5:01.2) with three penalties (0+1+0+2) and Scott Gow finishing 60th (+6:32.9) with three penalties as well (1+1+1+0).
Like Green, Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey of the U.S. started strong, cleaning their first prone, but slipped to 47th (+5:10.3) and 62nd (+6:48.4), respectively, by the finish. Burke missed four total (0+1+0+3) and Bailey had two of his three penalties on his last stage (0+1+0+2).
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Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.