When Brendan Green crossed the finish line of Sunday’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay at Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway, he was in fifth place.
It wasn’t simply a good day for Green, or a personal best. That fifth-place finish was the best men’s relay ever in Biathlon Canada’s history.
“It was a really good day for our team,” Green said in a phone interview. “Last night we had a team meeting and talked a little bit about the potential for our team. We talked about our specific start order and what we thought we could bring to the team on each leg. And today things definitely came together for us. Everyone had really solid legs for the relay.”
The Canadians finished a minute and 35 seconds behind the winning Russian team. The stellar result comes in a season which has seen substantial changes to the World Cup roster. Star Jean Philippe Le Guellec retired after the 2014 Olympics, and Scott Perras is back in Canada training.
Instead, since the first men’s relay this season in Oberhof, Germany, Canada’s relay team has included 21-year-old Christian Gow, who skied leadoff and is in his first season on the World Cup. Gow shot like a pro, cleaning all ten of his targets without touching his spare rounds and tagged off in 14th, 50.5 seconds behind Germany’s Erik Lesser.
“I was pretty confident that I would be able to clean the race today,” Gow wrote in an email. “I have been shooting really well all season and felt awesome in zero. You never know if everything will line up completely right for that 100%, but I was confident today and was happy to achieve it!”
Canadian Head Coach Matthias Ahrens wrote that Gow’s performance had never been a question mark in his mind.
“I believe Christian had proven some good relay qualities in previous relays in Oberhof and Antholz already with good shooting efficiency,” he explained.
Gow is learning to deal with the excitement and the pressure of the World Cup.
“The past several relays have all been a great learning experience for dealing with the more unique aspects of World Cup racing, such as the incredible noise from the stands, or racing next to one of your personal idols,” he wrote. “I honestly hardly thought about the crowd today, and I don’t think too much about the guys around me either. When I am in the range I am focused on what I am doing and I try not to think about anything else.”
That showed, and Gow’s work on the range upped the ante for his teammates – including his brother Scott, who was racing the third leg of the relay.
“Seeing Christian clean was one part inspiring and one part nerve-wracking,” Scott Gow wrote in an email. “It was awesome to see him shoot so well and set the tone, but at the same time it added pressure for me to do well too and build on his great opening leg. Overall I would say it was motivating but I was definitely nervous waiting for Nathan to tag me.”
Nathan Smith, the second-leg skier, turned in a strong performance of his own. He used a spare round in each shooting stage and moved the team up to ninth. But more importantly, by turning in the second-fastest ski time he cut ten seconds off of the team’s gap to the leaders.
“I had a lot of confidence in my shooting and knew that being the third race of a weekend, I would probably also have a really strong ski day,” Smith wrote in an email. “Shooting went pretty well, it was a little windy. The only disappointment was missing my last prone shot. I think I just got a little ahead of myself.”
“Christian [Gow] is a really good shooter, and he’s really fast, so he has always been reliable. That first leg is a great place for him and he gets the job done really well in that position.” — Brendan Green
For Scott Gow, who used two spare rounds and moved the team up to fifth, things just came together on Sunday.
“I felt the best on skis today since before Christmas,” he wrote. “I had a decent opening lap which is unusual for me, and I was able to maintain speed for the whole race with a nice kick at the end to pull into 5th. I lost some time in standing, but prone was solid and my skiing was good enough to keep the team in the mix.”
Green dropped the team to sixth, briefly, after using two spares in prone, but skied back up to fifth.
“It was a little bit tricky wind in prone,” Green said. “It was a complete 180 from zeroing. I hit my first three shots but then missed the next two, so I sort of paused before I loaded my spares and made that extra correction.”
After cleaning standing, Green then turned in the second-fastest closing loop to hold onto it, despite fears of challengers from behind.
“I was able to leave the range just ahead of Italy and Ukraine,” Green said. “I knew they were close behind. So on that last loop I really tried to redline it and go as hard as I could. And I knew France was close – partway through my loop I could hear some cheering and I thought, oh man, Fourcade must be closing in. So then I tried to really go for it and not look back, and hold those guys off.”
For all the team’s members, the race was a culmination of the Oslo weekend. Smith had drawn on his confidence from finishing 12th in the 20 k individual; Scott Gow had focused on the lessons he learned in the earlier races of the weekend.
“My skiing wasn’t great in the individual and, despite shooting 85%, didn’t shoot well enough for a good result,” he wrote of finishing 60th in the 20 k. “After that race I wanted to refocus on skiing efficiently and being more deliberate in the range, and that’s exactly what I was able to accomplish on race day in the Sprint. My result in the sprint race gave me added confidence for today’s relay. I wanted to use today as an opportunity to build on my skiing and shooting and try to do better.”
And for Christian Gow, he acclimated back to Europe after heading home to Canada for a training break and then sitting out the 20 k due to jet lag.
“It was great to get back here on the World Cup again after my brief break back home,” he explained. “I think it was important for me that I took a break in order to feel ready to go for the next month of racing.”
The youngest team member is now looking forward to his first World Championships experience. And with the best-ever result in their back pocket, Canada is looking forward, too. Their relay there will have the same roster, likely in the same order.
“I think today’s result showed all of us the type of placing we can achieve,” Christian Gow wrote. “From that standpoint I think it will give us a bit more confidence, but also more drive to keep pushing for an even better result.”
“A result like today will definitely give us a little extra confidence and motivation heading into the two week break and World Championships,” Smith agreed. “Another top 6 is what we’re aiming for. Outside of the World Champs, Nations Cup points are especially important for us this year. Right now we’re sitting in 8th which means 5 start spots for next year. It would awesome to grab that extra spot for the Canmore World Cups in 2016.”
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.