Note: This article has been updated to include emailed comments from Nathan Smith.
Seventy-eighth. That’s where Nathan Smith finished in the last IBU World Cup 10-kilometer sprint before Saturday’s race. And while the 29-year-old Canadian would probably very much like to forget that result in Antholz, Italy, it was a marker of how far he’d come in just over two weeks with some quality time spent training.
“January was a tough month of shooting and I felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall trying to knock the targets down,” Smith told Biathlon Canada after Saturday’s 10 k sprint in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. “Even though I was trying hard it just wasn’t happening. After the last World Cup I decided to take a week off shooting, and thought of some key points to focus on – relaxing into the position and slowing things down a touch.”
While training in Antholz, he fell on his chest and hurt his back, aggravating an injury he sustained three years ago while rollerskiing, he explained in an email on Sunday morning.
“That made it really hard to ski for a few days and racing was pretty painful,” Smith added. “I focused a lot during the break getting my back to relax and stretching a lot. Aside from that I just revised a little bit of volume training to help maintain my fitness through the rest of the season.”
He also did’t touch his rifle during that time.
“I decided to not touch my rifle at all during the break and let thing reset,” Smith wrote. “When I picked it up again I made a big effort to focus on relaxing…”
So with some, but not too much restraint, Smith forged ahead on Saturday, starting 25th on a crystal-clear-yet-windy day and ultimately finishing seventh for his career-best World Cup result. Earlier this season, he placed ninth in the mass start in Pokljuka, Slovenia, and ninth in the sprint in Östersund, Sweden, but seventh was a new high.
He finished 37.7 seconds behind Saturday’s winner, Jakov Fak of Slovenia, who rounded the course in 24:09.9. Fak hit all 10 of his targets, as did Smith. In fact, seven of the top-eight men cleaned (with the exception of France’s Martin Fourcade, who missed one standing).
“Today the top men shot amazingly well which makes for a very tough day to medal when you aren’t within the top-five or 10 skiers,” Smith said. “A medal may have been possible if I’d also had the ski of my life today, however, the odds of perfect shooting and skiing coming together are pretty low. A more likely way to grab a first podium is to put yourself in a position where you can capitalize on a day when the favourites falter.”
He passed two people during the race, yet Smith knew that didn’t exactly indicate how fast he was moving.
“There was a glory train of athletes starting behind me so I knew it must’ve been pretty good if no one passed me,” he wrote. “The techs were giving me info the entire time so I knew I was fighting for a top 10 and that a medal wasn’t too far away.”
Both his range and shooting times ranked fifth overall, and he was 23rd-fastest on course throughout the three-lap race.
“My skiing felt strong but I can definitely give a little more,” he reflected. “The difference was shooting 10-for-10 today and I will try and reflect on that in the future.”
Smith has seen his share of top 15’s on the international scene; at his first Olympics last season, he placed 11th in the pursuit and 13th in the sprint in Sochi, Russia. He’s also recorded five top-10 World Cup results in the last two years. He credited his success this season in part to his teammates.
“Rosanna [Crawford] had an amazing first trimester, and Brendan [Green] really came into his own in Ruhpolding and Antholz. All three of us have been very close to the podium the last couple of years, and it’s a bit of a friendly competition to see who will do it first,” he said.
“Today reaffirmed that my form is still there and that I can shoot really well,” he wrote. “It gave me some good confidence for the next couple world cups and leading to world champs.”
“I decided to not touch my rifle at all during the break and let thing reset. … When I picked it up again I made a big effort to focus on relaxing.” — Nathan Smith, after career-best seventh in IBU World Cup sprint on Saturday
Ahead of Smith, Fak started 18th and ended up with the fastest-overall course time. He took his time on the range, hitting all his targets with the 60th-ranked range time out of 94 men.
Fak rose from fourth after his first stage to first with another clean shooting bout, skiing faster than Germany’s Simon Schempp, who started 29th. Schempp ended up second with perfect shooting, 12.8 seconds behind the Slovenian.
“It was important to shoot zero because in Antholz I missed the last shot,” Fak told the IBU after the race. “Today I hit it and could run my own race.”
The second starter, Jean-Guillaume Béatrix of France shot 10-for-10 and initially led at the finish before Fak crossed the line 26 seconds faster. Fourcade skied the second-fastest course time to counteract his single penalty and finished fourth, 0.3 seconds after Beatrix.
Michal Slesingr of the Czech Republic was another 0.4 seconds back in fifth with clean shooting, and Russia’s Anton Shipulin cleaned for sixth, 29.5 seconds behind the winner.
Smith initially finished fourth, then was bumped to seventh by Fourcade, Schempp, and Shipulin respectively. He ended up 8.2 seconds away from sixth and a spot at the awards ceremony.
“He showed great consistent skiing in all three laps,” Biathlon Canada Head Coach Matthias Ahrens wrote in an email, “and displayed again his strong shooting efficiency which showed in his personal best result of finishing 7th in a [World Cup].”
In all, three Canadian men made the top 60 to qualify for Sunday’s pursuit: Green placed 22nd (+1:12.8) with a single standing penalty, and 22-year-old Macx Davies finished 54th (+2:20.9) with one prone miss. That result tied Davies’ season best after he placed 54th in the World Cup sprint in Oberhof, Germany.
Canada’s fourth man, Scott Gow placed 63rd, 2:35.7 back from the winner and 3.8 seconds out of 60th with two prone penalties.
“It would have been nice to qualify all 4 men for the pursuit tomorrow, Scott Gow just missed it by a small margin,” Ahrens wrote. “Happy that Macx was able to continue in good form which he started at [IBU Open European Championships]. I am looking forward to next week’s relays since I believe we have a nice mixed team of eager younger and older more experienced athletes who supplement each other quite well.”
Last Sunday at the European Championships in Otepää, Estonia, Davies led Canada in 27th in the 12.5 k pursuit.
“I am elated to finally pull my shooting together after some crazy conditions in Otepaa,” Davies wrote in an email. “My skiing felt good, I spent most of the race pushing myself harder and harder. Until I felt like I was at the redline for my whole final loop.”
He set two personal goals on Saturday: to shoot 10-for-10 and make the top 40 to score World Cup points.
“Though I didn’t quite achieve either of these I still feel happy with my performance today and am excited to race tomorrow,” he wrote.
Davies will start Sunday’s 12.5 k pursuit 2:21 behind Fak in first; Smith will head out 38 seconds back in seventh, and Green will start 1:13 back in 22nd.
“Today was another good result for me and it sets me up well for tomorrow’s pursuit,” Green wrote in an email. “It’s a tight race amongst the top 30 and tomorrow will be another good opportunity. The shooting will be especially important for me tomorrow if we continue to face more wind.”
After Friday’s mixed relay, in which Green skied a penalty loop and used three spares to anchor Canada to 14th, he was looking for more.
“I knew today that I would have to step up my game,” he wrote. “I knew with the wind we’ve been experiencing here that the shooting would be challenging so I really tried to make each shot count. It’s a tough race course here as well and I tried hard to make time in the areas that I thought played into my ski strengths.”
He ended up rising from 34th overall after prone to 28th after missing his lone shot of the day in standing, and closed his last lap with the 17th-fastest course time to place 22nd.
“My skiing was better than yesterday. I definitely pushed and made myself hurt more on course, and at the same time tried to focus more on areas such as the gradual climbs that I felt would play more into my strength while skiing,” Green added. “I was happy shooting 9/10.”
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.