Before this season, Nathan Smith had never experienced a flower ceremony at the IBU World Cup level before. He had heard the ballads and seen the podium from a distance, yet he hadn’t been the one being photographed from multiple angles, waving to the crowd and mom and dad back home while accepting several prizes.
By the end of 2014/2015, Smith’s starting to feel like its almost routine. The 28-year-old Canadian placed fifth in Thursday’s World Cup 10-kilometer sprint in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, for his second-best sprint result since finishing second at IBU World Championships earlier this month in Kontiolahti, Finland.
In early February, Smith broke out with a career-best seventh in a World Cup sprint in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. While that didn’t put him in the top six required for the flower ceremony, his result in the next day’s pursuit did; he placed fifth for a new high.
Almost exactly a month later on March 7, he became the first Canadian male to medal at IBU World Championships. He earned silver in the sprint and stood on the second-highest step on the international podium.
In the days that followed in Kontiolahti, Smith placed 13th in the pursuit, 44th in the individual (with five penalties) and 23rd in the mass start.
For him, the last World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk was about ending on another high note. He achieved that with 90-percent shooting, missing one prone target and cleaning standing with the third-fastest range time overall. The 24th starter, Smith finished 34 seconds behind winner Martin Fourcade of France, who put down the fastest time of 23:47.0.
“I knew if my skiing came back up that a top-10 should be more than possible,” Smith explained in an email on Thursday. “I would say I actually exceeded my expectations a little. I would’ve been pretty happy with a top-16.”
Ranked 37th after prone, the Canadian moved into ninth overall after hitting all his standing targets. He closed the race with the sixth-fastest last lap and clocked the 11th-fastest course time overall.
“I was really tired in the Mass Start at the end of worlds. I knew I was still in good shape after a great ski in the relay the day before, so I was hoping with a few easy days I’d be able to recover and bring my ski speed back up to where its been the last month,” Smith explained.
The Canadian team’s travel day from Finland to Siberia went “really smoothly,” he added. He slept most of his flight and had been sleeping 10 to 11 hours every night since.
“I kept training easy until [Wednesday] when I did some pretty hard but typical race prep,” he explained.
While gearing up for Thursday’s sprint, the first of three races in Khanty (with the pursuit on Saturday and the mass start on Sunday), Smith and his teammate Brendan Green pushed each other during short intervals on Wednesday.
“I went really hard up the big climb before the range and totally blew up while shooting,” Smith recalled. “So that was a good lesson and I was careful not to repeat that today!”
Heading into his last lap on Thursday, he heard he was only a few seconds behind the current leader — France’s Simon Fourcade at the time.
“I gave it my all and I had enough to grab first when I crossed the line,” Smith wrote.
Germany’s Benedikt Doll in bib 27 finished 15.7 seconds faster to bump him to second, after a clean prone and one miss standing, and Latvia’s Andrejs Rastorgujevs in bib 32 came up 0.3 seconds short of Doll to move Smith into third.
Martin Fourcade started 38th and consistently set the fastest times on course, cleaning both stages and finishing 18.3 seconds faster than Doll.
Russia’s Anton Shipulin, in the hunt for the overall World Cup title behind Fourcade, started 43rd and also shot a perfect 10-for-10, but came up 13 seconds short of the Frenchman at the finish. After prone, Shipulin was 7.1 seconds down to Fourcade, and before the final lap, he had 11.4 seconds to make up. He ended up second and remains second in the overall World Cup standings, trailing Fourcade by 117 points.
“I knew that I could be conservative today or go very hard,” Fourcade told the IBU. “I decided to not be conservative and not have any regrets. I am very happy to win here in Khanty-Mansiysk; this is the place where I won my first World Championship.”
While it was Fourcade’s eighth win this season, it was a first-career podium for Doll.
“At the beginning of the race I did not feel so good,” the 24-year-old German told the IBU. “After the start, I suddenly did not feel tired and my legs did not hurt. I felt like I could run and run; I never had this feeling before. … I am very happy; it is a big honor for me to stand on the podium with these two men.”
Smith took fifth to tie his second-best result and take part in the reindeer festivities that accompanied Thursday’s awards ceremony.
“It feels great, and it’s reassuring to know that I can fairly consistently be in it when I’m on,” Smith said of the flower ceremony. “I’m almost getting familiar with it?”
On Saturday, he’ll start fifth in the 12.5 k pursuit, 34 seconds after Fourcade. Germany’s Arnd Peiffer, who finished 0.4 seconds behind him in sixth on Thursday, will start with Smith. Fredrik Lindström, who placed seventh, will start two seconds later.
“The pursuit is going to be a really tight one. It will come down to shooting,” Smith wrote. “I’m in a nice pack so I’ll try and conserve some energy and knock down all the targets. Then see what I’ve got left for the last lap. I’m not focusing too much on the mass start yet, one race at a time, but I’m getting pretty close to top-15 overall, so that’s a goal I have in mind.”
He currently sits in 18th in the overall World Cup, 45 points out of 15th.
Canada’s other male in the sprint, Green placed 30th (+1:23.5) with a single standing penalty. Green started 47th and ranked 29th overall after both shooting stages, ultimately finishing in the top 30 with the 38th-ranked course time.
Nordgren Surprises Himself in 21st
Leif Nordgren led three Americans in 21st (+1:14) for one of the top-five results of his career. Like Green, Nordgren cleaned prone and missed one standing. He started 41st and came within reach of a top 20 on his final lap, finishing 1.3 seconds behind Bulgaria’s Krasimir Anew in 20th.
“I’m pretty surprised with this result today, and really happy about it,” Nordgren wrote in an email. “Since [Wednesday] afternoon I’ve started coming down with a little upper respiratory sickness, probably just from the travel from Finland. I started to get a pretty stuffy nose, itchy throat, and today I can feel it getting down into my lungs, as well as that awesome achy body feeling!”
With that in mind, he didn’t have any expectations for the sprint.
“I had no idea on how I’d feel,” he wrote. “Since it was the last race of the season and I just started to get sick yesterday I didn’t really think about not starting.
“I knew that good shooting would be key to making the pursuit, which is what I thought would be a hard enough task for the day,” he added, explaining that conditions were near-perfect. “I felt like I didn’t really have anything to lose, so I went as hard as I could right out of the start, and I think I actually had an OK time for the first loop.”
He shot conservatively in prone to hit all his targets, which worked. He pushed himself again on his second lap and stayed ahead of a chase pack, then entered the range for the second time where he left with a single miss.
“One miss wasn’t bad,” he wrote. “The last loop I pushed as hard as I could, I was definitely starting to die a little, but about halfway through I got caught by Shipulin and it was nice to have someone to hang on to for the rest of the loop.”
Four years ago in Khanty, Nordgren notched a career-best 17th in the mass start at the same venue. He also placed 21st in the individual race there that year. This season, he set a new career-best in Nove Mesto, placing 16th in the sprint.
“This is my favorite course on the WC tour,” Nordgren explained. “I’ve had a lot of good races here before, so that was good for my head … I’m looking forward to the next races, but hopefully I can recover and be feeling a little better going into the weekend!”
Also for the U.S., Lowell Bailey placed 51st (+1:54.2) with two standing penalties and Tim Burke was 55th (+1:57.3) with four total misses, one in prone and three in standing. Both made the top-60 required for the pursuit, and will start 1:54 and 1:57 back, respectively.
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.