KONTIOLAHTI, Finland — As Norwegian brothers Johannes Thingnes Bø and Tarjei Bø prodded and joked with each other on the podium of the men’s 10-kilometer sprint at IBU World Championships on Saturday, Nathan Smith simply grinned from the second-highest step on the podium.
Finally, after the first round of many congratulations to come, it was starting to set in for the 29-year-old Canadian.
Smith had just done something no other Canadian male had done before: he medaled at World Championships. Not only did he place in the top three, he finished squarely in second, 12.1 seconds behind winner Johannes Thingnes Bø, and 13.2 seconds ahead of Bø’s older brother Tarjei for silver.
“When Johannes was 16, 17 years old he started winning Junior World Championships and he was following my steps all the time,” Tarjei, 28, reminisced in a post-race press conference. “We talked about this a lot during the summertime when we were at home training together. We love to compete and we love to fight each other, but still we are the team against the rest of the world so today is a big day for us.
“We beat the world almost — it was only Nathan who came between us so congrats to him,” he added with a laugh.
Then there was Smith, a regular top-10 contender on the World Cup for the last two seasons, but unlike the Bøs, someone who had never tasted the podium before. Going into World Championships, his personal best was fifth in the pursuit on Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, just under a month ago.
“It’s overwhelming,” Smith said of the attention he received Saturday as soon as the results were final. “I knew I could have some good races, but you never really believe it until you do it. It’s hard to explain, it feels great though.”
All that came after shooting slump in January, when Smith placed 78th in an IBU World Cup sprint in Antholz, Italy.
“I took some time away from my rifle and then I came back into Nove Mesto and Oslo and my shooting was right up there again so I had a lot of confidence with my shooting,” he said after hitting nine of 10 targets on a windy range in Kontiolahti on Saturday.
“My skiing’s been pretty consistent all year. I haven’t had too many days where I’m dying out there, so I knew if I had an average day and nine or 10 here with the wind, that it could be really good.”
Yet after starting 12th and taking the lead at the finish by 30 second, Smith wasn’t exactly sure what “really good” would amount to. He was bumped down one place by 21-year-old Johannes Thingnes in bib 16, but after that, no one came close.
Based on World Championships rules for “unusual weather conditions,” the grouping system that determined starting order was altered for Saturday to allow nations with competitors ranked in the top 50 on the World Cup to enter “any draw group they choose.”
Naturally, with a salted course for the just-above-freezing temperatures and the forecast for snow later in the day, the top men decided to go first. And out of 127 competitors, Smith was close enough to the front that it worked out for him as planned.
With a headwind coming into his first shooting, he took note of the gusts from his right side and clicked a couple to the right. After hitting his first three prone shots, Smith felt the wind pick up even more, so he shaded, which led to perfect 5-for-5 shooting.
“I got a little lucky for my last hit,” Smith recalled.
That put him in second after prone, and he went on to ski the sixth-fastest second lap (out of three). In his second-and-final stage, Smith missed one, which was a success considering two men in the entire field finished the race with perfect 10-for-10 shooting (Tarjei being one of them).
“I tried so hard in standing; I didn’t just whip though it and throw some shots away,” Smith said.
However, he posted the sixth-fastest range time in standing to finish the race as the fourth fastest on the range overall. On skis, he was seventh fastest overall on course.
“I worked really hard on the skis,” he added.
“We beat the world almost — it was only Nathan who came between us.” — Tarjei Bø, Norway’s sprint bronze medalist
“Before the race, Nathan knew that this course suited him,” Canadian national team coach Roddy Ward explained. “He doesn’t like gradual climbs, but the steeper climbs he feels comfortable with — offset. There’s quite a lot of that here. So he was pretty confident out there and he definitely looked like he had really good fitness.”
Ward was out on course for most of the race while Canadian head coach Matthias Ahrens was in the range. But before he ventured out, he caught a glimpse of Smith whipping through the stadium.
“I watched Nathan go around and I thought to myself, ‘Nathan’s gonna be a hero back home after this race,’ ” Ward predicted. “And then I said, ‘Don’t jinx it!’ and then I said, ‘I can’t jinx it.’ I was pretty confident. He knew he was in good shape, too. I think he had pretty good confidence, but hey, he’s on the podium for the first time ever in a World Championships so of course it’s a bit of a surprise.”
Like many who have followed Smith’s progression, from breaking out at the 2014 Olympics with three top-15 results in Sochi, Russia, Ahrens knew it was a long time coming.
“With his good shooting and efficient shooting — shooting usually very fast — and then given that he had really good ski speed today, he was already looking quite solid, quite early,” Ahrens reflected. “[He has] the shooting efficiency, he shoots accurate, but also very fast. He’s always on the top five in the World Cup in that particular category when you analyze the race. His skiing has improved over the last three years and he’s now at a point, if everything comes together, then he can be on the podium.”
So the snowflakes fell at the right time and right place for Smith, who made history for Biathlon Canada. Previously, no man had medaled at World Championships, and Smith followed up on the success of former teammate Jean-Philippe Le Guellec, who won a World Cup sprint in 2012 in Östersund, Sweden, and retired after last season.
Retired biathlete Myriam Bédard holds the Canadian women’s and overall record with two golds from the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics and another from 1993 World Championships.
“I think how things started for our team was having Jean-Philippe Le Guellec leading our young men to success in the way that he actually was the first one on the podium, winning a World Cup, and that gave them confidence that really they all could do it,” Ahrens said. “That made a big mental breakthrough to our team, to the men, in many ways. The confidence, being able to do it in racing, but also what it takes in training to get there.
“It shows the younger athletes what is possible when they put the work in, when they put the belief in,” he added.
The silver medal was also huge in terms of future funding for Biathlon Canada. On the heels of Cross Country Canada’s Alex Harvey racking up silver and bronze at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships last month in Falun, Sweden, biathlon essentially had to bring home some hardware as well to ensure an adequate budget from Own The Podium — Canada’s governmental branch of sport funding — for next season.
“This is important for our funding because we are just actually judged by medals at World Championships or Olympic Games,” Ahrens explained. “Therefore it’s a very important step in the right direction.”
“It shows the younger athletes what is possible when they put the work in, when they put the belief in.” — Biathlon Canada Head Coach Matthias Ahrens on Nathan Smith’s silver-medal performance
To his own surprise, Smith reached that marker in the first individual race of 2015 World Championships. Going into Saturday’s race, he later explained he would have been happy with a top eight. Three years ago, he wasn’t sure how much longer he’d last as a professional biathlete.
“Going into the Olympics last year, I was thinking it was going to be my last year,” Smith explained. “I was like, I’m going to do whatever I can to get to the Olympics.”
Two summers ago, he made some significant tweaks to his training and preparation. He targeted his weaknesses and honed in on them, like uphill rollerskiing. He made his own rifle stock, which he currently uses, and started doing things he had never done before, such as dry firing.
“We always say that North Americans in general are late developers compared to the Europeans,” he observed. “We’re, like, five years behind them in development. I think it just takes a bit longer when we’re isolated in Canada.”
As of Saturday, Canada’s on the map. Smith went head to head with top skiers like Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev, who started 11th and led after a clean prone, as well as Johannes Thingnes, and was fast enough to hold off Tarjei, who posted two perfect stages.
Like Smith, Johannes Thingnes had one standing miss, and started 16th to come through each checkpoint with the consistently fastest times. At the end of the day, the Norwegian had the fastest course time as well.
“It was maximum of what we could expect today, two brothers on the podium for the first time and also my first [World Championships] gold medal in my first [individual] start,” Johannes Thingnes said in the press conference. “So it could not have been better.”
After the press conference, Smith said he hadn’t talked to his parents yet — they were on a bike trip in Argentina.
“Usually they wake up really early in the morning to watch [my races], but I don’t think they have reliable internet there so we’ll see when they find out,” he said casually. “I’ll send them an email.”
Three Canadian Men Make Pursuit
Also for Canada, Brendan Green placed 21st (+1:14.3) with a single standing penalty and Scott Gow was 50th (+2:06.2) with one prone miss and one standing miss, to qualify for the pursuit. The youngest man on the team, Christian Gow finished 73rd (+3:11) in his World Championships debut. After starting 109th, he faced some of the toughest, slowest conditions of the men’s race and came away with three penalties — one in prone and two in standing.
“I just figured that if I felt decent on the skis and I knew I’d have to have some good shooting, probably at least eight, maybe nine out of 10, and I thought that was really possible,” Christian explained. “But the wind was a bit tricky and I think I gave away a shot prone. Standing was just tough. I felt really unsettled. Every time I lined up on the target, the wind seemed to push me away.”
On his way to the starting line, Christian realized that Smith had all but secured second.
“I couldn’t even believe it,” he said. “We know as a team we’re quite strong, and Nathan and Brendan especially have been really really close to the top. … I think sometimes they underestimate themselves a little bit … I knew they could hit the podium with the right race. When I started, that’s when I realized he was going to hold that because that’s when all the threats were coming in [and] his time was better than theirs. That was awesome.”
“I saw [Nathan] clean prone and I saw him leading standing with one miss,” said older brother, Scott Gow, 24, who started 55th. “I thought, ‘Oh, maybe he’ll do well.’ He stayed up there. It was motivating to try and go out there and put in a good ski race and aiming to shoot as well or as better than him. It was more motivating to see him do so well.”
Personally, Scott said he had hoped for a top 30.
“That’s my personal goal at every race,” he said. “Today, with the wind the way it was I figured 80 percent, 90 percent shooting would [be enough], and I made the low end of that. The skiing suffered a little on the last lap. I was just kind of tanked.”
Not long after Smith started, Green took to the course and ended up tying Belgium’s Michael Roesch for 21st.
“I’m a little bit disappointed and I was hoping for better skiing,” Green said. “With the shooting I had on a day like today, I would expect a better result. It wasn’t a disaster, it was just the skiing wasn’t quite there. I’m not sure why that is. I’m set up well for the pursuit.”
In Sunday’s 12.5 k pursuit, Green will start alongside Roesch, 1:14 behind Johannes Thingnes, while Smith will head out 12 seconds after the race leader in second.
“Obviously in a pursuit, I’m going to have an advantage over everyone except Johannes, so that’s an advantage,” Smith said in the press conference. “But there’s so many guys breathing down our necks that I’ll have to fight really hard to maintain it.”
“Everything is possible,” said Tarjei, who will start 25 seconds behind his brother. “Two races now, two medals [for Norway], and same with my brother, so I have to win tomorrow to catch up with him. No chance.”
“It’s kind of funny,” Smith said of being sandwiched between the Bø brothers. “I do feel a little left out, but I’m happy for them.”
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.