When Nathan Smith crossed the finish line of Saturday’s 15 k mass start in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, he became just the second Canadian man in history to win a World Cup biathlon competition.
Smith had already had a record-breaking season. He won silver in the 10 k sprint at World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland, making him the first Canadian man ever to medal at a Championships. It was the first podium of his career, but certainly not the last.
So when he finished fifth in the sprint in Khanty-Mansiysk, 34 seconds out of the win, Canadian staff knew that something special might happen in the following pursuit.
“I think he actually had a better opportunity for a good race in the [Khanty] pursuit versus after the second place after the World Championships,” Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay said. “I think that the excitement and the novelty of what was an incredibly important result [at World Champs]… really didn’t set him up well for being able to carry through on the second day of racing.”
But in Khanty-Mansiysk, Smith was able to rely on a season’s worth of near-podium experiences, and he raced like someone who belonged at the top. That netted him a 24-second win.
“It feels really good to have a second medal on the results,” Smith said after the race. “It gives a little bit more credibility to my World Champs medal, like it wasn’t just a fluke. I can consistently put down medal-potential results.”
Plenty of North American biathletes have shown the ski speed needed to win a World Cup, but it takes more than just speed to actually do it. By coming so close a few times this season, Smith learned to do what it took on Saturday – for instance, leading Martin Fourcade and Anton Shipulin around the course.
“The more time that you can play up at the front of the pack, the more you realize that there’s not so much difference between what the top athletes are doing on the ski trail compared to what guys in the top 30 are doing,” Lindsay said. “When you need to step in front of somebody and take the lead, you don’t second-guess the choice to do it. Whereas the first time you’re up at the front of a pack skiing with athletes who are your peers but also in some ways your heroes, it can be difficult to assert yourself.”
Watching the win happen already had direct consequences for the team: Rosanna Crawford said that it immediately motivated her to do better, and later the same day she went out and climbed from 28th place to 13th in the women’s pursuit, her best result in weeks.
“Not only is a big step forward for him to prove to the World that he can be a consistent podium contender, but it’s also great for our team and will be a big motivator for us all when we start training again this spring,” said Smith’s teammate Brendan Green, who finished 23rd in the pursuit. “Nathan and I have been training together since we were 14 years old and it’s been awesome to see his progress over the years and especially in the last couple of seasons.”
Funding… Or Not
While earning a win instead of only a second-place finish might seem like an even bigger boost in the profile of Canadian biathlon, the national team’s biggest funding partner doesn’t see it that way.
Own The Podium (OTP), and public-private partnership which determines high performance funding for Canadian sports, focuses only on medal-worthy results at World Championships and Olympic Games, and does not consider podiums in regular season races as criteria for funding a sport.
“Medals at the World Championships and the Olympic Games are really what counts,” Lindsay said. “Our funding partners and our performance partners love to see that we are getting those medals at the critical competitions and are happy other evidence of success. Certainly medals and top-5’s, top-8’s consistently are signs of other success, but if that success can’t translate into success at the World Champs and Olympic Games they aren’t counted with the same weight.”
Luckily, Smith won that silver medal at World Championships. If Biathlon Canada sees an increase in OTP funding next year, it’s likely thanks to that – and that might be why Smith’s finish there was so exhaustingly significant. When he got the medal, he knew what it meant to his team, which has not had a World Championships or Olympic medal since the time of Myriam Bédard in the early 1990’s.
Biathlon Canada has a miniscule budget, with $1.1 million for 2013-2014 for high performance including salaries. Not only is the sport not massively popular in the country – a North American problem also faced by U.S. biathlon – but without any of those championship medals to call on, it seemed to fall at the bottom of OTP’s priority list.
Last February, the Banff-based Crag and Canyon reported that the federation has been running a deficit for the last five years, and wrote that “This year’s deficit amount falls somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000.”
While budget problems plague North American biathlon, Canada has it harder in some ways. For instance, according to the U.S. Biathlon Association’s 2013 990 Form, USBA paid over $368,000 to its three highest-paid employees combined (head coach Per Nilsson, High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler, and shooting coach Armin Auchentaller); Biathlon Canada had just $375,000 (which translates to less than $300,000 U.S.) for all its high performance staff combined, including the director, coaches, and technical staff.
That leads to situations like the team had last weekend, when it sent only its top three athletes to the far-flung Siberian venue of Khanty-Mansiysk instead of a full team. And to support them, only Ahrens and head service tech Tom Zidek were flown to Russia.
“Tom was up until 11 last night at the site testing, and then the shuttle service stopped before he got to the bus,” Smith said after his winning pursuit. “So he had to walk an hour back to our hotel. That’s the level of commitment that can make a big difference in the end for our results.”
It’s satisfying to win when other countries have ten times the staff and orders of magnitude more money available for high performance.
“It feels kind of good,” Smith said. “It’s like we’re right in their faces. Some of those teams have guys who basically just stand around and hold jackets and I don’t know, keep seats warm. On our team, even when we have a full support squad, like at World Champs, everyone is pretty busy doing stuff. We’re still a small team even then.”
But it’s also frustrating. What might be possible with a bigger budget? Ahrens wish he could find out.
“I definitely would say it is frustrating, mainly because the competitiveness of the biathlon World Cup,” Ahrens said. “It is just amazing how strong the field is, both on the men’s and the women’s side. You have thirty athletes really fighting for the podium and compared with other sports, where you really have maybe five contenders fighting for a podium. It’s gone to such a high level that there is no country out there not doing this very professionally. It’s getting tighter and tighter. If you just look at the results from yesterday in the sprint, the top 60 were within two minutes. A year ago or two years ago, that was usually around 2:30, so it’s amazing how the sport is developing.”
That’s why the hope is so strong that OTP will recognize Smith’s results and reward the team that helped him get there.
“The fact that he medaled at World Championships in Finland is huge and I really hope this will help boost our federation’s funding a bit,” Jean Philippe Le Guellec, the last (and first) Canadian man to win a World Cup, wrote in an email. “The next step is to have others follow his footsteps.”
As it happens, that doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
When Le Guellec earned Canada’s first-ever male World Cup win in Östersund, Sweden, in December 2012, Smith was competing in the same 10 k sprint race. He finished 61st, just one spot away from qualifying for the next day.
Le Guellec was an obvious choice to be the guy to finally do it for Canada. He had already notched a best-ever result for a Canadian man at the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, finishing sixth; in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, he upped that mark to fifth place.
It was with appreciation but also dismay that the biathlon community said goodbye to Le Guellec when he retired after the Sochi Games. But the gold the team had been mining was still right there in the team he had been part of, the Quebecois star explained.
“Funny, because I was told it was the end of an era when I retired,” Le Guellec wrote in an email on Sunday. “But this is simply, and clearly, the start of a new one… I was ecstatic but not surprised. With the season he had last winter and the effort he puts in training, I had hopes that he would do well this season. He’s the most consistent of us all as well. Knocking at the door often in the beginning of the season was making it a question of time until he climbed on the podium. I’m just pumped for him it happened sooner rather than later AND repetitively!!”
Smith isn’t the only Canadian who might be showing up on the podium next year. Rosanna Crawford came close this year, finishing fourth and fifth at the beginning of the season; Megan Heinicke had four top-15 performances; and Brendan Green was one of the most consistent performers after Christmas, having only two results out of the top 30 and finishing in the top 21 in every race at World Championships.
“It’s the same with Brendan [Green] and Rosanna [Crawford],” Smith said. “They are pretty consistently at the level where if they have a really good race, they could podium too.”
Lindsay and Ahrens agreed that Canada’s pipeline is in better shape than it often has been in the past.
“I’m really happy and not just by those two senior athletes who have really gone to the top of the pack, but also our upcoming younger athletes like the two Gow brothers, Macx Davies,” Ahrens said. “They have put a lot of effort of course in training, but they are part of our achievements. I look at the two Gows as being a really important part of our relay team…. If I look at this, it’s actually the younger athletes now, they’re coming in at a higher level then the young athletes came in ten years ago.”
Ahrens has personally seen the long-term development it took to get Smith to the top of the podium. Despite being hired as head coach only in 2010, he has known Smith much longer.
“I must say for me, it’s just an amazing experience,” Ahrens marveled. “Especially Nathan and Brendan, I started coaching them 10 years ago when they were still juniors, when I took the position for junior national team coach. So I really appreciate that I could grow with them and they could grow with me, and it has been an amazing journey up to this point.”
He hopes that means that some of the newer team members will eventually follow in Smith’s footsteps.
“That is always my hope, and I believe in that,” said the head coach. “Hopefully they stay with the sport and they can be supported enough that they can afford staying in the sport. That’s always a challenge for us. I think too often, athletes drop out too early. We know the highest performance age is, while it’s getting younger, it’s still around 27 years of age.”
Smith is 29 years old, and he was 26 when he watched Le Guellec climb to the top step of the podium on a windy afternoon in Sweden.
He hopes that his own success can do the same thing for the younger members of his team.
“You can make surprises happen,” he said. “[JP] surprised everyone that week; I surprised everyone last week. Neither of them should have been surprises, because JP had been close to the podium many times, but it really sinks in when someone actually does it. Then you see, oh yeah, I train with him. I can beat him in time trials sometimes. There’s no reason why I couldn’t podium either.”
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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.