Canada’s Nathan Smith had a breakthrough in 2014: three top-10 finishes on the World Cup, and a close miss with 11th place in the 12.5 k pursuit at the Sochi Olympics.
Some athletes plateau after they make such a breakthrough. But for Smith, it was just a prelude for what was to come. In 2015 he stepped closer, and closer, and closer to the top.
In the first pursuit of the season, in Östersund, Sweden, Smith was skiing in podium position with one shooting stage to go. He blew up, missing three shots and finishing 16th. A month and a half later in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, he finished seventh in the sprint and then moved up to fifth in the pursuit.
At World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland, the real fireworks began. Smith won silver in the sprint, the first World Championships medal ever for a Canadian man.
“It’s overwhelming,” Smith told FasterSkier after the medal. “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.”
And yet he still wasn’t finished. When the World Cup headed to Siberia to conclude the season, Smith placed fifth in the sprint. He then executed a flawless race in the pursuit and took home his first World Cup victory — by a whopping 24 seconds.
“It was kind of surreal to be skiing by yourself on the last lap,” he marveled after the race. “Usually your first win, you’d think it would be a nailbiter, right to the line and somehow outlunge the guy. It was kind of awesome to have a buffer where I could enjoy the final finish stretch and have that moment.”
All those times when he came close? Those helped. Smith credited that late-stage collapse in Sweden with the calm to get him to victory by the season’s end.
“I definitely had a little flashback when I was coming into the stadium of Östersund earlier this season when I was in third, I think, and then I totally bombed the last standing,” he said. “I missed three. I was a little bit nervous about that, but I think experiences like that also help you. I could really clear my mind coming into the lane, and I did a really good job focusing on the task.”
Smith was just the second Canadian man to ever win a World Cup, after Jean Philippe Le Guellec in 2012. And the stunning results weren’t just great for Smith, but also for Canadian biathlon, which needs World Championships medals to fight for funding from Own the Podium.
“This is important for our funding because we are just actually judged by medals at World Championships or Olympic Games,” Canadian Head Coach Matthias Ahrens explained. “Therefore it’s a very important step in the right direction.”
Smith’s teammate Rosanna Crawford came oh-so-close to matching his trajectory. After getting her first World Cup top-10 in Oslo in the very last race of the 2013/2014 season, the two-time Olympian recharged and revved up for 2015.
She was on a roll before Christmas, flying to fifth place in Hochfilzen, Austria. A week later in Pokljuka, Slovenia, she placed fourth in the 7.5 k sprint, 12 seconds off the podium.
One of the keys to Crawford’s success seemed to be her mental attitude: she didn’t put pressure on herself, but tried to stay confident without being overconfident.
“I try not to bring previous results with me into my next races,” she said after Pokljuka. “… I think a big part of this season has been not having expectations going into my races.”
A serious bout of sickness after New Years knocked Crawford back, and she didn’t have a peak in results at World Championships. She finished the season ranked 21st on the World Cup, a personal best, despite missing a number of starts.
“It’s funny: my goals this year was to consistently place in the top 30, a few top 15 and top 10’s and I really wanted to be on the podium at least once,” she told FasterSkier at the end of her season. “I did achieve all but the last one. I was only outside of the top 30 two or three times I think (and Nove Mesto when I cross fired). Since my season started off so great with top form it was hard to come back down to top-30 level. This season has been my best yet.”
American biathlete Susan Dunklee might have felt some of Crawford’s frustration by the end of the season. A consistent performer in 2014/2015, Dunklee ended the season ranked 17th on the World Cup, a personal best. Her best finish was sixth in the 10 k pursuit in Antholz, Italy; she also had a solid World Championships, placing 12th in the individual and 20th in the mass start.
But although she improved her consistency, she was unable to match her previous best individual result – her first podium, in a sprint in Oslo the previous season, which seemed to set her up to take further steps in 2015. Still, Dunklee clearly savored all of her successes this season.
“Pretty special,” she said of the feeling of stepping onto the stage for the Antholz flower ceremony. “It’s definitely something I don’t take for granted… There was so much excitement from the staff, and from my teammates. It was a really good community feeling with support. It’s great.”
Doherty, FasterSkier’s Junior Skier of the Year, won his first medal at the World Junior Championships level after collecting several at the World Youth Championships in the previous two seasons. But more than just a standout young athlete, Doherty kept working on his transition to the senior ranks. A 2014 Olympian, he spent more time on the World Cup this season, including contributing to an eighth-place men’s relay effort in Antholz, Italy, and a seventh-placed mixed relay finish in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. The latter netted him a nomination to the national A-team, a first for the New Hampshire native.