Three-time Olympian Zina Kocher has not been named to the Canadian national biathlon team this season, a status she disputes. Kocher has been representing Canada on the World Cup since 2002.
After a lackluster season, Kocher had a top World Cup finish of 48th place, short of the three top-30 results she would need to meet the national “A” team standards or the one top-40 needed to meet national “B” team standards.
Besides the national team snub, that meant that Kocher was not eligible for Athlete Assistance Program (AAP) “carding” from Sport Canada: financial support for top athletes that is intended to keep them training without having to hold a full- or part-time job. Kocher and teammate Scott Perras, who was in a similar situation, appealed the ruling based on performance and lost. (For more about carding and this appeal process, scroll to the bottom of the article.)
Next, they submitted paperwork seeking injury/illness exemptions from the criteria, and regained their carding that way.
“I was on vacation and was having to deal with this,” Kocher explained in an interview. “Scott emailed me and told me, okay, he had applied for an illness provision and it went through. So a few days after I found out that my appeal was rejected, I applied for an illness provision. I also had reasons that I was dealing with some medical stuff since September.”
Kocher had taken a month off to travel through southeast Asia. While she was there, she was deciding whether or not to continue with biathlon. Upon deciding that she did want to keep training, she was frustrated not to be able to do so with the national team.
“I wasn’t sure that I was going to continue until the end of April, when I decided that I wanted to do one more year,” she said. “… I really needed that month to step away, and to do something totally different and really relaxed. And also to help me make a decision whether to put in the effort to train again, for another year or not.”
Perras was added to the national team after he regained his carding through the illness provision. Kocher also got her carding back, but not a national team nomination. Now she’s at an impasse where she believes that her name should and will be added to the team roster, but team staff insist otherwise.
Neither Kocher nor Perras disclosed the nature of the injuries or illnesses.
“I just want to put it behind me,” Perras wrote in an email. “Sorry. I am grateful to be on the team this year and for the support of my teammates through my difficult year and am just looking forward.”
On to the National Team?
For Kocher, the dispute is over whether national team status is tied directly to carding. Kocher says that carding should automatically confer national team selection.
“I was in the exact same situation as Scott Perras, so now there’s an inequality issue,” Kocher said.
But according to Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay, even if an athlete is carded, they still have to meet national team selection criteria to be nominated to the national team.
“It is related, but it is not directly linked,” Lindsay explained. “Being named to a squad in many situations will then get you into the carding list. But it doesn’t work the opposite way. If you are carded but you haven’t met our squad criteria, then we are not obligated to give an athlete a position on a training squad.”
Biathlon Canada has no specific injury/illness provision for its national teams; that was only relevant for Sport Canada and carding. Athletes can be named to the “A” or “B” squads by the High Performance Working Group, which includes Lindsay and the coaching staff, by discretion if they do not meet one of three potential objective criteria. Reasons for inclusion by the working group are listed in the squad criteria:
“A single or multiple exceptional performance(s) internationally in the current season; Near achievement of the WC Performance Standard at the end of the season; Significant than average fitness testing results from standardized tests during the training season; Exceptional circumstances.”
Injury or illness might certainly be considered an exceptional circumstance, but these issues are not mentioned explicitly. While Biathlon Canada’s carding and national team requirements are listed in one document, that document is divided into two parts. The requirements for an injury/illness provision are listed under the carding requirement section, but not mentioned in the national squad criteria section.
Perras and Scott Gow, who contributed to a fifth-place World Cup relay result this season, were named to the “B” team through the High Performance Working Group. In Kocher’s case, despite her documented illness, she was not named.
“The deliberation by the High Performance Working Group was that based on the principles of selection and the objectives for training squad members, Scott Perras was going to have a greater opportunity to contribute towards World Championships medals next season than Zina,” Lindsay said.
Biathlon Canada indicated in a press release that Lindsay will soon be leaving the organization to work as a High Performance Advisor for Own The Podium, the Canadian sports funding agency. Kocher believed that after his departure, other team staff would add her name to the national team roster.
“To sum it up, we’re all in discussion,” Kocher said on Saturday. “As Chris is resigning, it’s now going to our team manager [Andy Holmwood]. It’s in our team manager and coaches’ hands, and I’m waiting til the end of the weekend so we can sort things out.”
There’s not much evidence of discussion, though. Kocher said that the coaches told her to talk to Lindsay; Matthias Ahrens, the head coach of the national team, also declined to comment for this story and referred all questions to Lindsay.
“It is my belief that there was strong consensus that she not be nominated to the Training Squad,” Lindsay wrote in a follow-up email. “This is based on the selection principles outlined in the Squad selection document and is supported by the goals outlined in our strategic plans.”
Kocher does not dispute that her performance in the 2014-2015 season was subpar. She knew about her medical situation in September, but did not tell coaches or adapt her training because she did not think it would be a major problem. Looking back, she says, it’s clear that it was.
“I think it would have changed how I was training in September, and the amount of rest I needed before the World Cup season started, and maybe not have started racing right away,” Kocher said. “I just think that I should have modified things earlier and taken more rest. But at that time, you think, oh, I’m not feeling that bad. You just keep pushing through it.”
Kocher said that she hasn’t developed a plan other than making the national team.
“I haven’t figured out a second option because I thought that this option would work,” she said. “I can’t say that I would go back to Richard Boruta and Biathlon Alberta Training Center. I think that would be my next option, but I haven’t spoken with Richard yet.”
Lindsay also didn’t have a plan for Kocher, but was confident she would land in a good spot.
“Where she decides ultimately to go for training is entirely up to her,” he said. “As a mature athlete who has been doing this for a number of years, certainly we trust her judgment on where she feels she would be best fit. Should she require any assistance finding a place, we have encouraged her to ask us any questions. But, she is not a member of the national training squad for the 2015-2016 season.”
What is Carding?
Although carding itself is not the issue under dispute – both Perras and Kocher received their carding after submitting injury/illness appeals – it’s hard to understand the source of Kocher’s conflict without also addressing carding.
There are several different types of “cards” available through Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program. Some (SR, SR1, and SR2) confer monthly payments of $1500. Others (C1, D) confer monthly payments of $900. This is intended to allow the best Canadian athletes to train full-time without having to find a part-time job.
(There’s other benefits too, like funding for childcare, moving expenses to centralize with a national team, and a fund to pay for university tuition after retirement.)
Millions of dollars are spent by the Canadian government each year on this program, which supports Olympic disciplines and a few non-Olympic teams with major World Championship events. Sports receive different amounts of carding depending on the number of disciplines and potential medals, and must allocate this into “cards” based on their own internal standards.
There’s one exception: top-eight finishes at Olympics and World Championships events, including relays. Across all sports, that confers an SR1 card the following season, and an SR2 card the next season. After the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, all eight Canadian relay members (four men and four women) received SR1 cards because they had finished in the top eight in the men’s or women’s relay.
The catch is that national federations can add additional requirements to SR2 funding.
“A NSO may adjust a criterion or include sport specific requirements to the senior international criteria specific to their sport in order to strengthen the criteria,” the Sport Canada AAP guidelines read.
“Other sports would put in, you must have a 10 k running time of sub-[some time] in the next season, or you must do so many appearances on TV,” Lindsay said. “You can put in just about anything. For a long time Biathlon Canada had no maintenance criteria at all.”
That aligned them with several other major sports federations. For instance, speed skating, figure skating, and several other major winter sports federations appear to give SR2 carding as long as athletes maintain basic requirements like Canadian residency and signing a contract with the organization.
But other teams do attach additional requirements to receive an SR2 card. For instance, Cross Country Canada requires that to receive an SR2 card, athletes must continue to meet the eligibility standards, which include being part of the national team or a national development center. Swim Canada requires athletes to “have maintained a performance level within a threshold of 1% of the time they performed to earn the SR1”. Track and field requires that an SR1 athlete “achieves prescribed performance targets and benchmarks over the course of the two years” to continue receiving carding money.
This season, Biathlon Canada added an SR2 maintenance requirement for the first time. Kocher asserts that as a result, she and Perras did not realize that the second year of post-Olympic carding was contingent on any maintenance criteria.
“We thought that it was just going to go into effect the following year since the six of us that continued on had made the criteria in Sochi,” Kocher said. “Then in December at Christmas, Scott Perras and I found out that we hadn’t had a top 30 yet and we needed to do this if we were to get carding for the next year.”
On September 3, 2014, the carding criteria for the 2015-2016 season was posted online; the document header read, “Effective September 1st, 2014.”
At the bottom of the third page, the maintenance criteria for the second year of carding (SR2 status) is listed:
“The second year is subject to the athlete meeting the minimum National A Training Squad Priority 1, 2, or 3 performance standard, being re-nominated by Biathlon Canada, submitting a training and competitive program approved by Biathlon Canada and Sport Canada, and signing an Athlete NSO Agreement, and completing the AAP application form for the year in question.”
Those three “Training Squad Priorities” are listed on page eight.
“It is the responsibility of the athletes to review carding and selection documents,” Lindsay wrote in an email. “In an effort to assist them we have our website set to provide twitter and facebook updates when new material is published… Any athlete who has any questions is always welcome to come to my office for answers.”
Biathlon Canada initially nominated both Kocher and Perras for carding money, but Sport Canada rejected the nominations because they violated Biathlon Canada’s own internal procedures. Kocher and Perras had to appeal to Biathlon Canada. The substance of the appeal was that it was unfair for them to have to meet maintenance requirements.
“Scott Perras and I both appealed on that basis that we had made our S1/2 AAP carding criteria at the 2014 Olympics with the top 8 relays (criteria set by Sport Canada), and that is suppose to be a guaranteed 2 years of carding,” Kocher wrote in an email. “… We argued that we had already signed our 2014/15 Athlete Contract and 2014/15 AAP contract before the [September] changes, plus had made the criteria prior to the changes.”
Biathlon Canada rejected these appeals, perhaps because Sport Canada was now looking closely to see whether they followed their internal policies – awarding carding outside of the established criteria would make Biathlon Canada noncompliant with Sport Canada’s quidelines.
So Kocher and Perras tried a new tactic.
“A few weeks before that, Scott Perras found out what was wrong with him,” Kocher explained. “He was ill, and it had been going on since July. He had medical references and stuff. So he applied for an illness provision, which is a totally different process. You tell Biathlon Canada and then they send that to Sport Canada. At the end of April he won that appeal and provision.”
That provided a path for the reinstatement of Kocher’s own carding.
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.