OSLO, Norway—As Saturday’s men’s 4 x 7.5 k relay at biathlon World Championships progressed loop after loop longer, the Canadian team climbed to third position – and then stayed there.
Ultimately, the team claimed bronze.
“This is the sensation of the World Championships, perhaps the sensation of the season,” IBU Communication Director Peer Lange said to kick off the post-race press conference.
If the fans were surprised, so were the athletes. The Canadians themselves hadn’t expected such a breakthrough. Top five? Yes- that was a goal the team had set. But bronze?
“I didn’t think it would happen at World Championships, that’s for sure,” said Scott Gow.
“I think that we would have been happy with fifth or sixth today,” agreed Nathan Smith.
Never in the history of Canadian biathlon has a team won a relay medal at World Championships or the Olympic Games.
And today it happened.
“I think that the potential has been there for a little while now,” said relay anchor Brendan Green. “There have been some ups and downs along the way. But in a relay anything is possible. Today we all really put it on the line together. Every single one of us raced really well. When that happens, when things come together like that, it’s really incredible.”
After a strong leadoff leg from Christian Gow, Smith took the team to the front, and they never left. After Scott Gow stuck to the Norwegian and German teams like glue on the trail, it was up to Green.
And Green proved why he was chosen to anchor the squad, staying cool under pressure and not even touching his spare rounds as he cleaned both prone and standing to cross the finish line in third, 23.4 seconds behind the winning Norwegian team. Germany placed second, +11.5.
So what came together for Canada?
“I would say everything,” laughed National Team Coach Roddy Ward. “Four guys having some of the best races of their lives, good shooting, good skiing, good skis. And the shape of our team I think has just come up every race at World Championships here, getting better and better… Every year you kind of think it’s coming. It’s close, it’s close, and we’ve been close for a couple of years. We were close enough, I guess, that on the right day we were there.”
Christian Gow is the youngest member of the team and hadn’t even been sure he would race the relay until late this week, after the 20 k individual. The Canadian team brought five men and hadn’t set its lineup; Macx Davies was ultimately left to watch and cheer his teammates.
“I was super pumped to be told I was racing today,” Christian Gow said. “I was doing most of the relays last season and this one. I was really excited to get the opportunity to do it. It’s one of the most fun races for sure. I was thrilled that [my brother] Scott also gets to race with me. And my dad is here to watch, too. I am sure he is just as thrilled.”
The Canadian team has been close in the early going of relays before- and Smith was an individual medalist at last year’s World Championships. So it wasn’t surprising that he took Christian Gow’s tag in seventh place, 14 seconds back, and by the end of the first loop had caught the leaders and took the prone stage in lane one.
“I didn’t on purpose pass them,” Smith said. “It was more like I got behind them and got really good draft. It wasn’t like I was going to stand up and push them. It was fun. Being in lane one is fun. It’s fun being in lane two and three too though.”
After Smith used one spare round in each stage, he skied to the finish even with Norway and Germany, tagging off 1.2 seconds out of first place.
So the pressure was on Scott Gow to hold the team’s position as the race went on. He left the stadium with Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø, and stuck on his tails.
Coming off a career-best 18th place in the 20 k individual, Gow had some added confidence, said coach Ward.
“I wanted to think I could,” he said of staying with the leader. “Watching Christian tag off really close, and then Nathan obviously moved us right into contention. And so I though okay, I have to, I don’t have a choice. I don’t know if I believed I could, but I had to, to try and keep our team in it. I’m just happy that I was able to stay right behind Johannes for most of it and hang on.”
Scott Gow succeeded admirably, turning in the fifth-fastest time of his leg. Coming into standing, he missed one shot, and then had to take all three of his spare rounds to knock it down.
“Prone felt just on point,” he said. “Felt so calm, so steady, drilled them all, I was so happy with that. And then standing, I hit four, but I was so nervous. I couldn’t… I was like ‘okay just one spare’ and I knew Johannes had cleaned, so that put a lot more pressure to try and keep up.”
It was a nervous moment, but the Canadians were helped by the fact that other teams behind them also struggled on the stage and used spares, or in the case of Austria even went to the penalty loop. So Scott Gow left with over 30 seconds in hand over fourth place, and he maintained that gap to the tag.
Everything fell then on the shoulders of Brendan Green.
“I was definitely really nervous going into the race,” Green said. “I was following it up in the wax room. The whole race, the team was right in the mix up at the front. I was extremely nervous. But once I got the tag I was able to relax a little bit on course and zone out and just do my own race.”
Nerves or no, he not only held steady on the trails but shot with laser accuracy, confidently knocking down all ten targets. First five in prone: still Canada in third place. Then five in standing: Canada still in third place.
“All I saw really was Brendan’s last shooting, which was incredibly impressive,” said U.S. athlete Tim Burke. “There’s nothing harder in biathlon to do than that one in the relay. And he did an unbelievable job, and obviously the rest of the team did, too.”
Green still wasn’t quite sure how he did it, although he certainly has a years-long history of strong shooting on the World Cup.
“The focus is pretty high going into lane three each time,” he said. “On the range I would just try to focus on each shot and on my own shooting bouts. And not think about what Germany or Norway was doing. When it works out like that, it’s incredible.”
He left the range the final time with a remarkable 40 seconds on fourth-place Austria. Bronze belonged to Canada.
For Smith, who had already climbed the World Championships podium in the sprint in 2015, climbing it a second time with his teammates was even sweeter.
“I’d say it’s better,” he said. “We train together, every day, twice a day, for many years. I know, I can see that these guys saw last year’s success. They know that they train with me, and they beat me lots of the time.”
“Only when you’re slumming,” interjected Scott Gow.
“Everyone is fighting on our team,” Smith said. “We’re teammates, we’re friends, but we’re fighting every day to be better than each other. And it brings our whole team up. I knew that last year we were fifth here, so I knew that if we had an even better day it was possible. Not so likely, but possible.”
With none of the men qualifying for Sunday’s mass start, the guys can celebrate their medal already.
“Obviously, anyone here would like to be racing the next race,” Scott Gow said. “But since we don’t have to, we can let a little loose and really enjoy the whole experience.”
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.