After winning a World Cup, an individual World Championships medal, and helping his Canadian teammates to World Championships relay bronze in the last two years, there were high hopes for biathlete Nathan Smith coming into the 2016/2017 season.
With finishes of 43rd and 96th in the opening World Cups in Östersund, Sweden, Smith felt that something really wasn’t right. So he flew home to Canada, underwent a bevy of medical tests and has disappeared from the circuit ever since.
The culprit: cytomegalovirus, which is common in the population but usually doesn’t show symptoms in healthy individuals. With Smith’s high training load, it hit him similarly to how some people experience mononucleosis. His energy just wasn’t there.
“I hadn’t head of the virus either until it showed up in my blood,” Smith admitted. “It’s a really common virus and most of the population ends up getting it eventually. Most of the time there are barely symptoms. If I were not an elite athlete, I definitely wouldn’t have noticed.”
While competing against an international field certainly brought his health to the forefront, hindsight is 20/20. Smith thinks he had actually been showing symptoms much earlier.
“I would suspect I probably started feeling the effects around the end of September, but it’s tough to know,” Smith wrote in an email. “It definitely snuck up on me. The idea that an illness was causing my fatigue during races hadn’t occurred to me until the World Cup in Sweden… I thought I was just tired from training, but time trials and races kept going really poorly. Going from being the team leader to finishing minutes back just doesn’t make sense. It’s easy to see that now, but unfortunately no one clued in until pretty late.”
After a lot of rest, Smith hopes to be resurfacing. This weekend he competes at NorAm races in Jericho, Vt. If all goes well he should be set to travel to PyeongChang, South Korea, for the post-IBU World Championships races (where he could preview the 2018 Olympics venue).
“Treatment has been the same as for mono,” he explained. “Rest. Then slow reintroduction of training as I can handle the load. I’ve been doing weekly submax rollerski tests this month to track fitness.”
All that rest time allowed him to do something that’s rare for a full-time biathlete: spend some winter time at home in Canada.
“I spent most of December with my girlfriend, either up in Grande Prairie or with her family in Prince George for Christmas,” Smith wrote. “I was lucky that both cities have biathlon venues, so it was no problem at all to do some light training. The last half of January I’ve had more opportunity to get out and be active. I’ve explored some xc trails in the area which I’d never been on, as well as doing some backcountry skis with my brother and friends.”
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.