When Biathlon Canada let their high performance director Eric De Nys go in March, the organization looked inside to find new leadership for its national team.
Women’s National Team Coach Roddy Ward was picked to become the new high performance director going into the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and to helm the team afterwards.
“I’m excited to take an active leadership role with the entire development pipeline, while continuing to be involved and provide leadership with the national team,” Ward wrote in an email. “I believe we have potential to improve our entire system of athlete development from grassroots to World Cup medalists, and I want to be an architect of that system. We have a lot of people who are very interested to be involved, to help make the best situation for our athletes and become a top five nation in biathlon. I would like to help facilitate that growth.”
Ward had been planning to leave his role as a national team coach after PyeongChang in order to spend more time with his family; he and his wife, Melanie, welcomed their first child last August.
Instead, he will stay with the team but slot into a role that doesn’t require as much travel.
“I have a family at home now and wanted to find work that keeps me home more,” Ward explained. “However, I still really wanted to be involved. I have a lot of passion left for this! As a coaching team, we had been trying to figure out what that could look like, to have me involved still. The new role as [high performance director] is perfect for me that way.”
In the meantime, he will stick with the women’s team as a coach; Head Coach Matthias Ahrens works with the men. Ward answered questions from Kelowna, British Columbia, where six women were doing a training camp.
“It doesn’t make sense to change up personal coaches for the women’s team this close to the Olympics,” he explained.
Biathlon Canada’s funding from Own the Podium was cut substantially this year, giving them less to spend on the national team. But Biathlon Canada General Manager Andy Holmwood said that the funding cut was not a reason to ask Ward to do two jobs this season.
“He was our top candidate,” Holmwood said in an interview on Monday. “But at the same time, we don’t want to, and he doesn’t want to, remove himself from the coaching role this close to the Olympics… we have essentially tried to take the admin load off of that role, and try to make it a real leadership role with regard to high performance. Previously there was a lot of logistics work tied in with the high performance director position. But we will be spreading that around otherwise this coming year.”
“Every staff member has stepped up and taken on extra duties,” Ward agreed via email. “We will also expect a bit more planning work from coaches leading junior tours. First and foremost, my main focus is on the women’s team as their coach and to help Matthias with the men. Most important is to get results with the national team on the World Cup and/or Olympics so we have future funding. I will need to prioritize, delegate, and use my time efficiently.”
The funding cut came due to poor results last season from the team’s veterans. Rosanna Crawford and Brendan Green both have multiple top-10 World Cup finishes to their name – and Green finished ninth in the mass start at the 2014 Olympics – but in 2016-2017 Crawford had a top finish of 19th on the World Cup and Green of 28th.
Adding to their troubles was that Nathan Smith, a silver medalist from 2015 World Championships, missed most of the season due to a rare virus.
For Smith, the health issues have passed and Ward reported that he was back to training a full load. Crawford and Green, he concluded, were overtrained. The winter taught the team some painful lessons that they are learning from and he is confident that the athletes will be back to their prior form this year.
“One thing as a team we have doubled down on is monitoring,” Ward wrote. “We have added extra heart rate variability and treadmill monitoring to the program to keep better track of athlete health and training readiness.”
While the veterans struggled last season, a nuslewmber of younger athletes made solid progress. Julia Ransom turned in a top-20 at World Championships, Scott Gow hit the top-20 on the World Cup, and Emma Lunder and Christian Gow both notched top-30 results.
Looking towards PyeongChang, Ward has high expectations for his team.
“We have a strong and very motivated team of men and women this year and our ultimate goal is to bring home a medal,” he wrote. “The most important things we are focused on are, one, to individualize each athletes training – they are all unique and therefore each athlete has a unique path to the top – and two, we will also closely monitor training so they show up at the Olympics healthy and in great shape.”
What would a medal mean? Ward explained that in 2010, at a home Olympics no less, Canada only qualified one man for individual biathlon competition. That was Jean Philippe Le Guellec, and he turned in a best-ever performance for a Canadian man.
Four years later, in Sochi, Le Guellec had two top-tens (one of which bested his own record result from Vancouver), Green had one, and Smith had two top-20’s.
“Since then we have had two World Championships podiums, a sprint silver by Nathan in 2015 and men’s relay bronze in 2016,” Ward added.
He clearly believes that his team can continue on its upward trajectory, undisturbed by a blip of a 2017 season.
And after PyeongChang, whatever the results may be, he’s committed to overseeing the country’s biathlon development pipeline as well as its elite athletes.
“I have seen many examples of how to run a national team and development pipelines,” he wrote of his experience coaching on the World Cup. “However, I strongly believe we need to create our own ‘Canadian’ way, given our unique situations, strengths, weaknesses etc. On the development side, I hope we can help to build programs that are fluid, adaptable but strong in certain program fundamentals. How exactly this gets executed in different areas of the country, under different coaches, can be unique to each situation but everywhere we need to have that intense drive to create high performance athletes all over the country.”
Biathlon Canada is a small organization with a small budget. Even when Own The Podium was funding the team more generously, that created serious constraints which are not faced by larger European teams.
“The biggest challenge is inconsistent funding,” Ward wrote. “It’s hard to maintain programs, let alone start new ones (like development programming), when you don’t know your funding year to year. However, this is our current reality in Canada so we have to get the job done regardless.”
On the other hand, it creates a nimble organization and staff.
“I think we are doing a good job given our limited resources (small staff, money etc),” Ward wrote. “We probably produce the ‘cheapest’ medals on the World Cup. We have a great staff that puts a lot of trust in each other and we will need that more than ever this year. We also have some good biathlon activity all around the country and definitely some talented athletes.”
“I very much hope we can retain our staff and athletes after this Olympics to continue to build on our current programming,” he concluded.
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.