Think about all of the exceptional female biathletes out there. Too many to count, right?
Now, if you watch biathlon at the World Cup level, think about how many women you’ve seen coaching there. None? One?
There are at least a couple, according to Biathlon Canada’s High Performance Director Roddy Ward, who’s been coaching biathlon internationally since 2011. The Slovakian women’s coach is one and the Austrian team also has a female coach, he wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
When it comes to wax techs, Ward wasn’t aware of any at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup level. The number of female race officials in that arena is similarly low.
Biathlon Canada is trying to change that. Not by consciously developing female wax techs or officials, but by presenting women with career opportunities after they retire as an athlete or if they show promise as a budding coach.
That emphasis on female leadership and coaching development is taking place in sports across Canada, Ward explained. Biathlon Canada is fully onboard with that movement and sent a clear message at this year’s IBU Youth/Junior World Championships — which took place last week from Feb. 26-March 4 — sending three female coaches to head up its team in Otepää, Estonia.
Last fall, Ward and Jacqueline Akerman, Biathlon Canada’s athlete and coach development manager, decided on their coaching staff for Otepää Youth/Junior World Championships. Akerman would be the head coach and trip leader, as she had for the previous two years, and joined by Kathy Davies, head coach of the Biathlon Alberta Training Center, and Jessica Blenkarn, who coaches at Sea to Sky Nordics.
The three women would make up the coaching staff and work with two male wax techs: head wax tech Andrew Chisholm and assistant tech David Bradley.
While the coaches were selected because of their qualifications (“we have these three great coaches who happened to be female,” Ward wrote), he also liked that female-to-male staffing ratio. It sent a message.
“Roddy and I went, ‘Oh, that would be cool, to be able to take an all-female staff,’ ” Akerman recalled of their conversation last fall. “… He said, ‘This is a really good thing for people to see, that we have three strong women coaching.’ ”
“It’s definitely important for us to have strong female leadership in our program,” Ward wrote to FasterSkier. “Truthfully, these are three great coaches who just showed up at my front door.”
Akerman had previously worked with Davies and Blenkarn on other international racing trips; Davies has been to several Youth/Junior Worlds and Blenkarn has coached at Open European Championships, the IBU Cup and IBU Junior Cup.
Asked if they’ve ever encountered an all-female or mostly female coaching staff in their sport, Akerman was quick to respond: “That’s an easier answer, two letters: NO.”
At last year’s Open European Championships, Akerman and Blenkarn experienced some reaction from their peers when they were working together on the range.
“The amount of second glances that we got was incredible, and comments saying, ‘Oh, two female coaches! Two women coaches!’ ” Akerman said during a joint phone interview with Davies and Blenkarn in Otepää a few days before the championships began.
“We were a bit of a spectacle,” Blenkarn added.
“And we got lots of TV time,” Akerman continued. “The TV’s haven’t come out yet and not all the teams have arrived yet so we’re waiting to what kind of spectacle this will be with three of us.”
FasterSkier had yet to hear how the three coaches were received throughout the championships, but they stated they were off to a good start from an internal perspective.
“We’re all good communicators, and we’re all complimenting each other really well,” Akerman said. “For me, it seemed to just really flow nicely, maybe more so than other times.”
“I’ve been on a number of trips similar to this and it’s the first time I’ve have even another woman on a trip, except for athletes,” Davies said. “Those trips can be very, very isolated and very hard to sometimes fit in or even feel like part of the coaching staff when you’re the only female.
“It’s not a conscious thing on the men’s part necessarily, but it sometimes feels very isolating, so it’s just absolutely amazing to be with other women in the coaching position,” Davies continued. “What I love about it is it actually gives female athletes and idea that there’s more that they can do. It’s not just athletes, whereas most World Cup races, the women, that’s all they see is an athlete, because you see very few in the coaches’ world, you see next to none in the techs’ world and you also see a rare few in the officials’ realm as well, so it’s really nice to [show] women and athletes that there’s something else they can do as well.”
“I think we just support each other really well,” Blenkarn noted. “We have a good understanding of what female coaches go through and what kind of unique challenges they might face at an event like this so it’s nice to have other people around you to support you.”
Asked more specifically about those challenges, Akerman referred to the term Davies used: “isolating.”
“It’s really hard to find your space in the room,” Akerman said. “It’s really easy for me right now to find my confidence with these other two that are here and sharing and supporting. Just them physically being here I feel more confident. So I can find my voice better. There’s just more space for you.
“Your space can sometimes get beaten up in a male-dominated place, so I feel that we need to be encouraged … and open and invited,” she continued. “I met Jess about three years ago and I just saw her skill and her ability and I was like, OK, we need her to be invited into this because she’s excellent. … Someone has to be opening the doors and allowing that space to happen, otherwise it won’t happen for women. I think when we see potential and, not just potential, when we see people who are experienced and they’re very good at what they do, we have to open the door for them. For the men, it’s already open, they just walk through. We need top open it. … I think that’s partly what Roddy’s doing … some men get it and they open the doors, but I think as women we can do it even more because we can understand what it’s like.”
At the Olympic level, biathlon dates back to 1924 when it was known in its ancient form as “military patrol”. A more modern form of biathlon debuted at the 1960 Olympics, but women’s biathlon didn’t become an Olympic sport until 1992. The sport’s military background paired with the relatively recent participation of women has led to some inherent challenges for women in the sport’s leadership roles.
“I can find my voice better. There’s just more space…” — Jacqueline Akerman, Biathlon Canada’s head coach and trip leader for the last three Youth/Junior Worlds, on having two other women on her coaching staff in Otepää
“2003 was the first time I worked the World Cup for biathlon and that was on the range with one of our male coaches and I was the only woman there,” Akerman recalled. “And people looked at me like I was an alien. Slowly over the years you see a few women. On the IBU Cup last year, actually, there was a fair amount of female coaches. I mean, the percentage is still ridiculously low, but you do see them now, and on the Junior IBU Cup as well…”
So the trend is in the right direction, and Biathlon Canada is more than happy to be at the forefront of that progression.
“It’s important for female athletes to have good role models,” Ward wrote. “I have seen firsthand what a good female coach can do for a female athlete and I see that is important for three reasons.
“1) to help athletes navigate life/struggles to turn into healthy and successful adults.
“2) I want our athletes to kick butt internationally and I believe strong female leadership can help us achieve this goal.
“3) I believe female athletes are more likely to give back to the sport (coaching, waxing, officiating etc) if they had female role models through their career that had a positive impact on their life.”
Last week in Otepää, outside of relays, Canada notched five top-10 results, five top-20’s and seven top-30’s, which were achieved by five different women and three different men.
“We’re building, practicing, focusing, training to be a well-oiled machine as a large group and as individuals,” Akerman said before the races began. “And we’re very confident in our ability to utilize those skills and abilities to our potential.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.