2018 Winter Paralympics (PyeongChang, South Korea): Biathlon sprints
The 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, opened in a big way for the U.S. and Canadian Paralympic nordic and biathlon teams on Saturday, with Kendall Gretsch and Dan Cnossen winning the U.S.A.’s first-ever gold medals in biathlon, and Canada’s Mark Arendz racing to silver for his third Paralympic biathlon medal and Collin Cameron becoming the first Canadian man to medal in a Paralympic sit-ski race.
In her first Paralympics, Gretsch, a 25-year-old three-time gold medalist in paratriathlon, led U.S. teammate Oksana Masters across the line in the women’s sitting biathlon 6 k sprint, finishing in 21:52.0 with a single miss (0+1). Masters shot clean (0+0) and finished 22.8 seconds back for silver, less than three weeks after injuring her elbow.
“I’m just really excited to be here,” Gretsch said, according to a U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing press release. “It’s just a great way to kick off the week and hopefully [there’s] more to come. It was an awesome race.”
Her gold medal was also the first for an American woman in Paralympic nordic skiing.
“It’s incredible,” Gretsch said. “For the U.S., we’ve been watching the Olympics and [Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins] had their historical medal for the women’s cross-country and that definitely motivated us coming here, so if I was able to do that, that’s great.
“Motivation to get a medal definitely heightened after seeing that and seeing how they pushed through all their races,” she continued. “They’re such a great team and we also have a really strong aspect of a really strong team all working together.”
At the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, Masters earned silver and bronze in cross-country skiing events. She also took a bronze medal in rowing at the 2012 Summer Paralympics.
“I am so happy, I feel like I just won my gold medal, basically. I’m so happy to be on the podium,” Masters, 28, told U.S. Paralympics after her first Paralympic biathlon medal.
“I was told I was not going to be able to race,” Masters said of her injury just before the Games. “I was basically fighting for a chance at the start line. I dug as deep as I could for my team and I’m happy to be standing on the podium next to Kendall.
“It’s amazing to have team USA having not only its first female biathlon medal but the first female Paralympic gold, followed by a silver,” she added. “It gives me goosebumps. It could not have been a better feeling.”
In his second Paralympics, Cnossen, a 37-year-old retired Navy SEAL, achieved his first medal — gold — in the men’s sitting biathlon 7.5 k sprint in 23:49.7. With a single miss (0+1), he skied in the top three throughout Saturday’s race before beating Belarus’s Dzmitry Loban, who also had a penalty (1+0), by 7.3 seconds for the win.
Cnossen’s previous best in Sochi was sixth in the cross-country sprint and 10th in the biathlon individual race. He is also a world championships para-cyclist pursuing his second graduate degree from Harvard University.
“I would say Andy Soule was the trailblazer,” Cnossen said of his teammate’s bronze medal from the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. “When I was new on the team, he was the inspiration, and I know he’s going to pop a good race here as well.
“In the race, I just wanted to see what I can do, not worrying about anything else,” he explained. “In the last Games that I did in Sochi, I let the TV screens and the announcer get to me and today I just focused on what I can do and nothing else matters. I crossed the line and I wasn’t even going to look at the board and I was pleasantly surprised at the end.”
With a total of nine Americans in the top 20 — Soule placed eighth, Aaron Pike 12th, Joy Rondeau 14th, Ruslan Reiter 16th, Jeremy Wagner 19th, and Bryan Price 20th — Cnossen said the best was yet to come. With the exception of Reiter, who competes in the standing division, all of those results came in Saturday’s sitting biathlon races.
“We have such an amazing team,” Cnossen said. “The way they’ve recruited new athletes, developed the waxing protocol — it’s really showing. This is just the start and we have six more races including the relays to go. It’ll be exciting.”
Silver + Bronze for Canada
In his third Paralympics, Arendz, 28, opened with a silver medal in the men’s standing biathlon 7.5 k sprint, matching his result in that event in Sochi four years ago. He shot clean and finished in 18:25.9 on Saturday, 30.8 seconds behind France’s Benjamin Daviet, who also cleaned the two-stage race and won in 17:56.6.
“Coming across the line I thought I had it,” Arendz said, according to a Canadian team press release. “I’m really happy with the day. It was an awesome race for me, but someone was just a little faster.”
Earlier in the day, Cameron, 29, raced to bronze in the men’s sitting sprint, missing one target (0+1) and finishing 9.7 seconds behind Cnossen in first.
“I got to the venue and saw Collin’s name at the top of the standings in his final lap of the sit-ski race,” Arendz recalled. “I cheered him on up his final hill and I took a lot of energy from watching him win his first ever Paralympic medal this morning.”
A former sledge hockey player, Cameron started skiing three years ago. In achieving his first Paralympic medal, he became the first Canadian male biathlete to reach the podium in sit skiing at the Paralympics.
“This is crazy. I didn’t expect this today,” Cameron said according to the press release. “I felt really great getting down on the mat and was in position every time. It got me on the podium today, and it is absolutely crazy.
“When I was coming into the range for the second time, I heard on [my coach John Jaques’s] radio when he bent down to give me my rifle that I was in third, and I missed that shot,” he added. “I took a breath and got the rest – then I just went for it. Coming up that final hill, the whole team was just screaming at me and I went as hard as I could.
“Everything came together today, and I don’t know why,” Cameron continued. “I think just the build up through the season. I was progressively getting snappier and faster, and all the work John spent with me in Sudbury. We focused on race procedure and that paid dividends today. It is such a fun course here.”
In the women’s 6 k standing biathlon sprint, Canada’s Emily Young placed seventh with a single miss (0+1), just ahead of teammate Brittany Hudak in eighth with two penalties (1+1).
Racing in PyeongChang continued Sunday with men’s and women’s sitting cross-country long-distance events, starting at 10 a.m. Korea time (8 p.m. EST on Saturday).