“I’m un-retiring for six months,” 34-year-old Zina Kocher said with a laugh on the phone earlier this week.
Kocher, who lives in Canmore, Alberta, announced via Instagram on Oct. 2 that she was returning to elite-level racing with the one-and-done hope of making the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. As she referenced in her social-media post, Kocher’s return to the trails will be “4k” (kilograms) lighter — her current run at the Olympics Games will be in cross-country, not biathlon.
For sixteen years, Kocher trained and raced as a top-tier Canadian biathlete. She was a three-time Olympic biathlete and raced at 12 World Championships. After the 2016 race season, Kocher pulled the plug on her ski career. She worked as a doula, completed her first year of massage-therapy school at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, and married Alex Lawson this past summer.
The question for Kocher was what to do with all her pent-up energy? Like many endurance athletes, she’s wired for movement.
“I guess for the first few months after I retired, I didn’t exercise much,” Kocher said. “I traveled, I went to Turkey and Greece, I rock climbed a lot. … Actually in January 2017, when I started school full time, I just felt that I needed something. When I left school each day, I was like a caged animal and I had to go and be physical because I had had enough of sitting in a chair for hours and listening.”
That restlessness was partially tamed with bi-weekly gym sessions, running and occasionally, cross-country skiing in the evening. All this was simply to burn extra fuel.
“My body had a hard time with being sedentary,” Kocher said. “There was no thought about being in the Olympic Games. It was just, I need to be physically active. That was my only thought. I actually would often study for one of my classes while I was on a bike in the weight room because I had to go through flashcards for anatomy. So I would study and work out at the same time.”
Flipping through flashcards, passing classes and pumping the blood wasn’t enough. Considering Kocher’s athletic resume, she needed something more. She signed up for the Cross Country Canada (CCC) 2017 Ski Nationals in Canmore. No travel, no stress finding a wax guru to prime the skis — a Canadian nationals in her backyard would simply be a carrot to motivate her while in school.
Kocher is known as one of Canada’s best skate skiers — at the 2017 Canadian Ski Nationals in March, she won the 5-kilometer freestyle and placed second to CCC World Cup Team member Emily Nishikawa in the 30 k freestyle mass start.
“There were definitely side comments after those races from people, like, ‘Are you training?’ and ‘You should maybe think about maybe training full time again,’ and ‘Have you thought about the Olympics?’” she reflected.
The 2018 Olympics were not part of the plan. But Kocher’s results at nationals started the wheels turning.
For 10 years, Kocher was coached by Richard Boruta. On Sept. 9 of this year, Boruta died in a climbing accident outside Canmore.
Last April, Kocher said Boruta made a few passing jokes about qualifying for the Olympics. Initially, she was tepid about the prospects of a comeback. Her primary goal remained finishing her education. She did, however, ask Boruta and her former physiologist if she could mount a viable comeback if she delayed full time training until this September.
“Basically their thoughts, Richard’s thought and the physio’s was, yeah, I have a huge base behind me and I haven’t exactly laid on the couch and done nothing for a year and a half,” she said. “So we can do this.”
In a sad twist of timing, Kocher said the day she contacted Boruta to confirm she was ready to begin his training plan was also the day of Boruta’s accident.
“Richard knew we still wanted to do it, but he was waiting for me basically to be ready to start a full program,” she said. “I think I would have had regrets if I hadn’t done this, and it was going to be our fun challenge together. I think in a way it’s my way to honor Richard.”
Committed to the comeback, Kocher reached out to former CCC national-team head coach Justin Wadsworth for assistance. Wadsworth also lives in Canmore and is now coaching Kocher.
“We have had Zina at our training camps in the past and Zina is just a real pleasure to have around,” Wadsworth said on the phone. “She is easygoing and she has always been positive. So she asked me if I would be interested to help, especially in light of what happened with Richard I told her I would be more than happy to do what I can, and so we set out on this journey together.”
Kocher appears to have all the parts to make an Olympic return. Yet one critical aspect of the comeback is a work in progress. For all of her adult life (up until a year and a half ago), Kocher trained full time as a biathlete. In that world, classic skiing expertise is not a requirement.
“I feel confident in skating,” Kocher said with a slight laugh. “I don’t feel confident in classic, but I hope that in a couple months I will feel confident in classic.”
On the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup circuit, her career best was third place in the 15 k individual in 2006 in Östersund, Sweden. In reaching that podium, she was the first Canadian to earn a medal in over a decade. She went on to record several top-1o finishes and was a member of the Canadian women’s 4 x 6 k relay team that placed fourth at a World Cup in 2013, with Megan Imrie, Rosanna Crawford and Megan Tandy. At the Sochi Olympics, her 4 x 6 relay team placed eighth for the best-ever Canadian Olympic result in that event, and she was the top Canadian in 25th in the Sochi 10 k pursuit.
But all of those events were skate. The classic-technique piece is critically important for Kocher’s PyeongChang quest. The Canadians will host Olympic Trials in January in Mont Sainte Anne, Quebec. At those trials, Kocher will have to contest, and most likely win, a 10 k classic and a skiathlon in hopes of qualifying. (The PyeongChang women’s distance events are a 10 k skate, 30 k classic and 15 k skiathlon.)
With limited time and limited classic experience — Kocher said she only used classic technique as recovery when she was a full-time athlete — Wadsworth has an abridged plan for Kocher. He also understands the challenges at play.
“I’ve seen Zina classic ski a tiny bit over the years,” Wadsworth said. “And classic skiing is got to be right in there with one of the most technical athletic things that you can do. The motion, kicking the ski, it is quite hard to become efficient at.”
Wadsworth admitted he likes the challenge and has laid down a practical approach to hone Kocher’s classic skiing.
“We have a few strategies,” Wadsworth said. “We have just focused on double poling and skating. And then we are going to start working on actual classic technique once we get on snow so there are no bad habits developed on the rollerskis. We don’t have a lot of time, a couple of months here, but I think she can get to a place where on the right day with the right skis she could stay near enough to the leaders in a skiathlon to let her skating take over.”
It appears since retiring and un-retiring, Kocher’s high quality, low-volume training has her motor primed. Back in the late spring, Kocher received some data indicating she had not lost much fitness since retiring as a biathlete.
“I did do a treadmill test just because they needed some subjects for some students, and that was in May or June,” Kocher said. “Everything was totally normal to how I always am in the spring. It was the exact same baseline.”
More recently, Kocher displayed an effort indicating her temporary comeback may be for real.
“I will say at this point — we’ve trained for about three or four weeks and then kind of officially together — she did the Norquay uphill time trial and I think she posted her second-best time there as an athlete and among the better times that I have seen from cross-country skiers,” Wadsworth noted. “Fitness-wise she is back in good shape, and I think she is ready to give a good stab at this. … Definitely some really good women are preparing for the Olympics and probably have a leg up on her, but you know, there are some spots available. And I think she has a good opportunity and she has a lot of experience. She is approaching her training plan very wisely and with a lot of experience it might pay off.”