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SOCHI, Russia – For six kilometers and ten targets, Jean Philippe Le Guellec of Canada could not have been having a better day.
In his third Olympics, Le Guellec had finished fifth in Saturday’s sprint, a best-ever for a Canadian man. He started today’s 12.5 k pursuit just 9.7 seconds behind Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway, the winner of the sprint, and the top seven men formed a pack racing through the slushy course.
Le Guellec cleaned his first prone stage quickly, moving into third place and skiing the second loop with the top racers. He was in third position coming into the range for the second prone stage, and not only cleaned, but did so with a speed that gave him a several-second lead as he headed out on course. In fact, on both prone stages, the Quebec native had the fastest shooting times of the entire field.
But disaster struck for Le Guellec on the third loop, as he hit a patch of ice, lost his balance, caught an edge, and eventually fell, superman-style, sliding down into corner.
“I decided to take the inside line, but I guess a lot of people were skid turning that turn on the first lap and there was a huge ice patch that I saw at the last minute and sent me flying,” he said.
In one way, the Canadian was lucky compared to some of his competitors. At least three other racers fell on the same corner, including a Ukrainian who slid off over the embankment down to the next trail below; it took him maybe ten seconds to climb back onto the course.
But while Le Guellec may have avoided that indignity, the consequences of his fall were just as big. He broke part of his ski and had to stop and get another.
“In the second downill I bailed because my ski was actually broken,” Le Guellec said. “So then I had to wait to get a ski and it was f*cking downhill from there.”
“Thank you to the Ukranian Tech who probably broke Usain Bolt’s 100m World Record to swap out my ski,” Le Guellec later wrote on facebook.
By the time Le Guellec got skiing again, he had been passed by about 15 racers. And when he arrived on the shooting range again, his concentration was broken. After missing two of his five shots, Le Guellec shouted loudly in frustration as he left his shooting mat.
“I would have been affected, so I’m guessing he was affected too,” Le Guellec’s coach Jean Paquet told FasterSkier from the shooting range. “He lost so much time, so for sure it affected somewhat his shooting mentally. And he probably had to work harder to get back with some people.”
Adding insult to injury, Le Guellec missed one more shot in the final standing stage. After making it through the last loop of skiing, he finished in 26th place.
Frustrated by how much the crash cost him – “honestly I want to punch a wall, and hopefully break through it” – Le Guellec was nevertheless honest about what it would have taken to win a gold medal, which was definitely not assured just by being in the lead at the race’s halfway point.
“I was anticipating that the guys behind me were going to catch up at some point in that lap, and I mean, whatever—the race isn’t over until you cross the finish line, so I was definitely happy to leave the range in first, that’s definitely awesome,” he said. “But I wasn’t expecting to keep a lead for the rest of the race. I mean, it’s biathlon, so, that’s sport.”
Although the crash looked painful, Le Guellec said that he was not injured. Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay said that Le Guellec was checked for a concussion after the race, but that he checked out fine.
With Le Guellec knocked out of contention, Canadian attention shifted to Nathan Smith. Starting 13th, the Olympic rookie immediately climbed into the top 10 with a first clean prone, and stayed there with a second one. At this point, Canada had Le Guellec in the lead and Smith in 10th.
While Le Guellec was struggling with his broken ski post-crash, Smith flew by him in a pack of skiers. After spending some energy to catch onto the back, Le Guellec soon joined that pack. But Smith was in the position of top Canadian for good.
“I didn’t know I was in the same pack as him,” Smith said. “I actually didn’t see him until my third shooting. I saw him in the penalty loop. I didn’t know he had crashed, I thought he had maybe one or two more penalty loops than me. I thought he just had maybe 17 instead of 19 [clean shots], which wouldn’t be good, but not a disaster.”
Putting his teammate out of his mind, Smith focused and stayed hovering around the top ten. He missed one shot in the first standing stage, and after a penalty loop began to tire on his skis.
“It was a good ski, but I did kind of die a little bit on the fourth lap,” Smith said. “I had a really tough time on that slushy hill coming out of the range.”
But Smith said that the pace had felt conservative at the start, and that he usually feels better and better as a race goes on. That was true today, too, as Smith was able to gain a bit of pace back on the last loop and hang on to 11th place after he was passed by a surging Dominik Landertinger of Austria in the finishing stretch.
“I’m really happy,” Smith said. “I think I can probably get into the [30-man] mass start now, which was a big goal of mine, especially if I can have a good individual too. I was kind of hoping for a top ten, but I’m really happy with what I got. I would have even been happy if I had dropped a couple of spots.”
As it was, 11th place bettered his starting position by two spots, and continued a stellar opening series of the Olympics for the 28-year-old.
“Nathan seems to be doing an excellent race,” Paquet said. “Nathan is outstanding. He has been consistent all season, and he’s just performing like I’ve never seen him before, and it’s really good to see.”
Brendan Green started in 23rd position and had a rough go on the range, missing two shots in the opening prone stage and then one shot in each of the next two stages. But he cleaned the final standing to end on a good note and skied the 20th-fastest course time, good enough for 32nd place at the end of the day.
“We are very proud if the whole team today,” Lindsay said. “Three men in the top 32 is a really strong day for us. It’s just hard seeing a first place lost in that manner. Now we’re prepping for the individual.”
Despite the unfortunate conclusion of today’s race, Le Guellec was able to at least look forward to the individual – a format where he placed fourth in the opening week of racing this season – with bright prospects.
“I was definitely confident, especially after that second prone,” Le Guellec said. “I was able to ski with the leaders also for these first laps, so yeah, the confidence is there.”
-Nat Herz and Alex Matthews contributed reporting.