An Östersund Triple
I don't know where to start. Mostly because I don't think it has indeed sunk in yet what I was able to accomplish at the 2023 Para Nordic World Championships. This is partly because I didn't have expectations close to what I achieved. Maybe it's a form of shock that I'm experiencing. Through most of the past year, these Worlds were more of something I felt I had to get through rather than excel or target them. I was recovering well; there were bumps in the road, but everything was improving. The tiniest steps at a time, which I struggled with. Many times I hoped for things to have quickened. Get back to that 'the body feels all good to go' again. Don't get me wrong, I'm close, but as anything, the last few percent always seem to take the longest. As I looked to the competitive season, I knew I wouldn't be at my best. The 2023 Worlds needed to have a different focus for me.
I didn't want to lose the opportunity of the situation. Worlds and Games have a different feel and atmosphere to them. These are the events I want to perform at, so I focused on performing in every other sense besides the physical because I only could go as fast as the body was ready to handle. I worked on learning and evaluating the course profile. Working on my tactics, what might be the best, and going through the What-ifs. Managing the recovery, what do I do or need, when do I need to do it. The mentality of warming up for a race. How do I manage my thoughts throughout the race? Refining my race day approach; time and energy management on race day. Östersund was a fantastic opportunity to do all these things and more.
Yet, the Worlds became so much more. Shooting, I never felt all that comfortable with my rifle in Sweden. When I compared how I felt to what I expected or hoped to feel, those feelings didn't align. I know the feeling when I'm in peak form on the range. That was not the case for Östersund. A considerable part of that was I only had limited opportunities to combine intensity or time trials with shooting. I was not concerned about what I had missed, but I could feel it wasn't the same as I approached these Worlds compared to past major events.
I flew to Europe about a week before the first race at World's, where the team had a training camp in Vålådalen, SWE. It brought back memories, not positive or negative, but I reminisced about the last time I was there. It was March 2020. I had spent a week there before heading to Östersund for what was supposed to be Para Biathlon World Championships. And the night before the first race, it was all cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic became a global concern. It was hard not to think back to that time and hope it would not repeat itself. After the few days in Vålådalen, I felt in a good place heading into Östersund and the final days of prep before the Worlds began.
The 2023 Para Nordic World Championships started familiarly with the Biathlon Sprint. It's the first race, and you are trying to figure out what form you have or where you are starting from. You're seeing where your competitors are. That first race is about setting the tone. Mine was a bead-banger—Ahh, Biathlon, the tale of two sports. My skiing was excellent. I would end up being the fastest skier on the course. After going clean in my first bout of shooting, I was getting up off the mat, and I helplessly watched as my rifle shifted and fell into the range. As I skied away, I feared the worst and figured that the fall had knocked my sights, and I would be lucky to hit anything on my second bout. I skied and didn't think much about it until I approached the range for my second bout. I still don't know what happened on my first shot, something was weird, but I missed it. I hit the next two, could have or should have hit the remaining two, but I didn't believe in my rifle. So, I missed my fourth shot before hitting the fifth. I had two misses and two penalty loops to do, and I figured I was now fighting to maybe stay on the podium if I was lucky. I charged to see what I could make up for the third place. Then I got to the high point of the course, and my coach yelled that I was only a few seconds out of first. That surprised me, but now I had a target to chase. With the remaining 1km, I pushed to close that gap. I left the stadium for my final lap about 19 seconds behind; thanks to my skiing, I skied back into a close second place, only 2.3 seconds back of the winner. I salvaged a silver medal in that race, but I look back at my errors and know I was the one to blame for costly mistakes that prevented me from winning that afternoon.
The next race was the Long distance classic. As I skied the course, I thought this was the type of course I could have excelled on. Instead, I threw my hat into the ring for the skate Sprint two days later. I still think I'm a few years past my best sprinting, but I pulled off some decent races and found myself in the final. I didn't start well and was behind quite early in the Final. As the course progressed, anytime I felt I accelerated, I hit a roadblock of other skiers. Once again, I had excellent skis and found myself within reach of the podium into the finishing stretch, but I was behind, and my speed had nowhere to go. Then, with 25m to go, I stuck my pole on the inside of my ski, and I hit the snow so hard. I was fine; all I could do was laugh it off after a self-exam confirming nothing was wrong. As the Sprint final was at five in the evening, there was little time to waste before getting ready for the Biathlon Middle the following day.
The effort from the Sprint did my body some good because the next day, I felt better, faster and ready for the next race. After my frustrating start in shooting during the Biathlon Sprint, my highest priority was to shoot clean in this Biathlon Middle. The race played out much like a year ago in Beijing. Gregoriy, the Ukrainian, and I traded blows back and forth, similar ski times, though I was starting to inch away by the end. When a year ago Gregoriy missed one in the final bout, this time we both went clean, but I had the advantage on the skis to take my third-ever World title.
The following day was a day off from competition before the final weekend of three races. Next was the Biathlon Individual. A strong event for me, with its four bouts and a minute, added for each miss. My race plan was to build upon my skiing through each lap and focus on clean, deliberate shooting. This race was the first time in the week where I felt more comfortable with my rifle, but I consciously knew I was taking longer in the range, ensuring I hit all my targets and that the rifle never went airborne. After the first shooting, I had a slight lead and continued lap after lap to add to the lead and control the elements I had control over. Perform, and in the end, perform on demand. Coming into the final bout, I knew if I went clean, I would secure my second (first time to do so consecutively) World title. There was a lot of thinking in the final bout, but I went clean and skied to my second World title. Consistent performance has been a struggle of mine in the past. In most of my career, back-to-back wins were rare occurrences. It was an element I wanted to work on it, and Östersund was providing me with another opportunity to do just that.
The Saturday was 10km Free. A race that traditionally is my weakest in terms of results. I originally planned to skip this race and focus on the Relay on the final day. But my body was feeling great, I had no issues from my heels, but I was afraid to do the three races in a row. I wasn't sure how the body would handle that, as I hadn't done that yet this season. Everything pointed in the right direction, so I made the call to compete in the Cross Country 10km. It was once again a very similar distance, on an identical course, to the last two races, so I knew how to race it; all I had to shift was my approach while not having the breaks of shooting. I had to ski it like a Cross Country skier.
The wind was the strongest it had been all week. I knew that I might be disadvantaged by this wind, being one of the tallest competitors in the field. I had to race using the wind to my advantage. Use my power effectively throughout the course. I charged out of the gate; I had a purpose and wanted to start strongly. After my typical slowish start over the first half of the lap, I found myself with the lead by the end of the first lap. That was a positive start for me. A second lap of much the same, I established a decent time. To not go over my limit, I maintained my pace through the third lap before a final charge on the last lap. With incredible skis and excellent fitness, I continued to extend my lead. I finished in first place, with a significant margin over the second. That was one of the best races in my career. The first time I had ever won a Cross Country race at a World Championships or Games. It was my first win in a freestyle race and only my third Cross Country win ever. A special moment! A very memorable moment!
An Östersund Triple. Three consecutive World titles and the silver to kick off the event. Undoubtedly, one of my best World Championships.
My next event is a little less competitive, for me, at least. I'm headed to a Games, but I'm not competing. Instead, it will be Canada's next generation of top athletes that will be. The 2023 Canada Winter Games will be held Island-wide from February 18 -March 5. I've had the privilege to help bring the Games to the Island, and I can't wait to be a part of these Games. Where some of Canada's next athletes will experience the spark that might drive them to future international sporting success. Though I still have trouble saying it out loud, it will be fantastic to watch the many events being held in the Mark Arendz Provincial Ski Park, or as I like to call it, MAPS. I hope everyone will have an opportunity to look up results, watch coverage of so many events or be a part of the Games in-person!