For the first time, the Para-Nordic World Championships were held on Canadian soil. As the highlight event of the 2018-2019 season, the World Championships were February 16-24. With over 100 athletes from 19 countries competing for World titles. Six individual events, three Cross Country, three Biathlon and two Cross Country Relays. My initial plan was to focus my attention on five races, skipping both the Sprints and Relay. In the end, I was asked to participate in the Relay as well, making it six races in the nine days for me.
Prince George, British Columbia played host to the event and did an incredible job. I was told that the Otway Ski Center might be a best-kept secret but sorry to say, the secret is out! Fantastic courses for both the Standing and VI categories and the Sit-ski course was one of the best I’ve seen in years. The courses tested the best of the athletes and showcased the strongest, fittest amongst us. The snow conditions and grooming were great. The only thing was the weather being on the colder side, but that was to be expected in February, in Canada.
The World Championships opened with Middle Distance Biathlon. I hoped to start the Worlds with a bang but after a lapse in focus on the range and never finding the top gear I had to settle for third place. It was a tight battle between the Norwegian, Ulset, and me for a second, which he won with an amazing final lap. The Frenchmen, Daviet, was simply too strong and would be for most of the week. I felt I was skiing well enough, but afterward, the effort in the Middle would help to set up the remaining races throughout the week. The next day was the first Cross Country race of the championships; a 10km Freestyle race. I thought this might be one of my weaker events of the Worlds. That said, I knew my fitness was there, and middle-distance races were becoming a very consistent element to my racing. I skied a great race, feeling that I that that bit more speed than the previous day’s race. But it wasn’t enough to take top honours as Daviet skied to back-to-back wins. I would earn a second-place finish. Surprised, one of the reporters afterwards asked how I felt by my continued progression of results in this event at major competitions. In 2015, at Worlds, I finished fourth. In 2017, in Finsterau, I finished third in a tight battle. While a year ago I ended up third again in PyeongChang. This year I go the one step higher to finish second. I had to laugh at how quickly that string of results had been picked up upon and turned into a stat. Day 3 of the World Championships was the Cross Country Sprint. This was the race I choose to skip in favor to rest and prepare for the races still to come.
Next up was back-to-back Biathlon races, first the Sprint then the Individual. For me, this would be a big block of the Worlds. In the Sprint I was the defending World Champion and Paralympic Champion in the Individual. I believed I needed to start fast in the Sprint, but in doing so maybe went perhaps too hard as it came down to a ski race in the final lap and I found myself lacking the speed to finish the race. Despite having a great performance on the range, as well as skiing better than I had in previous races, I would have to settle for a second Bronze medal. I began to wonder whether I would get that top speed that I need to contest for the top spot. The Individual was my best chance. An event that requires fitness and endurance in skiing and the ability to shoot clean. When I finished, it would be a tight finish, but it resulted in my second Silver medal. Yes, it is a step down from the previous year’s Paralympic Gold, but I do believe that it was a better performance. I paced a fantastic race on the course, starting strong but relaxed knowing it was a long race. On the range, I was calm, quick and most importantly, clean. I know there was nothing else I could have done, and that is all I can ask to achieve after a race.
Now came to the final weekend of the Worlds; the Cross-Country Relay on Saturday and a 20km Classic on Sunday. Earlier in the week, the plan was to not participate in the relay, focusing instead, on the final race, which fitted my strength of classic skiing. That changed, I was asked to race in the Mixed Relay. With success the team had a year ago in PyeongChang we assembled the majority of that team once again. Emily, Natalie and I would be returning, with the addition of Collin to complete the team. Collin led off in the opening leg. He was holding his own for most of the course before exchanging to Emily in third place. Emily closed the gap significantly to the second place team of Japan. Then it was my turn, the leading team of Ukraine had opened a substantial lead by the second exchange, a minute thirty. I started my leg in third place but took over the second place before leaving the stadium. My job was simple; go as hard as I could. I knew I was skiing well but didn’t know what was going on until a coach yelled that I had reduced the gap to 32 seconds. I had the sudden belief I could catch the Ukrainians. Over the final part of the course, I tried even harder to find the seconds. Making the turn to a straight-away section going into the stadium, I finally saw the skier ahead. I further closed the gap all the way to exchange zone where I had diminished the lead to ten seconds. Giving Natalie the best possible chance I could. She skied an incredible leg but couldn’t quite catch the anchor for the Ukrainian team. We defended our Paralympic Silver with a Worlds Silver and the best-ever World Championships result for a Canadian relay.
For me, five medals from five races sounded familiar, but I was hungrier than ever. I was missing one color from my growing collection. I knew I had a fantastic opportunity the final day to achieve a World title here at home. A Long-distance classic race on a course that would test fitness! I started similar to the Individual, staying smart, relaxed and efficient. The only catch was the eventual winner got the jump on me in the first two laps and held on. Whatever I did I couldn’t reduce that lead he had. As I went that bit faster with each lap trying to find the seconds that would bring me closer, but I wasn’t — finishing second, once again. I am disappointed I wasn’t able to find that last bit that would have been the difference between Silver or Bronze and Gold. That said, it was a privilege to be a part of the moment for Kawayoke. He only turned 18 years old a few days before, and that day his fighting spirit earned him his first (I’m sure of many) World Title.
As an elite athlete, I strive to achieve consistency. These Worlds were almost the definition of consistency; I just missed the opportunity to take that extra step to prove myself the best on the day. With that in mind, I reflect upon the races in Prince George and without hesitation can say the Biathlon Individual, the Relay and the 20km were some of the very best performances I’ve had in my career. They were just not the result I might have hoped to achieve.
Right after the Classic race I quickly packed and began my travels, going coast to coast. I was headed to Prince Edward Island to attend the Sport PEI’s Awards. It was a privilege to receive the Bill Halpenny Award, along with Bill Bridges for achievement at the Olympic or Paralympic Games. A great distinction to earn the 3-points Aviation Male Athlete of the Year. And a special honour to personally receive the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award from the Honourable Antoinette Perry. An incredible evening in recognizing the terrific athletic achievements of Canada’s smallest but mighty province. After only a few days on the Island, I headed back westward to prepare for the final major trip of the season- World Cup Finals in Sapporo, Japan.