Steps to Crystal
Though I wanted to stay on the Island, I had to get back on the road, heading south to Salt Lake City and Soldier Hollow for the World Cup Finals. On the theme of legacy, we would be competing at the venue of the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (and there are some whispers that the Games may return very soon). While on the Island, my focus wasn't entirely on my training or prep for the Finals. Even before I left, I struggled to switch my mindset, to focus on training and soon competing. There was so much else going on with being on the Island for the Canada Games. Over the summer, I thought it was a real possibility that I wouldn't be anywhere close to my previous performance standard at any point this season. I had considered if things were too far off, maybe calling my season early, perhaps after Worlds. Well, that was far from the case as it would be. Instead, after the World Cup in Vuokatti, and World Championships in Östersund, having the most successful season of my career thus far, I led the Biathlon Overall. The Worlds had always been the targeted event of the season, the highlight. Since that was over, the remainder of the season felt like bonus racing. I was taking an approach to World Cup Finals being more chill and relaxed, but there was a job to do. Three consistent performances in the Biathlon races to secure only my second career crystal globe. Simple enough job, right?
The travel down to Salt Lake City became more adventure than routine. Right from the off, I had a delay in Charlottetown, which meant I missed my original Toronto connection to Denver, where I was supposed to meet up with the team before flying to Salt Lake City. I eventually landed in Toronto and was already rebooked onto a flight to San Francisco the following day. Good, but I would be getting into Salt Lake City very late, less and ideal. I hoped I could get something else. After a short wait and incredible help from Air Canada Customer Service, I got onto an evening flight from Toronto to San Francisco. I then had to rush a little through security and customs for the US before learning the flight was also delayed, which meant I had time to get some dinner. I was exhausted, so; I slept the entire flight to SFO. Arriving late that night, I received a hotel room and tried to get a few hours before an early morning flight from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. After a roundabout way, I finally arrived in Salt Lake City.
My time in PEI was not the ideal prep for one big reason, altitude. I spent two weeks virtually at sea level. Soldier Hollow is a little higher; it's more like 1750m. The first races were going to hurt as the body readjusted to competing at altitude. The first race in Soldier Hollow was a classic Sprint. My heels were getting stronger and could handle classic skiing, possibly even a race, but I hadn't raced classic yet this year, and I figured the other races were a better fit for what I was targeting at this World Cup.
My first race of the Finals was to be a 5km freestyle. I had no illusions this was going to and needed to hurt as I prepared for the final three Biathlon races. Soldier Hollow's signature climb right off the start would be critical. I attacked off the start line, but it was controlled, and as I rounded the top corner, I was happy with the pace and my feeling up to that point of the race. Granted, I was only maybe 300m into the race. I was smart over the rest of the course, using my strengths in the longer gliding sections and climbing well on the two steep pitches. Lapping through the stadium, I was told it was tight between four or five of us battling for the win. As I climbed that opening hill for the second and final time, I could feel it, almost questioning whether I had gone too hard. I had to fight through and get back to the rolling sections of the course to get my advantage back. It was not the prettiest race I would have there, but it did the job, and the race remained tight all the way through, ending up where I missed the win by 2.3s and was only ahead of the third by 0.1s.
As planned, the following day was a rest day and an opportunity to recover and set me up for the final Biathlon races. It was also the first day I got to use my rifle on the range there in Soldier Hollow. The first Biathlon race of the Finals was the Individual. As I write this, I realize that I have not lost an Individual this season, and I kept the record going. I gave that first climb a lot of respect. My first three laps were well-controlled. Now that was required of this course, at altitude, but it also fits my style of how I race an Individual. In my third bout of shooting, I set up well on the range, but I was a bit too unconscious and missing that extra ounce of more critical focus to ensure the hit. And I missed my first shot of the bout. My first miss in an Individual all season. That next lap, my skiing had a sense of urgency; now, I had to believe I could outski the others to make up for this missed shot. There was a little confusion about where I was sitting and who was ahead of me. I needed to focus on one more bout and get that right. Which I did, then charging into the final lap and hunting for seconds. Ultimately, I had plenty, taking a healthy lead across the finish line. I felt much better in that race; I looked and skied much better than I had the other day.
The next day was the Biathlon Sprint. I was taking a little extra pressure into this race. It was the only race I had not won this season yet. I had been very close in both previous Sprints, but I was hungry to correct that error from the earlier races. Maybe I wanted it too much. I pushed my first bout of shooting dangerously, but I got all five to go up. I settled in for the second bout and hit the first four but was rushing to get out of there. Before the pellet had left my barrel, I had started to get out of position, wanting to get back to skiing. I watched as the paddle of the target moved, beginning to come up, and I willed it to go up, but as it approached the tipping point, it paused and then fell back down. No luck that bout. The saving grace was that all my competitors had also missed in their second bouts. All square, and that let me ski my way into the lead. I felt heavier than the previous day and wasn't skiing well. I was tense. I wanted to do well, and I didn't ski relaxed, fighting too hard to do well. I accomplished the goal of winning the sprint and getting that one step closer to securing the crystal.