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The Weight of Expectations

Expectations are a powerful aspect for any athlete. The weight of expectation can be too much and drown a performance before you even enter the field of play. But expectations can focus energy to a razer's edge and produce historical performances. Some expectations can be freeing, while others create dread. I thought about expectations on a few occasions throughout the past year. Let's not even talk about expectations, and before March, that's a whole other ball game. Having surgery as I did, one of the most important things I needed from the beginning was realistic expectations. And throughout the summer, I had to constantly adjust those expectations based on how everything was progressing. As I mentioned in an earlier update, my expectations were very low or non-existent a few weeks ago. And so, for this first World Cup, I had built my confidence to the point where I believed I could complete the races (at least the ones I chose to compete in), but I had no idea how they might go. I most definitely was not expecting anywhere in my 'normal' or 'usual' results. I would expect to perform regardless of what I might be capable of for results. I went through my race day procedure, warm-up and recovery to maximize performance. I always have control over that, and I strive to get the utmost out of those performance elements any chance I get.

The 2022-23 season-opening World Cup was in Vuokatti, Finland. A familiar venue, playing host to three Cross-Country races. Two classic races; 5km and 10km. The remaining race was a Freestyle Sprint. As well there were four Biathlon races. Sprint, Middle and Individual and we would be testing out a new Team Sprint Relay format. All this over nine days. My expectation of classic racing, which I love, is that I will not be competing in Finland in either classic race. The body isn't ready, nor have I done enough classic skiing. Though it was a hard decision to accept, it was easy to make. That left the Sprint. Not that sprinting speed has ever been in my ability. The race would provide an excellent opportunity for some prep intensity for later Biathlon races. I've done very few Freestyle Sprints, so there were some hesitations. The night before (I mean afternoon, but it was already dark, and we were under the lights, so I'm going to say night), my coach and I had broken down the track into sections on where to chill and where to go. We had done a couple of laps, testing tactics and prepping the body for the Sprint. On Sprint day, I prepared well and set myself up well to perform in the qualifier. I had no idea how this was going to go. As I was doing my qualifier, I remember thinking I could have done that better or I needed to adjust that to ski it better. I had a feeling I had made several small mistakes. I could do better; I could be faster. That said, I had the fastest time in the qualifier—a big surprise. Again, I went into the heats, not sure what to expect. I didn't plan my day to go much further than the qualifier. I can't say I have a ton of experience with Sprints either to blindly rely upon. I made a few tactical errors in the first heat and would end up fourth in the heat (top-3 move on). So, I ended up in seventh for the day. Now, not that I had any clue as to what I could expect from myself, but from my feeling in the qualifier and the constant hunger of wanting more, I was a little disappointed in failing to reach the final. But that was a start I could quietly take some pointers from, good and bad.

I would get a day off for official training before the first Biathlon race of the season. The season started with an Individual. My only expectations were to control how I shot. The rest was a big question mark. That was exactly what I did—kicking off the year with a clean 20 for 20. Now a few of those were not pretty or perfect shots, but they all went up in the end, and that is what counts. The surprise was my skiing, in a good way. That was one of my best races ever. I had amazing skis, so thanks to the techs for those. It makes the rest so much easier. I was skiing with a lot of power, but very relaxed, not panicking. I wasn't tense at all. Not only could I hear very positive splits as I was surging ahead, but I could see I was catching all the skiers ahead of me and was opening the gap to those that started behind me. That race was something very different and extraordinary.

A couple of days later would be my next race. Compared to the Individual, oh, this was the opposite. The Individual was relaxing in the end; this Middle was a lot of work. Most of my own doing. The race was the tale of two halves. The first half was an example of what not to do in a Biathlon race. I started the race skiing with tension and tightness. After the first race, I was putting a great sense of expectation on myself to repeat the performance and the result. On the range was where I was doing most of the damage - to myself. I missed my first shot in the first bout, which was not a promising start. On the range for my second bout, that was even worse. I caught myself thinking about the others and how their shooting was going. By catching myself thinking of the others I broke my own attention, and I missed my next two shots. This wasn't good. I was three misses on ten shots. I skied my second and third penalty loops, very angry at myself. And I said then and there I was not going to fall any further. I strangely relaxed and went faster at the same time. I halted the freefall down the results skiing the third lap; now, I had to do the same on the range. As I got into position for my third shooting bout, I took a deliberate extra, deep breath. I was bringing myself to the present and refocusing my energy. It worked; I cleaned that bout and the final bout. I slowly clawed my way back to the top with my skiing. And after making it very hard on myself, having to refocus and ski my way back into contention. I succeeded and would win my second race in a row—a feat I had never achieved yet in my career.

Soon enough, it was the final race of the World Cup, a Biathlon Sprint. Now I was thinking, hoping and expecting. I only raced a few times this season so far and my training had been anything but ordinary, so it caught up to me. I felt heavy, nowhere as light and efficient as I had the days earlier. But I could feel the power was still there; though I couldn't tap into the speed of movement I needed to be at my best. It was an exciting race. I didn't start the race that well, while others did. I would keep my focus and clean the race, hitting all ten targets. After the frustrating shooting performance in the Middle, I had a score to settle. My clean shooting had earned me the leading position as I left the range after the second bout. But over the final lap, a competitor charged hard, and I didn't have the spark or energy to combat it. I had to settle for second place by 1.9 seconds.

That was, without a doubt, the best result-based World Cup in my career. Winning the Sprint Qualifier, back-to-back wins in Biathlon and a close second. All from a World Cup, and for that matter, a season, I wasn't sure what to expect. There are countless contributions to performance—the little focused work on my skating technique or the efficiency of working on only one technique. The time off, or less impactful training, whatever it might have been, it’s remarkable, and now I go and build upon this start. I believe that expectations are a powerful tool for an athlete. A tool capable of destroying or nurturing a performance. It's up to you to decide what it does!

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