Former senior national biathlon coach Roddy Ward says Canadian championships are key to keeping athletes motivated to pursue the sport at the highest level
Roddy Ward doesn’t need to introduce the World Cup and Olympic Games athletes who competed at the Canadian Biathlon Championships last week at the Otway Nordic Centre.
He’s been on the national stage as a top-level coach for over a decade and has overseen the development of athletes like Sarah Beaudry, Megan Bankes, Trevor Kiers and Aidan Millar, all of whom raced in Prince George during the five day competition.
He knows how difficult it is to participate in a sport considered one of the fringe sports of Canadian culture, where most of the races take place on the other side of the world, in Europe. It’s because he’s been there.
Ward was Head Coach of Canada’s Senior National Biathlon Team from 2011-2018 and Director of Athlete Development for Biathlon Canada from 2018-2021. He coached Beaudry for three years and he knows how tough the odds are. raised against someone from Canada who makes it to an international podium or even in the top 25 against the best Europeans, mostly on their home turf, where they have the support of large, well-funded domestic programs.
“In general, biathlon is a sport that requires an incredible capacity for resilience, there are many ups and downs in a career, some years when the form is good and things are going well and other years when the athletes struggle, and everyone goes through that,” Ward said.
“You have to have that resilience and that mental toughness to keep going when things aren’t going well and definitely celebrate your successes when things are going well. Plus you have to travel the world, spend the whole winter in Europe, so it’s away from your family and friends and your normal life, so it’s tough mentally.
“They are often away for Christmas and now you throw in COVID and it’s multiplied by a hundred how difficult it is. At the highest level of the World Cup, they form a bubble, so there’s a bit more socializing, but you’re still isolated, subject to constant testing and worry about catching COVID and being in quarantine in a foreign country. It’s a concern every week.
So it was no shock to Ward when he learned that Bankes, who last month combined with Beaudry, Emma Lunder of Vernon and Emily Dickson of Burns Lake for a 10th place finish in the women’s Olympic relay, announced her retirement. at 24 years old. This is well below the age at which most biathletes reach their peak performance. Millar, 26, is getting into it too, a year after becoming one of four Canadian men to compete full-time on the World Cup circuit. He and Bankes plan to become full students this fall.
While Kiers, 25, said he wanted another shot at the Olympics, Beaudry, 27, a two-time Olympian and seven-year veteran of the top biathlon circuit with 99 World Cup starts on his curriculum vitae, has not yet made up its mind. After finishing her stint Thursday at her home tracks in Otway, she will take a month off before making that call. And if she decides she’s fired her last shot as a competitive athlete, Ward will certainly understand her reasoning.
“Sarah hasn’t said that yet, so there’s probably still a bit of fire in her,” Ward said.
“She struggled with her skiing speed this year, but her shooting was exceptional, so there are positives. Some years Saah skied very fast, but this year it was not the case. For sure, it’s a super challenging career and a tough thing to do for a long time as a Canadian, with so much travel.
Even at the highest levels, Canadians have to pay to play. They have always had to pay their own travel expenses and since Biathlon Canada’s budget was reduced after 2018, they also have to pay World Cup expenses. They receive funding from Sport Canada, but it is not enough to pay the bills.
Ward, 40, was a CBC analyst providing color commentary on biathlon at the Beijing Olympics and started his own company, Remodic, based in Canmore, where he coaches biathletes and cross-country skiers. He was in Prince George last week for the Canadian Biathlon Championships coaching the Edmonton Nordic Ski Club and the Canmore Nordic Ski Club.
Speaking on behalf of all the young biathletes who have been able to see some of the superstars of their sport compete in front of their eyes, it has been hugely beneficial, Ward said. They’ve seen firsthand what’s possible if they stick to the sport.
“The best thing Biathlon Canada can do is show up at national championships with the national biathlon team because that’s when kids across the country can see their heroes they watch all the time. time at the World Cup, and Sarah, of course, that’s it,” Ward said.
“She is so friendly. She has a wonderful personality and she always speaks to young athletes. Sarah and Aiden have been with our team skiing the course with athletes helping them test the skis, we have Zoom calls for team meetings every day and they are constantly sharing advice and the kids are learning from it .
After two years of the national biathlon championships and most other races being canceled due to the pandemic, momentum has been lost and Ward admits some of the country’s top young athletes have left the sport. But those who held on and made it to Prince George for the five-day event left the city energized with the COVID veil finally lifted.
“It’s very liberating,” Ward said. “We all had plans for locked groups and smaller team bubbles, but COVID sort of morphed in the last month. We are at the mercy of the provincial restrictions and all of a sudden these change and are lifted and things are more open. Luckily we’ve had Nationals at the moment and it feels like a normal race and the kids love it.
“We missed national championships for two years before that and that had devastating effects on young athletes. They are inspired here to play sports and they socialize and they have great races and great competitions and that makes them want to play sports another year and makes them want to train. It’s essential that we have national championships every year, it’s a huge motivator for them to stay in the sport and train to improve.