After three misses on the biathlon range, Collin Cameron knew he had to put the hammer down to crank out a podium finish on Day 1 of the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships.
As he made his way around the men’s 12.5-kilometre sit-ski course Saturday at Otway Nordic Centre, driving all his might into his poles to conquer the climbs and gut out the downhill corners, Cameron’s 30-year-old engine did not let him down.
He didn’t have quite enough kick at the end to knock Taras Rad of the Ukraine out of gold-medal position but a silver-medal start to begin Cameron’s second world championships was more than enough to make his day.
“This is my best result in this race, my first-ever silver so it’s pretty nice to add to my collection,” said Cameron, who had throngs of his hometown fans in Bracebridge, Ont., glued to their computer screens watching the live webcast of his race.
“The conditions were really nice today and competing at home (in Canada) is amazing. Last year when we the World Cup in Canmore I wasn’t feeling great and I think the altitude was bugging me a bit so I’m super-stoked to come here and do my best in front of a home crowd.
“It’s definitely different than going over to Europe. You’re at home, everyone is rooting for you, whether it’s locals from P.G. or everyone back home in Bracebridge or Sudbury.”
Rad covered the course in 43 minutes 15 seconds, followed by Cameron (44:55.9). Euihyum Shin of Korea won bronze (45:02.7). Derek Zoplotinsky of Smokey Lake, Alta., was ninth (50:22.7). He missed four of 20 targets.
Cameron’s third shooting round was his only clean round. He had one miss in each of the other three bouts on the range.
“I made up time on the snow,” he said. “The team gave me some wicked-fast skis today – everyone giving me splits said I had really good skis and I just tried to lay it down out there and keep it together.”
Cameron was feeling no ill effects from getting sick last month which forced him to miss the team training camp in Canmore.
“I had no expectations for me here, just being sick, I just wanted to come out and race and do my best at home in Canada,” he said. “This feels good.”
Cameron started ski racing just three years ago and won three bronze medals at the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, finishing third in the 15 km and 7.5 km biathlon and third in the cross-country open relay. He won his first gold medal at the 2017 world championships in Germany. He credits his success to the work he’s put into his sport with coach John Jakes.
Cameron was born with arthrogryposis, which causes a shortening of the lower limbs, and under-development of leg muscles and tendons. He’s unable to bend at the knees. Before he took up skiing, Cameron was a prolific goalscorer in sledge hockey for the Northern Sliders club team in Sudbury.
On what turned out an exceptional day for the Ukrainian team, Rad was perfect on the range Saturday, hitting all 20 targets in the four rounds and avoided the 100-metre penalty loops which add time.
“This is my first-ever gold medal at the world championship because last time I got a silver medal and of course I’m happy to be the winner at the first-ever (men’s) race here in Prince George,” said Rad, through an interpreter.
“I just followed the instructions of my coach and tried to do everything clean and perfect on the range. Thank God I could do that, because it’s not very easy in the cold weather. My skis were perfectly (waxed) but the weather is really cold here and it’s difficult conditions for all of us.”
The start temperature was around -12 C under light flurries, but a light breeze dropped the wind chill factor close to -20 C. The wind started whipping up right around the time the first women sit-skiers pulled into the range for their fourth and final round and it threw world points leader Kendall Gretsch of Chicago, Ill., off her game.
She cleaned the first three shooting rounds but missed four of five in her final round and that knocked off the top rung of the podium. Her American teammate, Oksana Masters, missed two targets in the last round but hung on to claim the first gold medal of the championships, winning the 10 km race in 41:35.7.
“The last stage, the shots felt great but the wind picked up more so than I thought and I missed my first two and, honestly, I backed off because I know Kendall never misses a shot,” said Masters.
“My focus is cross-country skiing and I just thought maybe I won’t hammer it, but in biathlon (with staggered start times) you never know where you are and what someone else is doing or what’s happening in other shooting stages. I came across our coach (Gary Colliander) and he said, ‘Kendall missed four, you’re still in it.’ But I knew she skis fast and I just tried to ski good and smooth and not fall. It came down to a shooting game in the end.”
Gretsch clocked 42:23.9 while bronze medalist Andrea Eskau of Germany finished in 45:07.8.
“The last stage the wind picked up and I just didn’t adjust enough for it,” said Gretsch. “It was a bit of bummer at the end. Until the last stage we were about 10 seconds apart, it was tight between us which makes it fun when you’re racing.
“We have a smaller field here, there’s only four people (in the women’s biathlon sit-ski class) and it’s nice when you can still have a close race. It’s nice to have someone you’re close with be competitive with.”
Masters, 29, spent the first 7 ½ years of her life in an orphanage in Khmelnitsky, Ukraine. She was born with birth defects caused by radiation which left her with webbed fingers without thumbs and without shinbones in either leg. Eventually she had both legs amputated above the knee. She came to the States when she was adopted by a single mother and grew up in Louisville, Ky.
Masters took up rowing as a young teen and became the first American to win a medal in the sport at the 2012 Paralympics in London. In Pyeongchang last year she won five medals, despite a fall during the long biathlon race and injured her elbow. Masters now lives in Illinois with her boyfriend, sit-skier Aaron Pike, who was fifth in the men’s race Saturday.
Masters was cheering on Pike and fellow American Daniel Cnossen, the current World Cup points leader, but also was happy to see Rad, a fellow Ukrainian, win his race.
“Some of their coaches are cheering me on, which is so cool, but I don’t think they will be giving me their secrets in biathlon,” she said. “I want them to succeed as well.
“I lost my language (Russian) when I came (to the U.S.) and no one else spoke it around me. My goal is to learn it.”
Gretsch, 26, was born with spina bifida and grew up as a swimmer. She competes in triathlon and qualified for the 2016 Summer Paralympics but triathlon was a demonstration sport in Rio her classification was not among the recognized medal sports. It will be a medal sport in Tokyo in 2020 and she plans to be there flying her country’s stars and stripes.
See the Citizen's website for more coverage from today's races later.