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Team Canada off to great start at Para Biathlon World Championships

Mark Arendz setting bar high in standing category, Salmon Arm's Natalie Wilkie also posts two podium finishes this week at Otway Nordic Centre

So far it’s been quality over quantity for Canada at the Para Biathlon World Championships.

Although the host country has just four athletes participating in the four days of competition this week at Otway Nordic Centre, the Canadian team has performed exceptionally well, with three gold medals and two bronze.

Standing skier Mark Arendz of Charlottetown, P.E.I., has set the bar high, winning the men's standing class 7.5 km race on Wednesday and the 12.5 km event on Thursday.

“Obviously Mark’s been in really good shape this year, he’s been tearing it up on the World Cup circuit,” said Canadian team head coach Brian McKeever, prior to the start of the competition this week.

“He was three-for-three in biathlon (in Martell, Italy). He had surgery to have bone spurs shaved off his heels a year and a half ago and wasn’t able to classic ski all of last year. But he came back for his first classic race in the World Cup season-opener and won it. It’s a big relief for all of us to see his recovery has come full-circle and we’re seeing the benefits now.”

Racing resumes Saturday at 10 a.m. with the biathlon sprint pursuits, followed on Sunday at 10 by the team sprints. Race loops are short so much of the action will take place on the range and in the stadium area, which makes both races interesting for spectators.

Standing skier Natalie Wilkie of Salmon Arm shared gold with Ukrainian Luidmyla Liashenko in the 7.5 km race and captured bronze in the 12.5 km on Thursday, while Brittany Hudak of Saskatoon was the standing women’s bronze medalist on opening day and fourth in the 12.5 km race.

Like Arendz, they’ve already posted podium finishes at World Cups this season, as has sit-skier Derek Zaplotinsky of Smoky Lake, Alta. He was fourth on Wednesday and ninth on Thursday, coming off two bronze medals in cross-country in Toblach, Italy in late January.

Having the championships in Canada is a bonus for the team.

“We travel a lot and we’re used to being on the road and it’s so rare to be able to compete at home, said McKeever. “We’ve got a couple B.C. originals here. Natalie’s from Larch Hills, Salmon Arm, and we’ve got Ethan Hess, from Pemberton, coming in for the World Cup Finals.”

With so many ski areas all over the world lacking snow this season, the Canadians have been fortunate to have their training base at Canmore Nordic Centre, site of the 1988 Winter Olympics, which has snowmaking capabilities. The Rockies did get natural snow fairly early in the fall and the team was able to train uninterrupted through the winter.

“We’ve been lucky in Canmore with the artificial snow and we had decent temperatures that stayed,” said McKeever. “That corridor from Canmore to Lake Louise is pretty much the only reliable snow in Canada this year.

“Looking at the webcams in P.G. a month ago it was a little thin, but at least Morther Nature’s cooperating now. The Caledonia club and the organizers have done a fantastic on here. We always know the event will go off really well. We have fresh snow and artificial snow and the course is in amazing shape.”

The cold weather and snowfalls just before the races firmed up the classic ski tracks, which especially suits some of the sit-skiers because the track usually runs faster than the freestyle trail.  

“It’s nice and firm and that’s really good for the sit-skiing, they don’t necessarily rely on the tracks but it’s nice to have them and they have the option of being in or out,” said McKeever. “When you’ve got such a variety of disabilities and ability levels, we’ve got Derek Zaplotinsky who has quite a high break and doesn’t have a lot of abs or back muscles so there’s less stability for him than somebody who’s a double amputee that still had full core and hip flexors.

“We have the percentage system that makes the adjustments for that so we have a fair race, but it’s still based on having reasonably good conditions for everybody that makes it a fair race.”

Sit-skier Collin Cameron, a native of Bracebridge, Ont., who won gold in the 12.5 km biathlon event at the 2019 Para Nordic World Championships in Prince George, has had health issues to deal with but plans to make his season debut on Wednesday for the start the Para Nordic World Cup Finals, also being hosted at Otway.

Cameron’s partner, sit-skier Christina Picton, is also on the 11-athlete Canadian team for next week, as are sit-skiers Hess, Lyne-Marie Bilodeau and Leo Sammarelli.  

The four Canadians competing this week in the Para Biathlon events will also race next week, as will standing skier Emma Archibald and vision-impaired skier Jesse Bachinski.