In nearly a decade as an international biathlete and dozens of trips to exotic destinations to race with the best in the world, only rarely has Megan Tandy competed in her home country.
Next February, for the first time since she flew the flag at the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Olympics, Tandy is coming home. She'll be racing a nine-hour winter drive away from her home in Prince George when the World Cup tour comes to Canmore, Feb. 1-7.
"That's really cool, I'm not the only one excited about racing on home turf," said Tandy. "Of course I have to be performing well enough that I'm still on the World Cup team by February and healthy. We have the World Cup in Canmore and right after in Presque Isle, Maine. That's two World Cups in North America and that doesn't happen too often."
Tandy, who has reverted to her maiden name with the breakup of her marriage, spent the past two weeks training in Prince George and on Monday returned with her five-year-old son to their home in Germany. She'll be competing in roller ski biathlon events this months in Germany and Austria, preparing for the World Cup season opener Nov. 27 in Idre, Sweden.
The 2014-15 season was a career-best for Tandy. She finished 37th overall in the World Cup standings, posted four top-16 World Cup finishes, was the top Canadian at the world championships and nailed a career-high 11th-place World Cup result in Germany. With the next Olympics less than three years away, Tandy feels her best is yet to come.
"I feel more motivated than ever before," said the 26-year-old Tandy. "I'm entering the phase now for the average podium age for females, which is 28. It takes a long time to put it all together.
"I know I have the power and the fitness to compete with the top 15 in the world and this year I'm going to focus on improving my ski technique and I'll see what that can bring. I was 11th last season in a sprint in Ruhpolding and that was cool race because I had one miss and I also had the 11th-fastest ski time. There were a few races like that, where my ski time ranked in the top 16 and that was also motivating. If I'm able to shoot 85 per cent and have a top-16 ski time then I'm there as a regular contender fighting for the podium. It is realistic. If there's a chance for me to perform in the top-10, on the podium, that time is coming now."
What makes Tandy's accomplishments last season even more remarkable is she did it on a bare-bones budget, living on national team funding of $1,500 per month training half a world away from her Canadian teammates while in the midst of an ugly battle to retain custody on her son Predo.
Tandy separated from husband Ilmar Heinicke, a former B.C. provincial biathlon coach, in September 2014 after four years of marriage while living in Germany, where he works as a national development team coach. A German courtroom ruled this spring Predo must remain in the small town of Klingental, where Heinicke lives and shares land with his parents, who look after him when his father is away on ski trips. When she's not racing, Tandy has custody every second week for 4 1/2 days.
"There's been a lot of stress in the past year and it wasn't healthy for me as a person, an athlete or a mother, but now things have settled and I'm happy and I'll definitely be in Germany for my time with my son," said Tandy. "Different regions of Germany have different rules and unfortunately, a shared custody model isn't recognized in that part of the country, so no judge has the power to force parents into such an arrangement."
Despite the stress of her court battle, Tandy was able to put aside her family troubles and stay positive on the World Cup tour and it showed in her results. She was much happier with her life than she'd been the previous year and her shooting accuracy was unprecedented.
"The biggest factor is I was doing it for myself again," she said. "I had a few years there where I was very performance-driven, even though I wasn't delivering the results I wanted. The intrinsic motivation was kind of gone and at first when we split I was wondering if I was even going to continue. But I really wanted to do it and it made difference last season. It all came from myself because I want to see myself have good results."
Already a two-time Olympian, the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea is on Tandy's radar. In Sochi in 2014, she shot 10-for-10 in the relay and had the Canadian team one spot away from a medal position. Now she wants to prove she's ready to take that step on her own.
"In a way, Vancouver was my experience Olympics, I was really young and I wasn't a contender," she said. "In Sochi I put myself under so much pressure I took away my own ability in my personal races to do my best and it was only in the relay when there were no more chances with my own results that I was able to relax enough to put together the performance I trained to do.
"After all these years I know so many things about myself now I didn't know before -- not just training philosophy but things about nutrition and how I travel, and what kind of race preparation I need to do. The more you figure out the better your chances."
Tandy's summer training centre is in Ruhpolding, Germany, 450 kilometres from her home, where she shared the benefits of being there for a spring camp attended by the Ukrainian and German national teams.
"It gives you something to measure against and there are days when you feel great, that you are on the right path," she said. "People talk about the biathlon family and it's never felt more true to me than this year. In Germany I feel very welcomed and integrated in the teams that are there."
Tandy's teammates did their part to make the 2014-15 season memorable. Nathan Smith of Calgary put the Canadian team in uncharted territory when he won silver at a sprint race at the world championships in Finland, then won World Cup gold two weeks later in the pursuit in Russia. Rosanna Crawford of Canmore cracked the top 10 four times and was fourth in the sprint in Slovenia. It was also a year in which Sarah Beaudry of Prince George made her World Cup debut.
Despite the team's success, there's no additional funding available for any of the Canadian team and Tandy is basically on her own trying to attract sponsors just to help cover her training team fee, which ranges from $3,000-$6,000. The National Firearms Association has been sponsoring Tandy since 2010 and she also gets help from the now-defunct Barnett Rifle Club of Burnaby and the Canadian Athletes Now Fund. Her decision on whether to shoot for an Olympic team spot in 2018 will depend on if her funding continues. Her national A-level carding ends after this season and she will have to post at least a top-eight finish at world championships to retain it.
"This year, the bank of Mom (Heather) and Dad (Ed) has helped a lot, but they won't fund another three years of biathlon and I would never expect or ask them to," she said. "That was a big disappointment for the whole team this year, that we didn't didn't have more overall funding. It was a really strong season for the Canadian team and the change in funding was not what we feel we earned. I will choose, as long as I don't get injured, to have essentially no physio and massage because it's something I can't afford right now."
Tandy's coach in Europe is Knut Tore Berland, who headed the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club biathlon program in 2005-06. Berland now coaches a group of biathletes on the cusp of the Norwegian national team and Tandy has already benefited from the relationship. She and the Canadian team went to Norway in August for two-week summer training camp with Berland, with more camps to come this fall.
"He's been a mentor for me and has openly offered advice for me whenever I've asked for it and asked him this spring to be my coach," she said. "The biggest help it gives me is confidence, he's giving me all the outlines for the training plan and how many minutes every month of which activity I need to do and at what heart rate and we have a great system."
Now fluent in German, Tandy is working on her masters degree in sport management at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.