Catching up to the pack
Brad Saunders only took up the sport of biathlon two years ago, but already is one of Canada’s top up and coming athletes in the sport.
At the North American Roller Ski Biathlon Championships in Jericho, Vt., he brought back silver in both the 7.5-kilometre sprint and the 10-kilometre pursuit in the 17-18 division earlier this month.
Up next is qualification for the 2015 Canada Winter Games in Prince George, but until then he is putting in a lot of hours on the highway, driving back and forth to Canmore for training twice a week and to races on the weekends.
On Friday Saunders, 17, was taking part in the Red Deer is Ready rally as the city put forth its best collective step in the bidding process for the 2019 Canada Winter Games.
“I’m new to the sport, everyone else I’m racing against has been doing it since they were five or six, so I’m the new guy and playing catch up, but it seems to be going well so far,” said the Hunting Hills High School Grade 12 student.
The sport of biathlon combines cross-country skiing and the rifle shooting. For Saunders, it allowed him to combine his love of skiing and cadets — though he is admits he is much better at the skiing part than hitting targets.
Roller skiing is a very similar sport to its winter cousin, and most serious biathletes use it to train and prepare during the summer.
“It’s a real good indicator as to what will come during the season,” he said.
“It’s a good start.”
Though he was excited about his performances in Vermont at the North American championships from Aug. 9-10, the opportunity to be able to see world class biathletes compete up close was almost as important.
“It’s really cool just getting to watch those guys ski and the see different techniques and how they come into the range and different rage procedures and picking and choosing and trying stuff out to see what works best for you,” said Saunders.
Red Deer has a history of elite biathlon competitors, specifically, three-time Olympian Zina Kocher, who is busy training for this season’s World Cup circuit.
She does see Saunders compete off and on throughout the year, and though she does not work with him — she is usually competing in Europe — she does say it’s important to see these young athletes developing behind her.
“It’s really exciting. It starts really slow, and it’s just one person, but it’s good that there has been a couple of others that have gone into biathlon and we have a great cross-country skiing program as well,” said Kocher who was also on hand for the Red Deer is Ready rally.
If Red Deer does get the Canada Games in 2019, one of the sports that really would benefit would be biathlon. Though there is a facility here, it is not to the standard to develop elite biathletes. Most serious biathletes end up moving to Canmore or doing the long commute like Saunders.
However, Kocher says the facility does have potential to reach that level.
“Honestly, it’s not very much to get it to be a facility that young teenagers could be using and training,” she said. “The range does need some updating, but we also need people who can be there and coach and a range official and metal targets that are workable and usable.”
Its currently a three-hour drive each way to Canmore to train for two hours for Saunders, usually in bad winter roads. But it is a sacrifice he understands he has to make.
“I’d much rather train here, but we don’t have the facility or the coaching here, so Canmore is where I have to go,” he said. “If we do get the bid, they’ve already talked about putting in a new range, so that’s a good indicator that we could get a biathlon club here. If skiing doesn’t work for me, then I know I’m going to go into coaching and coach biathlon and hopefully get a club set up here.”