Biathletes like their chances

Canada’s biathletes are counting on the sport’s unpredictability — and a dose of wet, mucky snow — as possible routes to surprise podium finishes as competitions begin this weekend.

WHISTLER, B.C. — Canada’s biathletes are counting on the sport’s unpredictability — and a dose of wet, mucky snow — as possible routes to surprise podium finishes as competitions begin this weekend.

Medal hopefuls Jean-Philippe Le Guellec of Quebec City and Zina Kocher of Red Deer were praising the thick, wet flakes falling on the course Thursday, hoping it becomes one more element to help Canada crack European domination of biathlon.

Le Guellec, a 24-year-old with a shining smile and light build, is known to “float” over the snow when it’s thick and messy, and he’s backed by a waxing technician team that is arguably the most experienced in the world on Callaghan Valley’s warm and variable conditions.

Not since 1994’s Games in Lillehammer, when Myriam Bedard pulled off two golds and a bronze, has Canada had such opportunities for a medal in this shooting and skiing sport, he argues.

“It’s definitely a possibility. The trail here and the way the whole system is set up, anything can happen for anyone,” he said after training in the moist snow that fell throughout Thursday.

On Saturday, Kocher races 7.5 kilometres in an attempt to qualify for the pursuit race, and then on Sunday Le Guellec follows up with a 10-kilometre qualifier for the men’s 12.5-kilometre pursuit.

Le Guellec notes that with the close fields at this level, a single missed shot — requiring a 150-metre penalty loop — can make the difference between an also-ran and close contention.

A good position for Le Guellec would be to qualify for one of the top 15 positions in the team pursuit. He said he can catch up to the competition as long as he’s within a minute of the first skier to leave the gates.

From there, it’s all about smooth, strong skiing on a fast course, and then improved shooting from the World Cup season — which included several outings where Le Guellec missed a series of targets and fell from contention.

Kocher, meanwhile, was reminding reporters that no waxing team is more used to the heavy, wet snow conditions than Canada’s.

Word of more flakes on the way is actually good news, as the Canadian tech team has devised methods to make some of the fastest skis in the valley.

Tom Zidec, the 34-year-old head technician, from Canmore, said the wax team has spent months on the course.

“I guess what we’re hoping for is a diversity of conditions. The more it changes, the more people have to be on their toes,” he said. “If it stabilizies and stays the same, then everybody gets the chance to catch up. If it’s always changing they don’t know what skis to grab.”

Kocher has scored a fourth place in the World Cup circuit before Christmas, and seems poised for a breakthrough after coming off several prior seasons where her health was poor. Le Guellec has had a top 10 and went as high as seventh the season before on the World Cup.

“I’m back where I was in the third week of December, and maybe a little higher,” said Kocher.