The title on the poster might say Canadian National Biathlon Championships and the fans might be waving the red and white flags for all the hopeful competitors, but there are some splashes of blue amongst the national uniforms out on the course. In addition to the maple leaf, there is also evidence of the Union Jack.
A contingent of athletes, coaches and officials are here from Great Britain at Canada’s pinnacle annual biathlon event to glean new techniques and practices for their own nation’s development. It’s an arrangement endorsed and partially funded by the International Biathlon Union to help raise the global bar for the sport.
There are few better places for concentrating that observation than the Caledonia Nordic Ski Centre (CNSC) located in Prince George, and not just because of the name linkages back to the United Kingdom. Thanks to fur trader Simon Fraser and the North West Company, the first colonial name for this region was New Caledonia, for its evocation of Scotland. Fraser’s North West Company fort, here, was named for George III. And now there is another royal heir toddling around Buckingham Palace who will one day be aware that there is a city in Canada that shares his name.
The CNSC ski club has been host to the 2015 Canada Winter Games and the 2019 World Para Nordic Ski Championships, among other high-level competitions, so its shooting range and ski trails are freshly appointed. It has played a developmental role for a staggering list of Olympians. It has the facilities, the coaches and the officials to show a fledgling national team how to do things. The headquarters of the outdoor complex features 30 shooting lanes and more than 65kms of ski trails, plus all the buildings and amenities to carry off world-class activities.
“There’s a saying we have back home: we’ve got six targets in the UK, three of which work,” said George West, program operations manager for Team Great Britain. “It’s laughable, really. It’s extremely limited. We have a few roller-skiing tracks, but in terms of shooting there is almost nothing.”
The UK’s biathlon aspirations are more about human assets than physical ones, so far. Head coach Scott Dixon has centred his whole life on the sport, climbing to the rank of the top biathlete in his nation. He competed on the World Cup stage, but had to self-fund most of his endeavours and that, coupled with some health issues, cost him a spot in the Olympics. He had hopes of the 2018 Winter Games but no males and only one female competitor (Amanda Lightfoot) qualified for Great Britain that year.
Dixon comes from a household famous for three things: biathlon, perseverance, and more biathlon. His father Mike competed at a staggering six Olympic Games and was Great Britain’s flag-bearer at three of them. His voice does the commentary for the Eurovision Television Network’s biathlon coverage. He still helps his son coach at their home in Aviemore, Scotland.
The junior Dixon is now dedicated to swelling the ranks of his country’s biathlon practitioners. Instead of pursuing his own Olympic dreams, he is investing himself in all of Great Britain’s aspiring biathletes.
Dixon has a contingent of eight athletes in Prince George for the Canadian nationals: five males and three females, with an age range of 15-21. Some are junior competitors identified as strong future national team candidates, and some are already there.
“We have a talent identification group, and we set that structure up in July, last year,” said West. “The first time these athletes here took up the sport was in June on roller skis. There’s not a lot of infrastructure and not a lot of funding for biathlon in the UK, but there is a lot of learning going on and a small but very dedicated community of supporters.”
West now counts himself among them, although he came only recently to the sport. He was taking business and sport science courses at Newcastle University (he is currently on his placement year) when he got the chance to work with the biathlon program under the leadership of Elizabeth Winfield, the secretary general of the British Biathlon Union. His father used to Nordic ski while in the army (the military is a common thread for many of the UK biathletes over the years), so there was at least a tenuous connection he is now strengthening daily.
West is helping to arrange for one of the British athletes to set up a training residency in Lillehammer. Another member has Canadian dual citizenship and so is in Calgary for training there. One is in the army and thus has a bit of funding the others don’t have. While they wait and work towards a quality base of operations of their own, it is a regimen of cobbling together a national program in bits and bites. They have been to Germany and Norway already, in recent months, to train their athletes, and now it’s Canada’s turn to give them a boost.
“It’s amazing for them to be here,” said West. “You can’t ask for anything more, in terms of the experiences they’re getting here. It’s been a wonderful welcome we’ve received and here at the Caledonia club, Scott says it’s one of the best facilities he’s ever been at, anywhere.”
All these athletes on Team Great Britain come from some other primary sport. Some were rowers, one is currently the third-ranked cross-country runner in the UK, so even without a wintery upbringing, West says the group has strong endurance and advanced sports mentality. Their skiing is their strong suit, so far, and trips like this one will get them deeper into shooting, “and they love it.”
Caledonia Nordic Ski Club coach Ali Cadell was assigned to shepherd the UK squad around their Prince George training endeavours, and she agrees that “they were actually stronger than we expected” on the track.
“It’s been pretty awesome having them,” Cadell said. “They are having a blast, and I know they’re here because their national program is sort of just emerging and we’re supposedly better at the moment, but when we brought them to the range you should have heard our kids go ‘oooooh’ like they were a bunch of superstars, because they were a national team, which is totally fair. And Team Great Britain thought our people were superstars, there’s some real talent in our club, so it was a great back-and-forth, going on.”
One of those up-and-coming talents is Cadell’s 15-year-old daughter Iona who said that she was also benefitting from proximity to Team Great Britain, even though she would be one of the UK’s strongest biathletes if the ski-boots were on the other foot.
“I’ve never trained with someone from another country before, so it was just cool to be around them,” said Iona. “Getting different perspectives on the sport, meeting new people, that’s all fun.”
Adding to the fun was the coincidence of the Cadell family’s background. Coach Ali was born and raised in Scotland, first in Inverness then in Dundee. Halfway between those towns on the A9 Highway is the small town of Aviemore. “My stomping grounds were up the Cairn Gorms (mountain range) at Aviemore,” she said, listing off a bunch of places and memories from the unofficial hometown of UK biathlon.
Who knows? Maybe she subliminally encountered the Scott family out there in the mountains of her youth. If not, fate still cut a trail all the way to Prince George where Team Great Britain is upping their game even taller than the Scottish Highlands.