It wasn’t the first time Jean-Philippe Le Guellec had experienced the heart-pumping exhilaration of being a world-beater.
The Canadian was only 18 when he first realized he could succeed in biathlon, a challenging sport dominated by Europeans. That’s when Le Guellec won his first sprint race at a youth world championship. The feelings came rushing back when he stunned the field similarly at age 27, this past December, becoming the first Canadian male biathlete to win a World Cup gold medal.
It’s been a long road in this highly difficult sport, but Le Guellec is proving when he shoots clean and skis his fastest, he is a serious contender on the world stage.
He placed sixth in the sprint at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, a few spots shy of the podium, and finished in the top 15 in his other events there. He emerged from Whistler’s trails believing he was about to join the elite. But then a lengthy illness derailed his training regimen for nearly two seasons and left him clamouring to catch up. He’s finally back to full capacity now and has improved many facets of his performance.
No Canadian has earned an Olympic medal in biathlon since Myriam Bédard’s double gold-medal showing in Lillehammer in 1994. But in Sochi next February, in his third and final Games, Le Guellec could be on target to make it happen.
The native of Shannon, Que., was 13 when his mother introduced him to biathlon. She had been a marksman shooter and got him involved in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets, where she co-ordinated a biathlon program. He wasn’t crazy about the cross-country skiing part, but firing a rifle fascinated him.
His passion for the sport and competition grew. He followed up that youth sprint victory with another as a junior, opening his eyes to the possibilities.
“It was my first glimpse that North Americans can also be present and dominant in a sport that is dominated by Europeans, Scandinavians,” the 5-foot-7, 138-pound Le Guellec said. “Ever since then, I have been working to repeat that feat.”
In his Olympic debut, at the 2006 Turin Olympics, he finished 61st in the 10-kilometre sprint and 48th in the 20-km individual event. So his sixth-place finish at the 2010 Games surprised many.
“I thought an Olympics in his home country would be difficult for him, but he was at ease, comfortable and happy, not feeling pressure, so he pulled off a great result,” said his coach, Jean Paquet. “He has a great blueprint for the Olympics.”
But in the year following the 2010 Olympics, instead of surging upward, he was constantly overwhelmed by an unshakeable fatigue in training and competition. He recalled a race when he was so lethargic, that he was passed by a competitor who had started the race more than two minutes after he had.
Blood tests showed he had mononucleosis. He needed 2 1/2 months completely away from training to regain health. Then, he began the agonizingly slow process of getting back into exercise.
“I started with a slow session on roller-skis, and my heart rate was way up at race pace even though I was barely at a walking pace,” Le Guellec recalled. “It was a very frustrating experience, especially after the good results I had in Vancouver. It was like being kicked in the groin and moving backwards while everyone else was moving forward. My system was shot, and I had to rebuild from the ground up.”
It took until the summer of 2012 for Le Guellec to return to his full training load. And, by consulting experts and changing his training, he has improved greatly since Vancouver. His better speed and efficiency on skis is especially apparent when he compares it to a video of his performance at the 2010 Games.
He recently worked with retired Swedish cross-country skier Peter Larsson, a sprint specialist with six World Cup victories to his credit. They made drastic changes to his technique so he can ski more efficiently and have more burst left for the final lap.
The Canadian has also spent time training with biathletes from France, who are top world competitors. He adopted some of their shooting techniques to help him steady his breathing after racing into the shooting range, in order to streamline his movements between targets and improve shooting success. He had a perfect shooting performance in his World Cup victory in Sweden, avoiding any penalty laps that come from missed shots. He sees perfect shooting as crucial if he wants to make the Olympic podium in such an ultra-competitive sport.
Le Guellec will compete on the high-altitude Sochi Olympic course in March, at a World Cup event. Paquet’s early impressions from photos and video suggest it may favour the light Canadian, who excels on steep hills.
“I have seen that it’s possible for me to be on the podium, but at the same time, I haven’t been on the podium again since my World Cup win, which goes to show there is absolutely no margin for error,” said Le Guellec, who intends to retire after Sochi and start a family with his wife, Michelle. “You cannot miss any targets and you have to be totally on the ball with your skis, too. If I can do that, results will follow.”