Nathan Smith went from world championship medallist to non-athletic regular person.
Mono-like symptoms cut his 2016 season short and left him unable to put forth high-intensity efforts necessary for world cup races.
“It was cytomegalovirus,” Smith said. “I felt normal in day-to-day life. But I wasn’t there when I had to push my body hard. The doctors said if I was a regular guy, I probably would have never noticed. Everyone has a bad ski day, but it felt like I was having bad ski days every time.”
Now, after nearly two years on the sidelines, Smith is back. Thus far, he’s cracked the top-30 twice, but has become frustrated watching his name yo-yo through the standings. Having been Canada’s top male biathlete, he was a frequent medal threat and he didn’t want to settle on slower times.
“The first month was really tough. I didn’t feel any progress. The next couple of months, I could notice the progression, which was pretty motivating. It was like being a beginner athlete. I’d get to see the big benefits of training early on.”
Shaving minutes off his time was motivating, but Smith wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to come back until June. Then the coaches began to see Smith returning to his best levels.
“My breakthrough was when I did a really hard training month at the end of June. I didn’t feel like I was there, but then I took a week off, and did a solo time trial and I knew it was a good performance,” Smith said.
It’s not as if the biathlon veteran lacks patience. As a developing athlete, he toiled on the IBU circuit, when Canada had fewer world cup start positions. It wasn’t until 2014 when he emerged as a medal threat.
“No one on my team has had to fight as much as me. Maybe they don’t realize that, but it’s true. I spent a long time on the IBU Cup, much longer than anyone else. I was back and forth a lot. Before the last Olympics, I had to start from scratch. I had to do everything in a month or two leading up, so it’s similar this time,” Smith said.
The time off gave him time to think, spend time with his girlfriend and explore his hobbies. He began looking into careers in forestry and set up a milling machine in his parents’ garage. He’d often start milling before lunch, and continue straight through until 8 p.m. if he wasn’t careful.
“It’s a mini-hobby one. I had fun using that, making things out of metal; I made parts for my rifle. It gets a little messy with metal flakes flying around, but it’s like anything. You learn from your mistakes. It was something to focus on, rather than sitting at home, and focusing on not racing.”
He also had time to focus on the Russian doping scandal, which made him incredibly upset since he had time to check how it affected his own results.
“The one that really bothers me is the year before the Olympics, I got a seventh place in Kontiolahti, Finland. I found out the Russian ahead of me tested positive right afterwards, so I was robbed of my first flower ceremony,” Smith said.
Own the Podium’s decision to cut Biathlon Canada funding also bothered him. He had won world cup and world championship medals, but felt the cuts discredited that.
“I’m kinda mad about it. From 2014 to 2016, my results were there. But then we were left out in the cold,” Smith said.
Having won medals, he knows they won’t come easy, but is prepared to take his best shot in PyeongChang.
“At the last Olympics, we were super successful. I am aiming at a medal, but everything has to go perfectly … to win a medal, it’s 50 per cent you, 40 per cent others and 10 per cent luck. That’s totally true.”