Canada’s Para Nordic Team Takes a Bite Out of Two Golds and a Bronze Medal at World Championships
OESTERSUND, Swe.— Canada’s Para Nordic Team are heading to a burger joint tonight in Sweden to celebrate a record-breaking week at the World Championships after adding two golds and a bronze on Friday in the 12.5-kilometre individual race.
Natalie Wilkie (Salmon Arm, B.C.) won her third World Championship title of the week in the women’s standing event. Mark Arendz (Hartsville, P.E.I.) snagged his second-straight victory, while Christina Picton (Fonthill, Ont.) shocked the world to claim her first podium in the women’s sit-ski race at the premier event in a non-Olympic year, winning the bronze.
The triple medal day brings the Canadian Team’s total to 13 with two races to go. Their previous best World Championship medal haul was 10 at the 2019 competition in Prince George, B.C.
“It has definitely been a fun week as a team. The medals are obviously great, but just to see the entire team perform so well is awesome to see,” said Wilkie, the youngest member of the squad. “Derek (Zaplotinsky) is having some of his best ever results and Christina winning her first World Championship medal today is exciting. It is super cool to have so much success together. We are going to enjoy this by all of us heading out for burgers tonight as a team.”
Wilkie has earned her right to a burger or two – maybe even a milkshake – after a dominant week that has seen the soft-spoken Canuck rattle off three gold medal performances to go along with a second-place finish on some of the most difficult courses on the Para Nordic circuit.
The emerging nordic star kicked off the triumphant week by celebrating her 22nd birthday with her first World Championship biathlon title in the short distance race. She topped that performance with a near perfect race on Friday.
The two-time Paralympian was flawless on the range, knocking down all 20 shots, and lightning-quick on the boards to clock a time of 38:11.5.
“It is definitely cool to win my second biathlon title here,” said Wilkie. “At the start of the race I was a bit frustrated because my shooting times were quite slow, and it was showing on the splits, but I know the race isn’t won in the first shooting.”
The 12.5-kilometre individual race puts a premium on shooting, with one-minute penalties added to the total time for every missed shot.
Patient and steady, Wilkie was perfect in each of her first three stops at the range, leaving the last round of shooting and her fifth spin around the hilly and technical 2.4-kilometre loop to determine the medals.
“It came down to last lap. The Ukraine athletes both missed so taking a bit longer in the range today really paid off for me,” said Wilkie. “I shot clean again and went as fast as I could and was able to open up a bigger gap.”
Ukraine’s Bohdana Konashuk was second at 38:36.9 (0+0+0+1). Liudmyla Liashenko (Ukraine) was third at 39:11.6 (1+0+0+2). Brittany Hudak, of Prince Albert, Sask., missed one shot in her final bout, dropping her to fourth with a time of 40:14.4 (0+0+0+1).
Wilkie, who has racked up seven cross-country ski medals at the last two Paralympic Games, has quickly developed into an all-around podium threat each time she hits the line in Para Nordic competitions.
“My biathlon success earlier this year in Finland gave me the belief that I can do it. I just have to stay focused on the shooting, stay patient, and it is possible,” said Wilkie, who has been thriving on the punishing Swedish course.
“If feels hillier here with every single race. It is a really fun course, lots of hills, twisty downhills and super fun corners which is one of my strengths. But I think what the best is this is the same course able bodied skiers race on so it makes us feel so legit. Our entire team is so fit. We all put a lot of work in to prepare for this, and that hard work is showing this week.”
Canada’s Para Nordic biathlon ace, Mark Arendz, also earned himself a couple of cheeseburgers tonight.
The 32-year-old snagged his fifth World Championship title and second-straight, winning the men’s standing 12.5-kilometre race.
“I took what worked very well for me two days ago in the middle-distance race. I was steady at the start and built throughout the race,” said Arendz after skiing to his 12th World Championship podium. “I skied relaxed but could transfer good power in my movements.”
The four-time Paralympian rattled off all 20 targets and powered his way up and down the hills between each of his four stops on the range to clock a winning time of 32:117.5.
“The priority was focus on the range which I felt in control of,” added Arendz. “The conditions were ideal today. I made some tweaks after the last race to the rifle and I felt more comfortable today.”
Grygorii Vovchynskyi, of Ukaraine, shot clean to finish second at 33:29.6. Benjamin Daviet, of France, placed third with a time of 34:10.3 (0+0+1+0).
It has been a solid run for Arendz who has bounced back from double heel surgery during the offseason to win his third medal of the 2023 World Championships and 17th World Championship podium of his career.
“I was never sure what to expect from the season after taking time off this spring, but it has been fantastic,” said Arendz. “These are some of my best performances and results of my life.”
That certainly holds true for Christina Picton who will also enjoy chomping on a burger of choice at the team dinner while celebrating her first ever World Championship podium.
The 29-year-old was nearly perfect on the range, hitting 19 of 20 targets, to secure the bronze medal with a time of 52:38.9.
“It was a pretty exciting and unexpected result today. I feel so happy with how everything came together today. The skis were so fast, my coaches and the support team around me did a great job making my final preparations easy and relaxed. All I had to do was execute my plan, stay focused on the range and I managed to do that,” said Picton.
The 2022 Paralympian missed her lone shot in her second round of shooting.
“My time on the range was all about keeping composed and doing what I know I can do to hit the targets,” added Picton. “I’m proud of my performance today. I have so much respect for the women I raced today. I’ve been chasing them all week here at Worlds, so it was pretty neat to be among them on the podium for the first time.”
Kendall Gretsch, of the United States, finished in the gold medal position on the podium with a time of 43:42.0 (0+0+0+0). Germany’s Andrea Eskau was also perfect in shooting, securing her the silver medal with a time of 50:10.2.
Derek Zaplotinsky was the only other Canadian to start on Friday. The Smoky Lake, Alta. finished eighth in the men’s 12.-5-kilometre sit-ski race with a time of 43:58.1 (0+1+0+1).
The Para Nordic World Championships continue on Saturday with the 10-kilometre individual start skate-ski race.