Canada’s Matthias Ahrens in the Coaches Corner
Matthias Ahrens, the Canadian Head Coach since 2012, came to Canmore with no intent of coaching biathlon or anything else. The former German biathlete and cross-country skier, a certified IFMGA Mountain Guide came to pursue a career in that field. Yet after several years, a position opened up in a local biathlon program and his path to the Canadian National Team began. Since that time, and then joining Biathlon Canada in 2004, he has coached at every level and seen many athletes grow from gangly youth to World Cup and WCH medalists.
European Roots; Canadian Style
Although his coaching roots were planted in central Europe, the 56-year-old admitted, “Many of my peers see my coaching style and philosophy as very Canadian. The European model just does not work in North America, which is so culturally different…The basis of my coaching style from the beginning has been to give the athlete input into the plan and daily training. Of course, with younger athletes, the program is more rigid, because they have little experience and are looking for direction. But as the athlete matures and becomes more successful, there is more flexibility. For example, yesterday, Nathan Smith wanted to do a different intensity workout, one that he has used successfully when he won his WCH medal and his World Cup victory, before our time trial and upcoming trials. He did that. It was not much different than what I planned, but his session accomplished his and my goals. Most importantly, it added to his confidence.”
Ramping Up Canadian Biathlon
Ahrens has overseen a quiet ramping up of the Canadian biathlon program. Successes have included World Cup podiums plus World Cup victories by JP Leguellec and Nathan Smith, a Silver WCH medal for Smith in 2015 and a Bronze WCH men’s relay medal in 2016. Top ten results by Rosanna Crawford and both relay teams show a strengthening program. Unfortunately, that string came to a grinding halt for this small team last season with sickness removing Smith, while Crawford and Brendan Green struggled all season and the promising Macx Davies having a “sophomore slump.” The season was simply forgettable.
That downturn hit Ahrens and his athletes very hard. Two seasons of medals and BMW IBU World Cup podiums had given the team additional funding of $400,000 CAN and $480,000 respectively, from Own The Podium. This provided for out-of-town training camps, and technical support. For the 2017-18 Olympic season, the team received exactly $0! Ahrens commented, “This was a huge letdown. It pretty much said, ‘we were not worth anything!’ We knew something was coming based on our World Cup performance, so we prepared the athletes. We made our case, with Nathan’s Illness and the volatility in the relay (none of the Oslo relay medalists made the podium in Hochfilzen). But the answer was zero; we had no podium potential. (The team did just recently receive a small grant for the development (IBU Cup) team.) They even took away our support like nutrition, physiology and strength consultation from the Canadian Sports Institute in Calgary!”
"Canmore Really Saved Us”
The result of this hard financial hit was simple: no out-of-town camps; train at home all summer and fall until going to Östersund 4 days before the first competitions this season. “This did give us a bit of extra motivation, a we-will-show-them attitude.” Yet in retrospect, the veteran coach admits, “Having this facility in Canmore really saved us. We have everything: roller loops, testing, strength facilities, and glacier skiing, and especially the mountains with great places for running, ski striding…We have great roads for long distance roller skiing where it is never boring because we have this wonderful nature. We have the luxury of rollerskiing and biking with the nature and spectacular backdrop. Some European teams might have to travel to get everything that we have right here.”
Better Recovery; More Rested
From a coaching standpoint, Ahrens thinks this funding curveball helped him as a coach. “This was actually an easier summer than many years. There was not much to think about as far as, ‘what are we doing and where are we going to get the most benefit.’ We were not going anywhere. The benefit was that the athletes got the best recovery and we do not have to deal with jet lag and fatigue from going to Europe or New Zealand. If I look at the athletes, I think they are better recharged and feeling better going into the season. But the other thing is that we never travel a lot for training; usually two big camps and a smaller one just to get away to a different training venue. The benefit of all this is that Canmore is our national training base and all of the athletes are here.”
He listed three things that make Canmore a great base for his team. “First the variety of training options that we have. The lack of those things is the reason that some teams have to go somewhere else. The second thing is the climate, similar to the South Tyrol, like Antholz; a lot of sun, dry climate with mild temperatures. The third is that this community is a very active. It probably has the biggest concentration of Olympic athletes in Canada and all of the great variety of sports activities for everyone. There is a sports dynamic going on here. I do not think we are missing anything here. Of course, it would be nice to have an indoor shooting hall, but we rarely, maybe once a year miss a shooting day, because of downpour rain. That is no big deal, because we know the next day will be sunny again.”
After the early funding disappointment, Ahrens and his team made the most of being home while maximizing their great training venue. That leaves Ahrens optimistic about the new season and the upcoming Olympic Winter Games. After watching the first on-snow team time trial on a cold blustery day, he commented, “I was not watching the skiing so much as how everyone reacted on the range. I liked what I saw.” In terms of individuals, he added, “Nathan looks like he is ready to step in right where he was two years ago. Scott Gow had a good summer and seems ready to make another step forward. As for Brendan Green, I think if he has one or two good races, he will be right up there also. (Women’s Coach) Roddy Ward has done some very specialized training with Sarah Beaudry and she has made some amazing steps that are showing. Rosanna is still the leading woman, has a more positive attitude and will be back to a good level with just a race or two.”
OWG, Dark Horses with Potential
As far as those elusive Olympic medals in Pyeongchang go, “It could happen. We were close in Sochi (Leguellec 5th in the sprint, Green 9th in the mass start, 7th, 8th in men’s and women’s relays). Nathan especially has the mindset and experience for maybe an individual medal; I could see several others with top ten finishes. I see big potential in the men’s relay and maybe some good results for the women. We are the outsiders, the dark horses, but that is good. Others have that pressure as the favorites that we do not have.”