By Dan Plouffe
Zach Connelly’s skis have carried him across Canada – and recently overseas as well for the IBU Youth Biathlon World Championships in Slovakia – but the 17-year-old still remembers the first time he strapped ’em on was much less pleasant.
“I couldn’t go 10 metres without falling on my face,” recounts the Canada Games-bound biathlete. “It was really rough.”
So Connelly went back home, watched some youtube videos, and figured out how to ski in a couple hours, he says.
“That night I drove back here and skied for another hour-and-a-half with my mom,” recalls the Chelsea Nordiq club member. “And from there, the love of the sport just kind of came naturally.
“I love being on the snow, out in the forest, just being on my own. Hearing the sound of the snow when you push and just feeling the wind on your face, the dopamine high that you get from doing exercise – it’s all there and it’s all hitting you at the same time. It just puts a smile on my face. It’s really beautiful.”
Not everyone’s reaction to face-planting repeatedly would be to get right back it. But that’s not the Connelly way, explains the member of a driven family of ironman triathletes and marathoners.
“I don’t know. I kind of had that feeling of if I’m gonna do this, I want to do it right and I want to be the best,” signals Connelly, who joined Army Cadets at age 12 and first tried biathlon near the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. “I wanted to go out and just enjoy racing, having fun, and making every moment count.”
Chelsea Nordiq/Team Ontario coach Eric Schreyer says Connelly’s level of dedication is rarely seen.
“There are a ton of athletes who are going to set goals like this to make Canada Games, to make worlds,” notes Schreyer. “But Zach is really always questioning how to get better, and then figuring out what he wants to work on, and then really setting his mind to doing that.”
Worlds appearance adds fuel to the fire
Following a double-bronze medal performance at the 2018 youth nationals, Connelly earned the right to represent Canada at the youth worlds, which ran from Jan. 26-Feb. 3 in Slovakia.
After a rough first worlds race on jet-lagged legs, Connelly felt more comfortable come his second and third events, finishing as the top Canadian in the 10 km pursuit, and in the top half of the field in the 7.5 km sprint.
“Coming back from Slovakia, I see exactly what I have to work on,” notes Connelly, who was appreciative to have some of his trip costs supported by the XC Chelsea Masters group and the Fresh Air Experience store near Westboro.
“It made me proud to wear the maple leaf and be part of something bigger,” adds Connelly, who plans to move to the national training centre in Canmore, Alta. once he finishes high school at Louis-Riel later this year. “Kind of got the bug and I just really want to get back out there again to race with the best.”
Connelly says he doesn’t expect the whirlwind travel will affect his performance in Red Deer for what will be the second-biggest competition of his life.
“I don’t think so,” he indicates. “But really, I’m going to Canada Games to have fun and enjoy the sport, meet other athletes and see what their sport is about, so it’s more of a cultural experience for me. And just to enjoy the racing like I always do.”