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Biathlon benchmark

Le Guellec makes Canadian history in 10-K sprint

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WHISTLER, B.C. -- Jean-Philippe Le Guellec of Quebec City waved to the crowd, spotted his entourage adorned in bright red 'JP Fan Club' T-shirts and then bolted from the start with a warm Valentine's Day feeling in his heart.

He then become a cold-hearted hunter and nearly bagged a bronze medal.

Buoyed by a sharp 9-for-10 shooting performance, strong skiing on a tricky track and a calm demeanour, Le Guellec made Canadian biathlon history Sunday by placing sixth in the 10-kilometre sprint at Whistler Olympic Park. It bettered the previous Olympic mark by a Canadian male when Steve Cyr finished eighth in the same event in Albertville in 1992. So much for wilting under tremendous pressure to perform at home.

"It's going to sound cold, but there weren't any emotions,'' said Le Guellec, who finished 35.8 seconds shy of a bronze medal after a penalty lap of 150 metres for his missed shot added approximately 20-25 seconds to his total. "I know everyone is here and I'm happy they're here and I acknowledge that. But at the same time, I was focused on the race. A quick wave to the camera and it was race time. Let's go.

"Pressure is between the ears and a lot of it is perception,'' he added. "People say bring us back gold and do the best you can. I don't see that as pressure. I see it as total positive encouragement."

On a day when weather conditions and pressure got to many -- including biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway who missed four targets and placed 17th -- it was Vincent Jay of France who shot clean and captured the gold medal in 24 minutes, 7.8 seconds. Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway missed one target and finished second in 24:20.0, while Jakov Fak of Croatia shot clean and captured bronze in 24:21.8.

Le Guellec was leading the competition after prone-position shooting and the two-time Olympian hit his first two targets in the standing position before misfiring on the 2.5-kilometre Callaghan Valley course.

"I pulled a little too soon on the trigger and just missed outside the ring, but got it together for my last two shots,'' he said. "One more shot would have definitely bumped me up a few spots and that's part of the game. Look at Bjoerndalen. In the last four years, things have really escalated on the level of shooting and skiing and it's a real cutthroat field out there."

The 24-year-old Le Guellec had previously recorded career-best seventh and eighth placings in the 12-km pursuit on the World Cup circuit last season and has 10th and 12th-place showings this season. He'll have a good starting position for the Olympic pursuit Tuesday, but had no idea he was pacing the field after starting eighth Sunday. Le Guellec caught and passed highly touted Christoph Sumann of Austria, who started seventh and is third in World Cup standings.

"That's high-calibre,'' said Canadian coach Jean Paquet. "This finish is great. It's a milestone.''

Heavy snow and rain slowed the course for later starters, but Le Guellec didn't think so. And he didn't think to acknowledge why the cheering was getting louder as he skied faster and shot better.

"We always look at the board, but I came by too late or too early and didn't see where I was,'' he shrugged. "I was totally focused and it's a grunt out there. At the end, I could feel the lactic acid (in the legs) and that's exactly what I wanted to feel -- the feeling that I have been working hard.

"It's been rough this year with a lot of ups and downs and mentally kind of hard. But to open the Olympics with this kind of race is amazing.''

There are so many variables in biathlon that Le Guellec was a genuine medal threat until missing the target. And until that occurred, Canadian coach Geret Coyne thought a podium placing was possible.

"We always play the what-if game,'' he said. "Another 20-25 seconds faster would have moved him up two or three places and then it's touch-and-go to the podium. I really thought he had a chance. I was on the back part of the course and on one of the biggest climbs, he looked super strong and super sharp.''

Le Guellec plans to be the same way Tuesday.

-- Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2010 A21

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