THE WINTER GAMES

Pursuing the agony of victory

Bédard excels in a gruelling sport dominated by Europeans

MARY NEMETH February 14 1994
THE WINTER GAMES

Pursuing the agony of victory

Bédard excels in a gruelling sport dominated by Europeans

MARY NEMETH February 14 1994

Pursuing the agony of victory

THE WINTER GAMES

Bédard excels in a gruelling sport dominated by Europeans

MARY NEMETH

All Olympians train hard, of course. But few sports exact the physical toll of biathlon, a gruelling Nordic event combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. And few biathletes push their bodies to the extremes of human endurance like Myriam Bédard, a bronze medallist at the 1992 Albertville Games and a gold and silver medallist at last year’s world championships. “My muscles are very tired now,” she said recently while training in Italy. “Even going upstairs is very painful on my legs—they want to explode. But the more I suffer now, the less I will suffer at the Olympics.”

Bédard, 24, of Loretteville, Que., is a powerful racer and a talented shooter. But she is, most of all, a remarkably driven athlete. She trains separately from the national team, practising six days a week, 11 months a year, with a mystery personal trainer she refuses to name.

At her first race on the World Cup circuit this season, she finished 17th in the 15-km event and 32nd in the 7.5-km race. But she gradually improved, placing fifth in both events in her last race. Jean-Marc St. Pierre, the marketing director for her major sponsor, Montrealbased Metropolitan Life, says that those results mask a carefully plotted strategy. She wanted to train exhaustively through the World Cup season and peak for Lillehammer, he says, using the same strategy she employed successfully before last year’s world championships.

Certainly, Bédard is among an elite group of biathletes that includes Russian Anfissa Reztsova, the 1993 overall World Cup champion, and Italian Natalie Santer, who won two World Cup events this season. But Bédard herself seems impatient with questions about her medal potential. All last year’s world-championship victory means is that she can perform when it matters, she insists. “I’m not the favorite.”

Along the way, Bédard has coped with a distracting fracas over her relationship with Biathlon Canada. In 1992, the federally funded organization suspended Bédard over an athlete’s agreement she refused to sign. One sticking point that eventually emerged

was sponsorship—she wanted to deal directly with sponsors rather than through the federation. A mediator helped strike a compromise: Biathlon Canada approved a deal Bédard had with Metropolitan Life, and she signed the athlete’s agreement. Metropolitan Life subsequently sponsored several biathlon competitions.

Then last summer, the Canadian Olympic Association (COA) forced Bédard to drop out of a TV commercial; they objected to her wearing an outfit decorated with Metropolitan Life logos which they said too closely resembled the Olympic rings. Biathlon Canada had alerted the COA to the ad. The federation has drawn media fire for its treatment of

its star athlete. But marketing director Denise Pittuck insists that the sports body was just enforcing rules established by the International Biathlon Union. In any event as the Olympics approached, both sides maintained that they had patched up the quarrel.

Bédard, meanwhile, kept busy preparing for the main event. In the summer, she trains in Loretteville, the Quebec City suburb where she lives with fellow biathlete Jean Paquet. She rollerskis, cycles and kayaks to build endurance. In the fall and winter, she travels to biathlon sites in British Columbia and Europe, where she trains twice a day, skiing up to 35 km at a time. “I wax my skis at night,” she says. “Then I relax for maybe an hour before going to bed.” Bédard rarely sees her trainer, who faxes precise instructions for her workouts. “For her,” says St. Pierre, “it is practically a religion to do what is in her program.” Paquet travels with her, although they train separately. But Bédard says that she does not mind the absence of a coach. “I’m not lonely,” she says. “That’s how I grew up in the sport.”

Bédard is one of four children of Pierre Bédard, an electrician, and his wife, Francine, a child-care worker. She did other sports—figure skating, basketball, gymnastics. “But they were all indoors,” she complains. “I didn’t like the atmosphere.” Friends talked her into joining the military cadets when she was 14, and later dragged her out to a cadet biathlon. She won. “It was a great day,” she recalls.

A year later, Bédard purchased cross-country skies with her cadet pay. And a year after that, she won Canada’s junior biathlon

championship. In 1991, she finished second overall on the

World Cup circuit with two golds, two silvers and a bronze—the best showing ever by a North American. Soon, the Europeans were turning a wary eye on the newcomer. Bédard says that foreign coaches have videotaped her skiing and taken notes on her shooting.

Her shooting is certainly unique. Other biathletes pause to steady their racing heartbeats before taking aim; Bédard does not. “Myriam shoots by instinct,” says St. Pierre. In skiing, her strength has been endurance rather than speed, giving her an advantage on the hardest courses. But Lillehammer has a relatively easy track. And she has been working to develop upper-body strength so that she can push herself faster. Now, the test of her strategy and determination is drawing near—and she knows it will hurt. “I don’t want to race,” she insists. “I’m going to be in pain from beginning to end.” But she is looking forward to the finish line, to the culmination of a tough race and a trying year.

MARY NEMETH