By Martin Cleary
The first name Shilo is a variation of the Hebrew name Shiloh.
If you refer to a book of names for newborns, Shilo has several inspirational definitions, including this one – “place of peace.”
Well, at 22 years old, University of Ottawa’s Shilo Rousseau found her “place of peace” this past fall and summer and carried that new inner feeling to her first FISU World Winter University Games in a New York State village appropriately named Lake Placid.
For the nine months before the world’s largest sports festival for university students (ages 17 to 25), Rousseau reduced her off-season training and early-season racing, put more focus on finishing her degree in biology and convinced herself to scale back on her self-imposed pressure-to-succeed theme.
So how has her approach of dialing things back and welcoming a sense of calm into her busy student/athlete life worked so far?
The results from her five races in eight days at the Games speak for themselves. How about three medals and five top-10 finishes: a gold medal, a ninth place, a silver medal, a gold medal and a sixth place?
Not only was Rousseau, who is from the Northern Ontario timber and tourism town of Thessalon, the most successful Canadian athlete, but also she was one of the elite achievers in the field of more than 1,400 athletes from 46 countries.
U Sports, the sport-governing body for Canadian university sport, recognized Rousseau’s accomplishments by naming her the team flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony. There was a quiet team ceremony to make a presentation to her (the athletes didn’t carry their respective flags at the opening and closing ceremonies).
“She carried this team, she carried the country and she’s going to carry the flag,” U Sports tweeted on Sunday.
Rousseau was completely shocked by her overall success and thrilled she could use such an important athletic stage to bring attention to her skiing-and-shooting sport of biathlon, which is rather low key in North America compared to Europe.
“When I came into the Games, I didn’t know what to expect,” Rousseau said in a phone interview, after her final race at Mount Van Hoevenberg on Saturday. “I didn’t put pressure on myself. In the past, I put pressure on myself to perform and it didn’t go well.
“I wanted to focus on the experience as my mom and aunt were here to watch.”
Biathlon’s racing program opened Jan. 14 with the women’s 12.5-kilometre short individual race and Rousseau quickly realized she belonged with the best university biathletes in the world. Fourth after the first loop of skiing and shooting, Rousseau surged into the lead and never relinquished it. She hit 18 of 20 targets and finished with a time of 42 minutes, 52.9 seconds for a 48.4-second margin of victory.
“I’ve trained most of my life for this. I knew what I could do. But coming in, I couldn’t envision winning a medal. It was definitely a surprise,” Rousseau said.
During the summer, Rousseau cut back on her volume of training because she had received a federal government research grant in her academic field of biology and she was working 9-5 every day.
But she was good with that as she also was looking forward to entering her fourth-year of studies and earning her BSc in biology this year.
Once university started last fall, she continued her ski training with the Nakkertok Nordic Ski Club and shooting with Chelsea Nordiq. But when it came time for competitions, she held back on the racing to bring balance to her athletics and academics.
In December, Rousseau raced in two low-key biathlon races in Craftsbury, Vermont. She had a total of four cross-country ski races at Nakkertok and Mont Ste. Anne in January against quality Canadian racers and produced four top-10 results, including a second in the 10-kilometre skate race.
“The previous year was the Olympic year … and I put pressure on myself,” she explained. “Doing more (this year) wasn’t necessarily better. My goal this year was to have more fun and not put pressure on myself.”
In the minutes following her final Games’ race, Rousseau reflected on some lessons she can carry into her future.
“My approach to the races was to have fun and not take them all serious with pressure to perform. I put a positive spin on everything and enjoyed the experience,” she said. “I can be good enough to perform with the best.
“The biggest change coming into the season was for me to focus on finishing my bachelor’s degree. Over the summer, I cut back on my training. Before I would have more training volume. I didn’t worry so much.”
After her opening-day gold medal, Rousseau was ninth in the single mixed relay with William Moineau of Quebec City, she was the silver medallist in the 7.5-kilometre sprint, the gold medallist in the 12.5-kilometre pursuit and the sixth-place finisher in the 12.5-kilometre mass start.
Rousseau started the 2022-23 season as a member of Biathlon Canada’s NextGen team and she’s hoping her success at the Winter World University Games will be her ticket to some international races over the next two months.
“Before my first race, I mentioned to them (Biathlon Canada) that I’d like to have some IBU (International Biathlon Union) races. It may be a possibility,” she added.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
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