Community Clubs Skiing

Biathletes’ journeys to Canada Winter Games began as 7-year-old jackrabbit classmates

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By Mark Colley

Ella Niedre describes biathlon as a sport of polar opposites. She’s skiing at full speed one moment, then stopping to precisely shoot a rifle in the next. Her body is shaking and heart is pumping, but when she stops to shoot the target, everything else needs to stop.

It’s like jumping from a hot tub to an ice bath — diametrically opposed actions happening only seconds apart in the heat of competition.

“There’s been situations where I’ve been standing right beside somebody and it’s either I win or I don’t based on how I shoot,” Niedre said. “When you’re standing right beside someone hearing their targets go off, it’s definitely hard to get into that mindset … It could cost you the whole race.”

And yet, this is what Niedre loves about biathlon. The Grade 11 student at St. Michael Catholic High School in Kemptville lives for the moment when she pulls into the shooting lane and everything else fades away. It’s just Niedre and the target.

“It’s like you have blinders on and all you can see is the task at hand,” she explained.

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Niedre will get to test her nerves on the biggest stage of her career yet later next week, when she travels to P.E.I. for the Canada Winter Games. She’s part of a four-athlete delegation from the nation’s capital set to compete in biathlon, under the guidance of Chelsea Nordiq coach Tim Hurley.

Niedre got her start in the sport at age four, when she started cross-country skiing thanks to her dad. She started shooting air rifles at age 12, then began shooting .22 rifles a few years ago.

While she was apprehensive about shooting a rifle at first — “as a 12-year-old girl, it’s usually not the most exciting topic,” she explained — it became love at first sight when she actually fired one.

“As soon as I shot it for the first time, I realized it was nothing like what you hear about,” Niedre said.

Rachel Lambley is another local biathlete headed to the Canada Winter Games. She and Niedre have been on parallel journeys in their sport for a decade. The pair started cross-country skiing together when they were seven in the same jackrabbit group at Kanata Nordic Ski Club, then both started air rifle at the same time.

“It’s amazing … When we started, we didn’t even know what biathlon was,” Lambley said. “So it’s pretty crazy to see how we both improved and we’re both really excited to go [to the Games].”

Lambley is a Grade 11 student at All Saints Catholic High School in Kanata and followed a similar path as Niedre to biathlon. Outside of the sport, Lambley is a coach in canoe-kayak at the Ottawa River Canoe Club.

Lambley used to compete in canoe-kayak, but dropped the sport a few years ago when the time demands from biathlon became too much.

“Canoe-kayak, they want to train in the winter and skiing wants to train in the summer, so it was a definite choice between the two,” she said.

Lambley doesn’t miss the competitive aspect of paddling and as a coach, she still gets to paddle and be around the same people. It’s a way to stay connected to the sport, even if she doesn’t have the capacity to compete in it anymore.

Instead, all her efforts are focused on preparing for the Canada Winter Games. She said she’s most excited for the opportunity to compete against athletes from other provinces.

“I’ve only ever really competed in biathlon against Ontario and Quebec athletes, so I’ve never been out west,” she said. “I haven’t met the other girls, so I think it’ll be a lot of fun to meet everyone else.”

Ella Niedre. Photo provided

For Niedre, the excitement for the Games lies in the experience she’ll gain. While Niedre won silver at 2022 nationals, the Games are a bigger competition. Importantly, the categories are different, meaning Niedre will be racing against athletes who are a lot older than her.

“I’m just going into it not really knowing what will happen, but again, just keeping an open mindset,” she said.

An added challenge is Niedre’s uneven year of training since last year’s nationals. After heading west to train with the national prospect team in May, Niedre caught mono and couldn’t train for the entire summer.

Because of that, she isn’t sure her racing time will be as fast as last year. But even getting to the Games in the first place is a victory for her.

“I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be able to at that point to even qualify and get there,” Niedre said. “I’m just grateful to be able to be headed [to PEI] after everything I’ve overcome this summer.”

Two male biathletes from the area will also be competing at the Canada Winter Games, which features eight races in total across the male, female and mixed relay categories. At age 16, Antoine Gendron is the youngest member of Ontario’s male biathlon team. The Chelsea Nordiq athlete from Casselman has participated in the sport for eight years.

Will Ng will be competing in his second multi-sport event in as many months in PEI. The 20-year-old University of Ottawa student-athlete represented Canada at the FISU World University Games in Lake Placid, NY in January. Ng’s top result was a 29th-place finish. His start in the sport came when he was intrigued by the shooting range when he skied by, and then was instantly hooked after his dad signed him up to try it.

The Canada Winter Games biathlon competition runs from Feb. 20-25 at the Mark Arendz Provincial Ski Park in North Wiltshire, PEI. Consult the full schedule here.

Visit our Ottawa at the Canada Winter Games central webpage for more coverage on our local athletes’ journeys to the PEI 2023 Games.

Ottawa at the Canada Winter Games Daily Newsletter

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