By Sam Cortes, Communications Coordinator
Emma Malkoske was first introduced to biathlon after curiously looking for a new sport to try in grade six.
“I thought it was a cool combination of sports and I never heard about it before,” she said. “I thought it was really interesting to go try out the shooting, and I’ve never skied before.”
Today, the 16-year-old is one of 23 athletes across Canada (and the only Manitoban) on the Biathlon Canada U20 National Development Team.
Hooked On Biathlon
For those who may not be familiar, you might wonder what is biathlon, exactly?
Essentially, it’s a competition that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. First, you ski the course and then head into the range to shoot five targets with only five shots. If you miss a target, you’ll have to ski a penalty loop or time is added to your score.
You could say Emma’s a natural, getting the hang of the sport quickly and even hitting all her targets her very first race.
“That really pumped me up and got me excited,” said Emma.
From fast-paced skiing on the course to a calm concentration on the range, biathlon also demands the ability to control not only your body, but your mind, too.
For Emma, this is an exciting part of the sport.
“Getting to the range is a little bit difficult, because you have a very high heart rate. So when you get in the position, it’s always a struggle to kind of calm your breathing down and get ready to be stable when you have to hit the target,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a little bit nerve-wracking, you don’t want to have to do many penalty loops. But it’s a fun challenge to try and steady yourself before shooting.”
Leslie Nikkel, Executive Director of Biathlon Manitoba, said it can be both an individual and group sport. Her son, Matthew Nikkel, is also a biathlon athlete, and Emma and him take part in friendly competition and banter back and forth, which would keep them engaged on race days.
“But when they’re not out in the field together, it’s very much a singular sport and you have to stay very focused on where you want to go and how far you want to go in it,” said Leslie.
Making the U20 National Development Team
Emma’s passion for biathlon has led her to one of her most recent accomplishments: making the U20 National Development Team for the 2020-2021 season.
There are four levels of national training teams in Canada: U20 National Development, U24 National Development, Senior National Development and Senior National.
Being a part of the U20 team means she’s part of a group of athletes from across the country and can work with different coaches, participate in training camps and races, and access top facilities (like the one in Canmore, Alberta) and a variety of training resources.
“I think it’s been really helpful so far, because even though we can’t get together in person, we have a lot of Zoom calls and they give me a lot of technique advice,” said Emma. “I’ve been able to talk to a lot of different coaches, they send us videos, and I’ve learnt a lot about mental strategies and technique.”
It’s also a great chance to connect with other athletes across Canada.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to meet up with all the new people on the team and I’ve actually met some of them going to some training camps. It’s really fun to meet up with people across Canada, because when race season starts, I’ll get to see them again and actually compete against them,” she said.
Adjusting During the COVID-19 Pandemic
This year has felt new and challenging for many athletes. But there are also some positives to be found in persevering through the obstacles of 2020.
“We haven’t really been able to get together for a lot of team training, so I’ve had to do a lot of it on my own and it’s a little bit mentally tough to try and stay motivated. But I think in the end, it’s actually helped me realize how motivated I am,” said Emma.
Leslie said she can see that determination in Emma, who is currently training six days a week.
“She’s very, very driven,” said Leslie. “She’s not one to miss a practice, and she’s not one to not practice at home.”
Leslie also said she’s never seen Emma beat herself up if she’s had a bad experience in a race.
“She seems to just take everything in stride and be like, ‘okay, well then that’s what I need to work on’ and then she does and comes back stronger,” said Leslie.
A Family-Oriented Sport in Manitoba
Part of helping biathlon athletes like Emma succeed is having a strong support system.
“It takes a lot for the community as a whole to make our sport function,” said Leslie. “All our races are completely volunteer-run. You learn from an early point that, as a parent, you’re going to get involved.”
And Leslie said Emma’s parents have been instrumental in her journey.
“It helps to support the athlete who’s going out there in the dead of winter and putting the time in. It’s very much a family-oriented sport here in Manitoba.”
So, what are Emma’s goals for the future?
“I would like to keep steadily improving and hopefully be able to continue up the national team levels, and hopefully I’ll be able to represent Canada in Europe.”