Like Cool Runnings, but on skis: Mexican biathlon team wins hearts at Canmore competition

Christopher Gomez (left) and Raul Antonio Figueroa (right) are pictured outside the Canmore Nordic Centre on Wednesday, March 1.  (Paula Duhatschek/CBC - image credit)
Christopher Gomez (left) and Raul Antonio Figueroa (right) are pictured outside the Canmore Nordic Centre on Wednesday, March 1. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC - image credit)

In just a few short years, Mexico's Christopher Gomez has gone from not knowing how to ski, to competing alongside some of the world's best biathletes at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) Cup finals in Canmore, Alta.

How'd he do it?

Like many good stories, it all started at a county fair.

Gomez and his now-coach and teammate, Raul Antonio Figueroa, were at a fair in Austria — where they both live — trying to win teddy bears in a shooting game. The man running the game noted they each had a knack for shooting, and suggested they team up to start a Mexican biathlon team.

"We had absolutely no clue what biathlon was," said Gomez, 38.

IBU/Canmore Cup
IBU/Canmore Cup

Interest piqued, Figueroa took to the Internet to figure out, first of all, what biathlon meant, and if any team from Mexico existed already.

"I'm a person that, when something pops into my head, I just can't let it go," he said.

Figueroa found the answer to the first question, and no evidence of the second. And though neither one of them knew how to ski at that point, he started the paperwork to launch both a sport federation and a team, with he and Gomez as its first two members.

Once accepted, "I told [Chris], 'Hey, I have good news and bad news,'" said Figueroa, 34.

"The good news is that we are now accepted … The bad news is we have 10 months to prepare ourselves [for] an international competition, in a sport we've never practiced before."

What followed was an underdog training montage straight out of a sports movie. The pair watched YouTube videos to learn technique and cross-country skied through farmers' fields, thinking the term "cross-country skiing" actually meant skiing across the countryside.

In practice races, they found themselves outmatched by both children and the elderly.

"It was a point that everybody was kicking our asses," said Figueroa.

During their first IBU event in early 2021, Gomez said they performed so badly they were told "thank you for coming but you are not good enough yet."

"That was tough to take, but that didn't stop us," he said.

Undeterred, they continued training — by then, they'd found a coach — and have fared better during their recent races.

The pair still aren't winning medals, but have gained confidence and started picking up sponsors. They've also won the recognition of other athletes: walking around the Canmore Nordic Centre this week, they couldn't go more than a few metres without being stopped by another athlete to chat and talk shop.

Paula Duhatschek/CBC
Paula Duhatschek/CBC

"[Gomez] is pretty good," said Ken Davies, organizing committee chair of this week's cup in Canmore. "The goal of biathlon is to grow sport in general and around the world ... I hope they continue to participate."

As athletes from a warm-weather country competing in a cold-weather sport, the two note they often draw comparisons to the underdog Jamaican bobsledders whose story inspired the Disney movie Cool Runnings.

Figueroa sees the parallel, but hopes the team can forge an identity in its own right.

"It's a motivation for us to actually represent sport-wise and to improve ourselves and our country," he said.

"Whenever somebody talks about Mexico in Europe, things like drugs and cartels, violence pops up, so it's a win for us if they say, 'Oh, I know a Mexican team that does biathlon,' — if that's the first thing that you say about Mexico, for us, that's a win."

The pair are taking a long-term view of their sport, and hope to recruit more young athletes to bolster their ranks. While the two of them recognize they might not be destined for a podium themselves, they hope to someday see a Mexican biathlete win a medal at an IBU event or even the Olympics.

"We want to bring young athletes [so] that they get competitive and then Mexico starts to gain, small step by step, a place in biathlon," said Gomez.

Paula Duhatschek/CBC
Paula Duhatschek/CBC