Frigid temperatures force N.W.T. biathlete trials indoors

Chilly temperatures below -30 C forced organizers of the N.W.T. biathlon trials to improvise an indoor course at territorial trials for the 2020 Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse.

Youth competed for 14 starting spots in snowshow and ski biathlon, across two age categories — juvenile, the younger category, and junior. Athletes were also separated by gender.

"Inside, it's hot. Really hot," said Tsiigehtchic's Dayle Cole, 14, who ranked first in the juvenile female snowshoe category. "I'd rather be outside."

Chuck Lirette, biathlon coach for Team NT, said it's been "eight or 10 years" since he last saw the trials forced inside by cold weather.

But rules force the event to be modified if temperatures drop below -20 C, or -23 C with wind chill.

"The cold air … can cause some physical damage to the inside of their lungs, and it's not much fun racing when it's really cold," said Lirette.

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"We really didn't have much choice."

Instead of racing a course at the Hay River Ski Club, athletes ran laps of the halls at Hay River's Princess Alexandra School.

Shooting trials at an outdoor range were moved into the school gym, and .22-calibre guns were swapped for less powerful air rifles.

The changes threw some athletes for a loop. Cole arrived with no indoor shoes, and had to scrounge up some running shoes to compete in.

Hunter Groenewegen, 11, automatically qualified for the juvenile male snowshoe biathlon team when only two people competed.

Competing inside "was pretty weird," he said.

"I was expecting to be snowshoeing, so I practiced a lot outside."

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But Groenewegen did say he was happy to be unencumbered by snowshoes for his laps — and didn't have to handle a cold rifle.

"Whenever I'm touching that metal with my gloves, my hands always get so frozen," he said. "I can't even feel my fingers sometimes."

At the end of the day, 17 athletes were named to the roster, including four alternates.

That included snowshoe biathlete Autumn Gilroy of Norman Wells, who attended the trial after founding a biathlon club in her home community just six weeks ago.

Norman Wells will also send Haley Cassie to Whitehorse in the juvenile female ski biathlon category.

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Some spots left unfilled

No one competed in the junior male category of the ski biathlon, and only one athlete competed in the junior female category.

Lirette said they may consider moving some younger athletes into those more gruelling categories, but there are "a number of considerations" before that decision can be made.

Lirette said the next step is for the newly named roster to be evaluated on skis and snowshoes over a short outdoor course.

Then they'll be sent home with rifles to practice with their local coaches.

If funding materializes, Lirette said, they'll be brought back to Hay River for an intensive training camp just before the games in March.

"I'm just thoroughly impressed with everybody," said Lirette. "Not just the people on the team, but the volunteers in Hay River and the ski club — we needed a lot of help to make this happen — the coaches across the North that came here … [and the] athletes — so polite, respectful, appreciative…. First class all the way."

The Arctic Winter Games run from Mar. 15 to 21.

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