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

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

How did 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 an exhibition in Austria – where they both live – trying to win teddy bears in a shooting game. The man running the game noted that they each had a talent for shooting and suggested they work together to start a Mexican biathlon team.

“We had absolutely no idea what biathlon was,” said Gomez, 38.

Christopher Gomez is pictured at this week’s IBU Cup Finals in Canmore. Figueroa did not compete this week as he and Gomez are currently negotiating to compete and train each other. (IBU/Canmore Cup)

Intrigued, Figueroa went to the Internet to find out, first of all, what biathlon means and if there was already a team from Mexico.

“I’m a person who, 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 for the second. And even though neither of them knew how to ski at that point, he started the paperwork to create a sports federation and a team, with himself and Gomez as its first two members.

Once he accepted, “I said (Chris), ‘Hey, I have good news and bad news,'” Figueroa, 34, said.

“The good news is that we are now accepted… The bad news is that we have 10 months to prepare (for) an international match, in a sport we have never done 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 skiing in farmers’ fields, believing that the term “cross-country skiing” actually meant backcountry skiing.

In practice matches, they were found to outperform both children and the elderly.

“It was a point where everybody was kicking our asses,” Figueroa said.

During their first IBU event in early 2021, Gomez said they performed so poorly they were told “thanks for coming, but you’re not good enough yet”.

“It was hard to do, but that didn’t stop us,” he said.

Undeterred, they continued training – by then, they had found a coach – and fared better in their recent matches.

The pair are still not winning any medals, but have gained confidence and are starting to pick up sponsors. They’ve also earned the recognition of other athletes: walking around the Canmore Nordic Center this week, they couldn’t go more than a few meters without another athlete stopping to chat and talk.

Ken Davies is chairman of the organizing committee for the IBU Cup Finals in Canmore.
Ken Davies, chairman of the organizing committee for the IBU Cup Finals in Canmore, said he hopes to see the Mexican team return. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

“(Gomez) is pretty good,” said Ken Davies, chairman of this week’s cup organizing committee in Canmore. “The aim of the biathlon is to develop the 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 are often compared to the underdog Jamaican bobsledders whose story inspired the Disney film. Cool Runnings.

Figueroa sees the parallel, but hopes the team can create an identity of its own.

“It’s a motivation for us to really represent athletically and improve ourselves and our country,” he said.

“Whenever someone talks about Mexico in Europe, things like drugs and cartels, violence come 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 We say for Mexico, for us, this is a victory”.

The pair take a long-term view of their sport and hope to recruit more young athletes to bolster their ranks. While the two acknowledge they may not be destined for the podium themselves, they hope to one day see a Mexican biathlete win a medal at an IBU event or even the Olympics.

“We want to bring in new athletes (so) they become competitive and then Mexico starts to earn, step by step, a place in the biathlon,” Gomez said.

Christopher Gomez and Raul Antonio Figueroa stand outside their wax trailer at the Canmore Nordic Center on March 1, 2023.
Christopher Gomez and Raul Antonio Figueroa hope to continue raising the profile of biathlon in Mexico. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

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