Zina Kocher hoping for an A+ finish in Sochi

As one of Canada’s greatest female biathletes, Zina Kocher is looking to qualify for her third appearance in the Winter Games. Having already competed at Torino 2006 and on home soil at Vancouver 2010, she is hoping that Sochi shall provide her with her first Winter Games medal. Her strongest finish in her previous appearances was a fifteenth place finish in the Relay in Vancouver.

Image obtained from: http://zinakocher.com/gallery/

Image obtained from: http://zinakocher.com/gallery/

Known affectionately as Zee, her first athletic endeavor was as a cross-country skier. As Biathlon incorporates the sport along with shooting, she was drawn to the sport at the 1998 Alberta Winter Games. Her endurance and athleticism resulted in being named Biathlon Canada’s Female Athlete of the Year in 2002, 2004 and 2006.

A lifelong resident of Alberta, she was the North American champion during the 2004-05 season. Of note, her greatest performance in the biathlon was a third place finish in the 15 km Individual race at Ostersund, Sweden in December 2006, marking the first time in a decade that a Canadian grabbed an international medal.

There is no question that if one word defines Kocher, it is toughness. While the bronze medal in Sweden represented the jubilation of her career, a lumbar disc protrusion shortly afterwards was its desolation. The will to return and continue in the sport was enhanced by the experience of speaking at a school, where it rejuvenated her and provided her with purpose.

While she trains in Canmore full-time, another aspect of her career is the struggle with money, a tragic reality for any world class amateur athlete. It is easy to look at the male pro athletes in baseball and football and assume that every athlete in the world is a multi-millionaire. Sadly, this is not the case.

Appearing in a state of undress with fellow biathletes Rosanna Crawford, Megan Imrie, Sandra Keith and Megan Tandy in the Bold, Beautiful Biathlon calendar in 2008, another word that could have easily been used is brave. To disrobe in order to raise money for one’s sport is not only testament to one’s dedication for the sport, yet it displays a remarkable amount of courage. While Kocher made international news for the calendar, helping to raise thousands of dollars for her team, it is symbolic of how every sport in Canada deserves equal funding, regardless of popularity.

With her fellow biathletes on October 22, 2008 selling the Bold, Beautiful Biathlon Calendar in Calgary. Image obtained from: http://olympic.ca/2013/07/02/why-funding-is-worth-the-fight/ THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

With her fellow biathletes on October 22, 2008 selling the Bold, Beautiful Biathlon Calendar in Calgary. Image obtained from: http://olympic.ca/2013/07/02/why-funding-is-worth-the-fight/ THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

As she continues to struggle with fund raising, Kocher has turned to the website Pursuit, an essential tool that Megan Imrie has also benefitted from. All proceeds raised help to cover the sometimes overwhelming costs of ammunition, physiotherapy, chiropractic requirements along with living expenses. Even in spring and summer months, there is significant dry land training including biking, lakeshore running and rock climbing.

Despite the costs and the struggles, Kocher is able to find the time to give back to her community. From causes such as Fast and Female (empowering girls aged 9-19 to build confidence) and Right to Play (founded by Johann Olav Kaus) to KidSport (helping remove financial obstacles so children can play sport) and Green Laces (environmental cause), she is a model athlete and citizen.

Her run of over a decade in the sport is remarkable. Even if she emerges from Sochi without a medal, her legacy as a dedicated, courageous and a role model for both young women and men. She has earned the right to be considered a champion in the hearts and minds of Canadian sports fans.

Megan Imrie’s fund raising efforts as tireless as her training

As the Sochi Winter Games approach, the great tragedy of many athletes’ lives is the struggle to meet the financial requirements needed in order to make their athletic dreams come true. One of the most dedicated and a unique athlete for fund raising is Megan Imrie.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Photo credit: Getty Images

Competing in the biathlon, her interest in the sport began at the age of six. The Canadian Biathlon Championships were in her hometown and she was quickly hooked. When Maryam Bedard captured the imagination of Canadian sports fans as she won medals at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games, a young Imrie was part of an after-school group called the Biathlon Bears.

In addition to biathlon, she would also make her mark in other sports. In 2001, she was the Manitoba Ranch Rodeo junior champion in 2001. She was the provincial champion in cross-country running in 2000 and 2003 while she had the honor of bearing the flag at the 2007 Canada Winter Games (where she won two medals).

With the multi-million dollar contracts in professional sports, it is easy to assume that the golden goose is evident in all sports. The uncomfortable truth is that many athletes, especially female athletes, do not have such a luxury. Travel costs, team fees and equipment become part of the cost of competing.

Although the focus of their athletic endeavors should be focused on training and sharpening their skills, a huge chunk of their time is devoted to finding ways to earn money. The most famous resident of Falcon Lake, Manitoba, the 27 year-old Imrie has had to employ several methods in order to finance her dreams of competing in the Winter Games.

Photo credit: Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

Photo credit: Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

One was a recent horseback riding promotion in which an individual could pay to have the privilege of riding horseback alongside Imrie. The Rocky Mountain Soap Company introduced a brand known as “Megan Soap” as a way to support Imrie. Ads featuring Imrie can be seen online.

Compared to many European countries where funding for Biathlon is significantly higher, Canadian athletes have offered signed items and personal phone calls in order to make up for any shortfalls. As she spends close to $20,000 a year on training and equipment, Imrie also tapped into the influence of social media through the efforts of a website called Pursuit, where she successfully exceeded her fund-raising goals.

Heading into the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, the biathlon team took a rather uncommon measure in order to raise funds. Imrie and her biathlon teammates (Rosanna Crawford, Sandra Keith, Zia Kocher and Megan Tandy) were featured in a semi-nude calendar which was issued in 2009.
Titled Bold, Beautiful Biathlon, the calendar was a tremendous hit selling out very quickly. A sum of over $10,000 was raised via the sale of 6,000 units. Despite its popularity, a group of world-class athletes such as the five biathletes deserved much more funding, especially with the Games being on home soil.

There is no denying that Imrie is beautiful but she should not have to remove her clothing in order to raise funds. A world class athlete should not have to be admired for her body but for her athleticism and skill. With Sochi looming on the horizon, one cannot help but wonder how many other female athletes the world over are considering a calendar to finance their dreams of Winter Games glory.

The idea that biathlon did not have a title sponsor at the time of the calendar’s release was tragic. As a side note, the Whiteshell Trappers Association (of which her father Murray is a member) donated fur pelts to Imrie as a show of support for her Vancouver Winter Games goal. Dave Bewick of the North American Fur Auction also helped by sending a brochure to nearly 2,000 trappers in Manitaba with a special tag of Megan Imrie to attach to the pelt. With Imrie having grown up on trap lines, the gesture had tremendous meaning.

Every bit was essential as the good news was that Imrie qualified for Vancouver, competing in two individual events and the 4×6 km relay. Even though Imrie has worked hard in raising funds, she has also given back to her community. As an athlete-ambassador at Fast and Female in 2012, the Canmore, Alberta event featured Imrie and her teammates providing youngsters with advice on how to succeed as biathletes.

Sadly, 2012 also marked a crossroads in her career. Facing exhaustion and the possibility of over-training, she returned home to Falcon Lake to recharge the battery and sought comfort in the support of her family. Her return in 2013 brought with it personal bests in testing and training and the spark to succeed was rekindled.

The road to Sochi will be determined in 2013 as three World Cup races are on the horizon. A top-30 result in just one of the races will provide Imrie with the opportunity to compete in her second-ever Winter Games.

An admirable athlete armed with the perseverance to succeed, the reluctance to complain is nothing short of impressive. If any athlete had the right to be bitter, it would certainly be Imrie, but she quietly goes on with an ethereal serenity. Her hard work and dedication to growing her sport is an example of empowerment for women. Although no athlete should have to endure so much difficulty to raise funds, her tough as nails composure and remarkable dignity in the face of such adversity and overwhelming odds is what makes her a true sporting hero.