This one's for Richard: Canadian's Olympic comeback inspired by her late coach

For sheer fun, Zina Kocher signed up for the 2017 Canadian Cross-Country Ski Nationals in her hometown of Canmore, Alta.

Kocher is a three-time Olympian in biathlon, which combines rifle shooting with cross-country skiing.

Biathlon: The Sport3:14

After retiring from the sport in 2016, she simply saw the cross-country nationals as a welcome distraction from her full-time studies in massage therapy at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Still in phenomenal physical shape, she won gold in the women’s five-kilometre skate ski race and then silver in the 30-kilometre skate ski. 

Those two unexpected medals got her thinking: Why not come out of retirement in hopes of qualifying as a cross-country skier for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea?

What did she have to lose?

“My coach Richard Boruta thought it was a great idea for me to give it a try,” says Kocher, 34. “He thought it would be a really fun challenge and that I had a good chance, especially after taking time away from sport.”

In his honour

Concerned about delaying her schooling, Kocher couldn’t make up her mind. She hemmed. She hawed.

And then, on Aug. 9, Boruta tumbled to his death in a mountain-climbing accident just outside of Canmore. He was only 49.

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Richard Boruta was only 49 when he died in a mountain-climbing accident. (Twitter/@biathloncanada)

That very day, Kocher committed to dropping down to part-time studies in hopes of chasing down a spot on the Canadian Olympic team.

“I think I would regret it if I hadn’t tried, whether it works out or not,” she says. “I had to give it a shot. 

“Even though I wanted to do this with Richard, I decided I would regret not doing it at all. He can still be there with me, and I can honour him in going through with it.”

Eighteen months after retiring, Kocher is going through with it. She remains one of Canada’s best skate skiers — the technique used in biathlon — but still needs to master the classic technique. She must prove herself in both in order to book a ticket to her fourth Olympic Games. (Canada is expected to send at least five female cross-country skiers to Pyeongchang based on World Cup and Olympic trial results.)

“I have high expectations of myself,” Kocher says. “I put a lot of effort into everything I do. But I’m also way more relaxed about everything at this point in my life.

“Making the Olympics may happen — or it may not — but it doesn’t define me as it did before.”

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Kocher knows she has a big hill to climb as she tries to qualify for the 2018 Winter Games. (Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Not life or death

Like many elite athletes, Kocher used to let her sport consume her waking hours. But her passions these days extend way beyond the gym or mountain. 

She is a student. She is a trained doula, providing support to mothers before, during and after childbirth. And she also got married this summer to (literally) the boy next door, Alex Lawson.

“I met him online, but he happened to live next door,” she says. “I’m a bit embarrassed to say we met on Tinder.”

Born and raised in Red Deer, Alta., Kocher learned to cross-country ski at the River Bend Golf Course and Heritage Ranch. At age 15, she put a rifle on her back and tried out biathlon.

Two years later, she moved to the Rocky Mountains to train at the Canmore Nordic Centre, where she met Boruta.

“Richard was a stable rock,” she says. “He was always there for you. He never changed during a race.

“It’s very easy for a coach to get nervous at a bigger event, just in the same way athletes do. But he was exactly the same whether it was the Alberta Cup or the Olympic Games.”

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Kocher gave it her all in Sochi, where she helped Cananda’s 4X6-km relay team finish eighth. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Seize the day

Under Boruta’s guidance, Kocher won bronze at a World Cup race in 2006. (She is the last Canadian woman to grace a World Cup podium in an individual biathlon event.)

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Kocher was a member of the 4X6-kilometre relay team that finished eighth. She also claimed 25th in the 10-kilometre pursuit.

“We always knew Zina was fast,” says Justin Wadsworth, the former head coach of the Canadian cross-country ski team who agreed to work with Kocher after Baruta died. “She knows this is going to be a challenge but, at this time of her life, it’s a fun challenge.

“She is very focused but very easy-going and just a pleasure to work with.”

On a recent fall afternoon, Kocher scrambled up Mount Lady MacDonald near Canmore and soaked up the view. 

“Seize these precious days just as you should grab hold of those who are dear to your hearts,” she later wrote on Instagram. “Take the chances you feared or dared not.”

With Boruta in her heart, Kocher is taking the chance she might have dared not.

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