Building On Recent Training, Success, US Biathlon Works Toward Its Long-Term Vision
by Nicole Haase
Sean Doherty competes during the men's 10-kilometer sprint at the IBU World Cup Biathlon Hochfilzen on Dec. 09, 2022 in Hochfilzen, Austria.
With the bulk of training and hard work done, the U.S. biathlon team is getting into race mode and preparing for the winter season. With a new program structure and long-term plan, the team is looking to work towards sustained success and elevation of the program’s profile.
They are a team in transition.
Five athletes — Clare Egan, Susan Dunklee, Maddie Phaneuf, Hallie Grossman and Leif Nordgren — retired from the team following the world championships in late March. That has given opportunities for young skiers with junior eligibility to join the senior team in training and certain competitions to begin to grow their confidence, experience and resumes.
Lowell Bailey, US Biathlon’s director of high performance, said this American team is a mix of young skiers with a lot of potential and proven veterans who are looking to build on their previous accomplishments.
While there are individual and team goals for this first year of the Olympic cycle, Bailey said US Biathlon took time at the conclusion of last winter season to make some overall program changes. The men’s and women’s national teams have been consolidated under one head coach, Armin Auchentaller, and the program set forth a comprehensive eight-year plan that has targets for the Olympic Winter Games Milano and Cortina 2026. However, the ultimate goal is winning Olympic medals in the 2030 Games.
To achieve that goal, they are expanding club development, talent ID and talent transfer programming, and increasing support for top athletes. Staffing changes and restructuring were made with the needs of the senior national team in mind.
There is certainly a desire to see growth and medal finishes before 2030; however, Bailey said the goal isn’t sporadic individual wins, but an overall elevation of the program. They don’t want US Biathlon’s success to hinge on one athlete or one coach but rather be founded on the strength of the system and culture that they build. That sort of grassroots, structural change takes time to develop.
“In order to have sustained competitive excellence, we feel we need to have a longer view,” said Bailey, himself a four-time Olympian for Team USA. “The goal is the competitive excellence that comes with building a program over a long timeframe so that you can build the systems, the programming, the depth of field, the depth of clubs, the depth of coaching talent and coaches and education programming that’s necessary to carry the entire program.”
Biathlon is a sport that requires a long view. Bailey described it as having a really long runway. In order to compete internationally, athletes generally need a minimum of 10 years of high-level cross-country skiing as well as 10 years of high-level shooting. Put in that context, the eight-year plan seems aggressive but obtainable.
While the training and preparation to be an elite biathlete takes a decade or more, Bailey said the tradeoff is that the athletes who reach the top are able to stay there for a while. That’s why there is such excitement in the program for the group of skiers on the team right now.
“On one hand, we’ve got some returning athletes that really are in the sweet spot of their career, and we’re excited to see what results they can have,” Bailey said. “And on the other hand, we’re excited to see some of the new younger athletes.”
Deedra Irwin competes in the women's biathlon 15-kilometer individual event during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 07, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
One of the athletes in the sweet spot is Deedra Irwin, who in February had the best Olympic performance of any American biathlete. She finished seventh in the women’s 15-kilometer individual event. She and Joanne Reid, a fellow Olympian who finished in the top 10 in the 2019 world championships, are athletes Bailey says the coaches are “psyched to see what another year of training can do.”
There is no real offseason for biathletes. There may be a few down weeks of less-structured training, but with a summer roller-skiing season, the sport is essentially year-round. Though it is demanding on the athletes, it does mean the Americans feel like they’re in a great position to start the winter season.
Sean Doherty and Vincent Bonacci finished in the flower ceremony (top-six finishers) at the summer world championships and will be looking to see how that translates to the winter season.
Maxime Germain is still a junior athlete, but he’s racing and training with the national team. He won a bronze medal in the sprint at the 2020 junior world championships and is expected to represent Team USA at this year’s junior worlds in Kazakhstan.
“With the success that he’s had this season and the really high quality of training that he has under his belt this past year, we’re really excited to see where he can take that,” Bailey said.
The biathlon world cup season kicks off Nov. 29-Dec. 4 in Kontiolahti, Finland. The winter schedule includes a stop in Auchentaller’s hometown of Antholz, Italy. The team knows the area and often performs well there, said Bailey. But the team is especially excited about the world championships in February in Oberhof, Germany.
It’s one of the most iconic venues of the sport and should draw big crowds – something that’s been missing over the past few seasons due to the pandemic, said Bailey. The athlete experience is markedly different without the fans, so the team is looking forward to the excitement of being in such a revered area. The terrain is hilly and requires skiers to be good climbers and good on the descent. Bailey said the team is intentionally working on those parts of their repertoire in order to be ready.
Beyond the personal accomplishment of Irwin’s Olympic finish, it also provided motivation and validation for the entire team that the work they are putting in has a purpose, and that it is paying off.
There’s a difference between telling yourself you’re good enough to compete with the world’s best and actually competing in the biggest race of the last four years. The inspiration and confidence that Irwin and the rest of the team gain from her seventh-place finish are what fuels the most difficult training sessions. And those training sessions, Bailey said, are where the gains that will push them even further in a race are made.