U.S. Biathletes Embracing Weather & Course Conditions At The Winter Olympics
by Peggy Shinn
A Team USA biathlete skis during a Women's biathlon training session ahead of Winter Olympic Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 1, 2022 in Beijing, China.
ZHANGJIAKOU, China — Biathlon at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 begins with the mixed relay on Saturday, February 5. And the U.S. biathletes are embracing the challenges presented by the Zhangjiakou venue.
Namely, the wind and the cold.
Temperatures this past week have ranged in the single digits Fahrenheit, with a cold wind. It’s so cold that even first-time Olympian Paul Schommer — who grew up in Wisconsin, attended college in Minnesota, and now lives in one of the coldest places in the Lower 48, Fargo, North Dakota — was surprised.
“I was a little bit skeptical when everybody said it's going to be super cold,” said Schommer. “But it's going to be a big factor, and trying to manage body temperature is going to be something that's really important in the races.”
Not only can the wind affect accuracy in the shooting range, but the biathletes must contend with cold fingers.
However, these conditions could play to Team USA’s hands.
First, The Cold
“For the four of us, being that we're all from northern states that can be pretty cold and nasty in the winter, that's one thing that can maybe actually work to our advantage,” noted Leif Nordgren, a three-time Olympian who was referring to the three other men on the U.S. Olympic biathlon team. “Some of our competitors are used to racing in the more mild European winters.”
Nordgren lived in Minnesota in his youth and now calls Hinesburg, Vermont, home. Sean Doherty, also a three-time Olympian, grew up in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and now lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. And Jake Brown, like Schommer is from the Midwest: he grew up in Minnesota and is part of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) that trains at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in northern Vermont (another one of the coldest places in the continental U.S.).
Doherty and Schommer are competing in the mixed relay, along with Susan Dunklee, also a three-time Olympian, and Clare Egan, who made her Olympic debut in 2018.
Dunklee grew up in Barton, Vermont, a few miles south of the Canadian border, and trains with the CGRP, as does Egan, who hails from Maine. Joanne Reid has been training in windy Casper, Wyoming, and Deedra Irwin was raised in Wisconsin and currently trains as part of the Vermont Army National Guard.
Dunklee pointed out that biathletes competing on the IBU World Cup tour have not faced conditions below 15 degrees Fahrenheit in the past several years. But these temps are nothing new for the Americans. When they train and race in North America, they often face cold conditions. At a world cup in Alberta, Canada, in February 2019, the U.S. women finished eighth, one of their best relay finishes.
“I think this is an opportunity for us to excel in the cold temperatures,” said Egan.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Beijing 2022? Visit TeamUSA.org/Beijing-2022-Olympic-Games to view the competition schedule, medal table and results.
The wind is another challenge. Winds howled at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, too, and Doherty, for one, struggled in the conditions.
Since then, the American biathletes have worked with coach Matt Emmons, a four-time Olympic shooter who won three medals in rifle competition, including gold at the 2004 Athens Summer Games.
“Our team has really made huge strides when it comes to our shooting percentage and accuracy,” said Egan. “[Matt] has really helped us bring this team to a much higher level than we were ever at as a team before.”
The wind at the 2022 Olympic biathlon is also consistent, noted Doherty. In the range, it blows left to right every day, and Doherty described it as “a very shootable wind.”
“Although it will be a challenge, it's nothing new,” he added. “It's not like it is just going to blow up on race day, and it's something we've never seen before. I think it will be tough, but it's good. It will give an opportunity for this field to get reshuffled, and that's always exciting.”
In training, Brown made note of the wind while skiing on the course and thinks that it will be as much a factor there as in the range. Looping back to the stadium, the course heads straight into the wind. This section rolls steadily downward, and typically biathletes would either tuck and skate or cruise along using what’s called the v2 alternate technique (skating technique with poling every stride).
“Depending on how much wind there is, do you want to stay low and sacrifice power and not use you poles but stay more aero?” Brown noted. “Or do you go with a different technique? So I think the wind actually will play a role on the course as well.”
The Zhangjiakou Biathlon Courses
As for ski trails, the U.S. biathletes have welcomed the change of scene. Except for Olympic years, they spend every season typically racing on the same courses, mostly in Europe.
The Zhangjiakou trails are rolling, and Schommer noticed that the climbs can be deceptive. It’s also at high altitude, with the start/finish elevation over a mile above sea level, with the hills climbing another couple hundred feet. In a desert environment, the snow is also dry, which can lead to slower skiing, especially if new snow falls.
“[The course] is going to sneak up on a lot of athletes, so you definitely have to respect it,” Schommer said. “It’s a course that is going to help the world see who really is the best biathlete.”
As For Olympic Medals …
As for the oft-cited stat that biathlon is the only winter sport in which the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal, the 2022 U.S. biathletes see it as a stat rooted in unfamiliarity with the sport.
First, Olympic biathlon often has some of the biggest fields at the Winter Games, and most of the biathletes are world class.
“All of them are capable of winning a medal on the right day,” said Nordgren. “It just throws a whole ‘nother difficulty in that aspect of trying to win a medal.”
To help American sports fans better understand biathlon and what biathletes face each Olympic Games, Egan likes to compare it to baseball.
“If you want to hit a home run, you have to have a perfect hit, and you have to run really fast around the loop,” she explained. “In biathlon, if you want to win an individual medal, you have to have perfect hits, whether it’s 10 out of 10 or 20 out of 20 [targets], and you have to ski really fast around the loop.”
But in baseball, the best hitters usually have batting averages around 0.30, meaning they hit the ball 30 percent of the time. The best biathletes have similar shooting averages, with the best shooting perfectly less than a third of the time.
The American biathletes are right up there. For the past decade, they have finished on the podium in world cups and world championships, just not yet at the Olympic Games.
“We're a team that performs very consistently at a very high level,” added Egan. “And the fact that we have not happened to do it at the Olympics is similar to asking why a great baseball player, if you sent him or her out to play one game every four years, why they wouldn't hit a homerun during that game.”
“We have that capability, it's just a matter of timing,” she continued. “Of course, I'd be ecstatic if we were to do it here. But I'm very comfortable with the level of our team and being one of the best teams in our sport.”