On Friday, Sean Doherty won the first U.S. medal at biathlon World Youth and Junior Championships since 2009, when Grace Boutot won silver. The drought to a male medal was one year longer, back to 2008, when Leif Nordgren earned bronze.
And going into the 10 k pursuit on Sunday, it seemed like another medal was, well, not a guarantee, but definitely a strong possibility. Doherty, who lives in Center Conway, New Hampshire, but trains with the Vermont Collegiate Biathlon/Ethan Allen program in northern Vermont, started only 3.6 seconds behind sprint winner Fabien Claude of France.
Things didn’t get off to a great start, though, when Doherty missed two shots in the very first prone stage and dropped to fourth, 30 seconds out of the lead, which had shifted to Rene Zahkna of Estonia.
“When I was in the wax cabin before the race, thinking over my plan, that was not how I planned it,” Doherty laughed over the phone from Obertilliach, Austria. “But if there’s any time in the race to have not your best shooting stage, the first one is okay, because there’s plenty of racing to work back from that. And I feel like I did that very well. I wasn’t too worried about it at the time because I didn’t drop back too far, and I knew I still had three shooting stages to work with and focus on.”
That kind of calm and maturity propelled 17-year-old Doherty – who remarkably still has another year of youth eligibility – steadily upwards. By the third stage, he hadn’t collected any more penalties and took the lead. Leaving the last standing stage, he had a 33-second advantage over Zahkna, and had sealed the deal on the first gold for the United States since Jay Hakkinen’s in 1997.
In a somewhat sloppy four-stage pursuit, very few racers shot better than Doherty; only three beat his three penalties, which wouldn’t usually be characterized as exceptional. Couple that with the 15th-fastest ski time, and you’ve got yourself a World Champion.
“It was really cool to have a good race when it really counted,” Doherty told FasterSkier.
His late-in-the-game cool was all the more impressive considering what had happened in the previous races. In the junior men’s race, which had finished just 20 minutes before the youth men began, Russians Alexandr Loginov and Maxim Tsvetkov came into the range the last time in first and second, then missed three and two targets and handed the win to Johannes Thingnes Bø of Norway.
That wasn’t going to happen to Doherty.
“With the standing shooting, I just knew that I had to do what I was trained to do,” he said. “Not change anything. I’ve seen it a lot from watching the World Cup online and racing experience: people hesitate and miss. So I just went with my pace and how I felt. It worked out just fine for me.”
After clinching the victory, he was able to take enough time to grab an American flag in the finishing stretch and ski it across the finish line.
“It was incredible,” he said of the last lap of skiing. “I wasn’t getting any splits, but it was just amazing to know that it was locked up. That I was going to be able to grab the flag at the end – all the stuff that I just see people do at big World Championship type races, and then all of a sudden, wow, I’m going to be able to do that.”
In a single weekend, Doherty became the most decorated young biathlete in U.S. history. While Hakkinen can match his gold, never before has an American won multiple individual medals at the Youth and Junior Championships. (Lanny Barnes won bronze and relay silver in 2002.)
For Doherty – who has been training hard all year with coach Algis Shalna, himself an Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union in the relay in 1984 – the medals had seemed like a possibility, but hardly something to check off a goal sheet.
“I went in knowing that I was capable of a podium, but it’s very hard to plan this type of result, I think,” he said. “I was going in hopeful, but not necessarily like, we have a major goal to get on the podium.”
Besides training, which takes him tow or three hours from home to places like Jericho or Craftsbury, Vermont, for weekends with his coach and teammates, Doherty has prepared by doing a few biathlon races in North America and some ski races as well. Earlier this winter in Craftsbury, he was the third junior and first J1 in a 12 k Eastern Cup race, right in with several racers who earned trips to U23’s.
But as a biathlete, Doherty turned heads when he crushed the World Juniors qualification field, typically winning by two or three minutes. That can give an athlete confidence, but it’s also completely different than competing against a strong field at an event like World Junior Championships.
Luckily, Doherty has been to two previous Championships, as well as the Youth Olympic Games. And he also has Shalna’s guidance.
“It’s just a lot of good coaching,” Doherty said of his preparation for big races. “Algis and Vlad [Cervenka] and the whole staff is really great. So it’s relying on some previous experience and trusting that my coaches have a good plan for me. That’s really all you can do. Maybe you can watch some online and get a feel for the environment, but it’s nothing compared to when you’re actually there.”
Doherty will have one more chance to add to his medal tally at these Championships, in the individual race on Tuesday. With no other American men qualifying for the 60-racer pursuit, a team relay medal seems unlikely.
After Obertilliach, Doherty will focus on the junior races at Open European/U26 Championships, to be held in Bulgaria later this winter. In previous seasons he has also raced at home for Kennett High School, but with his biathlon focus growing every year that’s no longer a possibility.
“Unfortunately, because I’m traveling so much I’m not actually doing the high school races,” he said. “I feel like I can’t really be a part of the team because I’m not there enough. I’d love to, but I’m not doing that this year.”
Instead, he’s soaking up an experience that only a few Americans are lucky enough to earn: racing in Europe, and carrying that flag home across the finish line.