Sara Studebaker is an Idaho-raised, New-Hampshire educated, Lake Placid-based Olympic biathlete – who just happens to be adopting Anchorage, Alaska as her second (or third) home. While Studebaker lives and trains primarily out of the Olympic Training Center in upstate New York, her boyfriend, former biathlete Zach Hall, stays in Anchorage, where he has works and trains junior biathletes part-time.
Between traveling on the biathlon World Cup all winter and the distance separating the East Coast from Alaska, Studebaker, who just celebrated her 28th birthday, has been upfront about her need for time away from the team – to have time for what she calls her “other life.” In the past, that’s been hard to find: the national team program has been fairly strict about requiring athletes to be in Lake Placid for large chunks of time.
This year, that has changed a bit, and Studebaker just returned from a several-week trip to Anchorage – one of several so far.
“For the first couple of years, I wanted to be maybe a little more strict if you will, just to make sure that we are really on the same page,” said Jonne Kahkonen, who is entering his third winter as the U.S. women’s coach. “But the more mature and experienced the athletes are, the more flexible I want to be with the training. I see this as a long-term progression. Some athletes can be more independent, and Sara is more experienced and has been around a little bit longer, so it’s maybe a little easier.”
Allowing Studebaker to head to Alaska was made a bit easier thanks to the city’s world-class shooting range, which also recently added paved rollerski loops connecting to the Coastal Trail. These days, Alaska isn’t the biathlon hotbed that it has been at some points in the past, but with excellent facilities and a group of dedicated juniors, that could be changing. Kahkonen hopes that Studebaker’s periodic presence there might help.
“Whenever we can be visible it’s good for us, and good for the sport – that’s a given,” he said in a phone interview from Utah. “I haven’t had a chance to travel up there yet, but it’s on my to-do list, for sure something that I’d like to do. I see it as a huge opportunity for us – they have a really solid program for cross-country skiing and some interest in biathlon as well. So having Sara there is a good thing.”
Studebaker, whose top World Cup finish of the 2012 season was 15th in a sprint in Kontiolahti, Finland, is hoping that the added flexibility will help her rebound after a year that wasn’t what she had hoped for. After making the Olympics in 2010 and then breaking into the top-20 on the World Cup on four different occasions in 2011, Studebaker’s goal had been to continue that ascent. World Championships was especially frustrating; her top finish was 38th.
She’ll soon have a chance for redemption. The biathletes arrived in Heber, Utah, for a camp yesterday, and after that the team will have just ten days before they fly to Sweden for a pre-competition camp and then the first World Cup races.
“It’s kind of like Utah and then, bam, season, basically,” Studebaker said.
FasterSkier talked to when she was finishing up her latest trip to Anchorage.
FasterSkier: What have you been up to in Alaska?
Sara Studebaker: Trying to stay dry! It has been really, really rainy up here. Alaska was floating away, which was kind of difficult because I had an intensity week and I was trying to do intervals in the pouring rain. I got pretty wet. But fall training everywhere has its headaches.
FS: So, fall training… Did you do any more adventurous or touristy things?
SS: Zach went out hunting last week, so I was able to tag along with him, based out of his brother’s house outside of Anchorage. I would go out in the early morning and sit on the marshes and watch for animals, and then go and train during the day. It was a good mix of training and other life things.
FS: Were you able to meet up with any of the APU women, or were you always training alone?
SS: This time of year, we’re doing more and more biathlon-specific training, so it’s not always conducive to meeting up with a lot of other people. But they actually just paved a loop up here at the range and connected it to the Coastal Trail, so the situation for biathlon training is really good.
FS: Are there a lot of other biathletes training at the range?
SS: Zach does coaching with some of the juniors up here, so I did some training with them. They have an Eagle Eyes [kids’] biathlon program which sometimes coincides with when I’m up there. It’s nice to hook up with the juniors in the area and to help motivate them. It’s a pretty new program up here in Anchorage, and they have a lot of potential so it’s helpful for them to see the top level of biathlon and places that they can go.
FS: How do you like the added flexibility in your schedule this year?
SS: It has been really nice. I’m getting to the point where I know how to train, I know what I need to do, and I’m really committed to my goals. So being either with the team or here on my own, I’m going to be doing the same high-quality training – especially with the situation here, having a paved range now.
I had to find a balance this year in terms of my biathlon life and my “other” life. To be able to be happy – that’s the only way that you can continue this at a high level. You see people, especially like Holly [Brooks] and Kikkan [Randall], who have made it a priority to be in the place that they know they want to be, and still have a semblance of a normal life but still perform at a high level. I think that’s a good model for a lot of us, especially as we get older and we have more life things that start happening.
FS: So I guess that begs the question – is Anchorage that place that you want to be?
SS: For right now, it is pretty perfect. Zach is here working and it’s where his family is, and it works out really well for me to train here. So I definitely see this as being a little bit of a home base for me for the next couple years. But in my heart I’ll always be an Idaho girl!
FS: You’ve been over in Europe for most of the season for a couple of years now – how are you adjusting to that, and how does it fit in with “life things”?
SS: It’s definitely hard, and the times that are the hardest are when we are in places where the internet doesn’t work very well, especially if things aren’t going well for you in the races. It can be really tough. There are things you can’t change – I’m going to be leaving in November, and I’ll come back for a little bit over Christmas and then I’ll be gone again until the end of March.
That’s why in the spring, summer, and fall you have to take advantage as much as you can of the times when we can train somewhere else. Luckily Jonne and USBA have been pretty understanding of my want and need to do that. It’s a little bit different for me because I’m not from Lake Placid like Tim [Burke] and Lowell [Bailey] and Annelies [Cook], and even Susan [Dunklee] is from fairly nearby. We have found a good balance between times when I need to be back there, and times when I can to be here.
FS: How do you feel about the 2012 season, and have you identified some of the reasons why it didn’t go as you were hoping?
SS: Looking back at last season, there were some definite high points, and things that made me realize that the potential is certainly there, and then there were some things that didn’t go how I wanted them to. World Championships wasn’t the World Championships I wanted to have.
FS: Do you feel more confident in your training now?
SS: I had a really good discussion with Jonne [Kahkonen] after the season was over, and we changed a lot of things going into this season as far as the training and the volume. It has been really helpful to have him as a dedicated women’s team coach for the last two years or so – we can see across the board with the women that there’s a little more athlete-specific stuff happening. We’re getting to know each other better, and being able to change things as they are ongoing is important – for instance I was getting kind of tired in the middle of the summer, and we changed my training and it has been going better since then. So I definitely feel very positive right now.
FS: Do you try to peak for World Championships as the focus or your season, or what are your goals? Ole Einar Bjørndalen recently said that it was very difficult, for example, to win the overall World Cup if he focused on also peaking for World Championships… What is your philosophy on that?
SS: In an ideal world, I think that you’d be able to start out pretty strong and then continue that way throughout the whole season. It’s definitely hard to do that, just because the season is so long. For sure for us, for our whole team in general, World Championships is a focus, but I also think that there’s no reason that you can’t be pretty strong all year.
You look at the best biathletes and they perform well in Östersund, and they perform well in Oslo and Khanty-Mansiysk at the end of the season. Maintaining a consistent level of training throughout the season and coming into the season rested is important. I think that’s something that hindered me last year. I trained a little bit too much leading up to the first World Cups and so I wasn’t rested enough, and then it’s really hard to recover from that.
FS: Sochi is on the World Cup calendar for the first time – are you excited to see the new venue?
SS: I am! The biathlon circuit goes to so many of the same places over the years that it’s really cool when there’s a different place on the schedule. I know Sochi has been working really hard to make their venues really good, so it will be cool to see what it’s like. The biggest thing for me when I get to a new venue, especially knowing that it will be an important venue for World Championships or the Olympics, is that you have to have a total positive outlook when you look at the course. You don’t want to be thinking, “Oh my God, this is so hard,” or “oh, I’m going to fall on this corner.” You have to be thinking about the positives.
FS: That also means you’ll be spending two weekends in Russia, since Khanty-Mansiysk is also still on the calendar… what will that be like?
SS: We hope it’s going to be great! But I think that might be the period that people are most worried about. Russia, to their credit, they always put on great events there. The level of organization that goes into it is very high. They are very proud of their biathlon venues and their World Cup, and Sochi is a big project so I’m sure they will make sure that things are very good there. But we spent a little over two weeks in Siberia for World Champs two years ago and it was tough. Hopefully having a little bit of a mix of being in Sochi and then Khanty, the change of scenery will help.