HANOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE – When Laura Spector left the East and drove to Bozeman, Montana, this spring, she knew she was headed for school, but she wasn’t sure what was going to happen after that.
The 2010 Olympian and national team biathlete had finished up her first full year of training and racing since graduating from Dartmouth College, and it wasn’t what she had been hoping for. After starting the early-season World Cups she struggled, ending up overtrained and trying to rest up while simultaneously competing on the second-tier IBU Cup.
At the time, Spector told FasterSkier that she would “plan to not ever in the future be just solely an athlete,” but remaining in her sport was still a very real possibility. Despite moving to Bozeman to do an intensive summer course of organic chemistry at Montana State University, Spector brought all of her training gear with her and thought she might rejoin the team in some capacity in the fall.
After a few more months, her plans have solidified, and biathlon isn’t in them. Spector has a job working in a biology lab here in Hanover.
“I’m not planning to compete this year,” Spector told FasterSkier. “I’m not going to have time because I’ll be working full-time for a whole year, so biathlon is not in the plan for this winter. Except maybe for fun if there’s something local.”
Instead of skating her way around Europe and knocking down targets with a .22-caliber rifle, Spector will be working for Dr. Sharon Bickel, a Dartmouth College professor, looking at DNA replication and meiosis in fruitflies.
“I am really excited,” Spector said. “It should be a lot of fun. I finally get to do something with my degree, and it’s something I’m really interested in. It will keep me busy most of the time. So I’m very excited to have it.”
Just Getting Started
For U.S. Biathlon, Spector’s decision leaves the women’s team down a veteran competitor.
“As a team, for sure it’s a big loss,” U.S. women’s coach Jonne Kahkonen said in an interview. “Two years ago she made a couple of mass starts already and was on her way up. And I can definitely see that there’s more there. But that’s just the way life goes – not everybody can do this forever, or even until the next Olympics. So that’s just part of this game.”
Spector, who will turn 25 this fall, grew up in Lennox, Massachusetts, and skied the state’s high school circuit as well as NENSA’s Eastern Cups for several years before moving to the Green Mountain Valley School in Waitsfield, Vermont. Under the tutelage of Jon Arne Enevoldsen, she made her first trip to biathlon’s World Junior Championships in 2005.
The following year, she enrolled at Dartmouth, where she competed in a few college races and finished third at the Williams College carnival. But she also kept going in biathlon, making another trip to World Junior Championships and finishing ninth in the sprint. After that season, Spector turned to biathlon fully, making two more trips to the junior races and qualifying for senior World Championships in 2008. The next year, she spent about half the season on the World Cup.
Although she made the Vancouver Olympic team, her performances there didn’t knock anyone’s socks off – it wasn’t until the next season that she had her big breakthrough, scoring a World Cup top-20 in Oberhof, Germany, and competing in several of the prestigious 30-woman mass starts, which an American had last done six years before.
That 2010-2011 season was Kahkonen’s first on the U.S. staff, and he remembers Spector’s performances as having allowed the U.S. women to build towards higher and higher levels of success.
“That was just the ball rolling in the right direction, and a lot of times that’s something that the team needs,” Kahkonen said. “The work is there, the potential is there, but you need someone who can actually get the results, or at least a little taste of the results, and then the others realize that it’s possible, that it’s out there. And for sure Laura was a big part of that.”
And that’s what Spector is leaving behind: despite a subpar string of results in 2012, everyone at the U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) was certain that the team’s young veteran could return to the sport’s biggest stage, and be shooting alongside the world’s best in Europe.
“We will miss her on the team, but we wish her well,” USBA President Max Cobb wrote in an e-mail. “We were of course sorry to hear the that she would not continue to train and compete, but these are the hard choices every athlete has to make.”
For Spector, it wasn’t as hard of a choice as she might have imagined.
“I’m sure I’ll miss the race season a little bit,” she admitted. “It will be weird to know that my teammates are competing and I’m not. But I’m also really excited about the choice I’ve made and I’m very happy, so I don’t have any regrets about it.”
Back to School
Spector’s insistence on finishing up at Dartmouth rather than focusing on biathlon full-time was sometimes a frustration for her coaches on the national team. And Spector, the consummate multi-tasker, needed something else to occupy her mind after she graduated. In her only year as a full-time resident at Lake Placid’s Olympic Training Center, she wanted more – and coaches could tell.
“It’s kind of a surprise, but not really,” Kahkonen said of Spector’s decision. “Just talking to Laura, she was not quite there, exactly – not to say that she was not motivated, or not fit, but I could tell last winter that something was a little off, so maybe it was in the back of her head that she wanted to go on and take some more school and pursue that. So by then I could tell that she wanted to figure some other things out in her life.”
In meetings this spring, the two tried to work through their plans for Spector’s career.
“I said that to me, as a coach, I want results, and I want from the athletes 100 percent commitment,” Kahkonen said. “If you’re not sure about it, then you should take some time off and figure out whether this is what you really want to do. So that was the discussion at the meetings in the spring. I didn’t know if I should say it.”
Spector took that idea and ran all the way to Bozeman with it. In part because of her busy schedule as a biathlete when she was at Dartmouth, she had skipped a few classes that are traditionally required before graduate school, and she wanted to fill out her coursework so that she could get another degree in the future. She also wanted to test out going back to school.
“It was very fast-paced because it was two terms of organic chemistry in twelve weeks, but I did really well and I enjoyed being able to study again and keeping my mind busy,” Spector said. “And I was also working part-time in a fly lab, studying fruitflies, and that was my first lab experience – and I really liked it. So I was hoping that would work out and it would be a step towards taking a job in a lab for a full year.”
Now certain that school and biology are the right route, Spector knows that she needed to gain more experience in the lab. She plans to apply to graduate school at the end of the fall and begin next September. Until then, she’ll be working with fruitflies.
The door is still open, however, if Spector changes her mind – or finishes school.
“In a way, I think it’s good, because if she decides that she wants to come back and start competing again, when that’s all done, she can have a full focus on biathlon,” Kahkonen said.
And Spector, a notoriously hard worker, isn’t exactly slacking. If she decides to return to the sport, she’ll definitely be fit.
“I’m still biking and running every day,” she said. “I’m still really active, especially in Bozeman because it’s a really great place to do all that, and I still plan to be working out every single day.”
What she’ll miss most about her sport, she said, is her team.
“I’m planning to go watch the rollerski nationals [in Jericho, Vermont], and I’m really excited to see everybody and say hello,” Spector said. “We’re all practically a family and I really want to see them and talk to them face to face, and really let them know what I’m doing. It will be good, because I’ll be out East for a while when they are, so maybe we’ll cross paths a little bit more.”
And as for her coach? There seem to be no hard feelings.
“She’s going to be in Jericho, and I said that if she brought her rifle, I’d zero her,” Kahkonen laughed.