(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from U.S. biathlete Paul Schommer.)
What’s the old saying? It doesn’t really matter what happens in December, as long as it all comes together three weeks before World Championships?
The tale of the US Biathlon men’s team goes something like that, with what started out as a skeleton crew of three men in December expanding to five men who finished in the top 40 a month and a half later on Friday in Antholz, Italy.
It was the first time in recent memory that the U.S. men have achieved such a feat. According to US Biathlon men’s coach Jonas Johansson, the 2012 International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Kontiolahti, Finland, was a big one as well, with four U.S. men in the top 16.
But all five starters scoring World Cup points in the top 40?
“This shows that there is great potential in the men’s squad right now,” Johansson wrote in an email on Friday. “And when the group gets stronger, each individual has to push harder each workout to fight for a start spot and this will make the team even stronger in the future.”
Lowell Bailey led the team in 10th in Friday’s 20 k individual — the longest individual race on the circuit. It was his second-best result of the season after placing ninth in the 12.5 k pursuit in December in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. On the phone on Friday, Bailey explained the Antholz 20 k was a race he had been targeting.
“I’ve been preparing for this race all season and especially over Christmas … so I’m glad to see that pay off,” he said.
Bailey started 25th out of 105 in the men’s field and proceeded to hit every target in the first three stages. That presented him with the very real possibility of a podium with one standing stage to go, but a miss there cost Bailey a minute and put him a few places back by the finish.
“You always wish that you could have one more shot, and of course it’s easy to look in an individual where that would put me, but I think all in all I was happy with the race,” he said.
While Bailey initially crossed the finish line in fifth, he was ultimately bumped to 10th, 1:39.1 minutes behind the winner, Russia’s Anton Shipulin.
“It’s a brutal 4 k course here with about a [kilometer] of climbing right out of the range, and I just tried to take it out fast, but also with the intention of keeping my speed throughout the race,” said Bailey, who posted the 26th-ranked overall course time and notably, the fourth-fastest shooting time.
Recalling his final loop, Bailey said he lost time on Germany’s Arnd Peiffer, who started first and ended up 8.7 seconds ahead of him in ninth, but was able to squeak ahead of another German, Benedikt Doll, who started fourth and placed 11th, 1.7 seconds back from Bailey.
“I’m happy with the result and psyched with the team result, too, because I think that bodes well for us in the relay tomorrow,” the 35-year-old Bailey said of the men’s 4 x 7.5 k relay on Saturday.
Career-best 17th for Canada’s Scott Gow
While Bailey notched his second individual top 10 of the season, Biathlon Canada’s Scott Gow achieved a career best in 17th, 2:37.7 back from Shipulin’s time, with a single miss in his second prone (0+0+1+0) and the ninth-fastest shooting time overall. Gow started 19th, and after two clean stages, he was in contention for a top 10.
“After my first two clean bouts, I told myself not to get too over confident and that I still had two bouts remaining,” Gow, 26, recalled in an email. “I put my focus into my skiing and tried to approach the range as mechanically as possible in an effort to remove any emotions from my normal procedure. Today it worked very well and I’m pleased that I was able to shut my brain down.”
He described the range conditions as “extremely calm,” after training throughout the week in considerable wind.
“After watching the girls yesterday battling big gusts, I was fully prepared for a tough fight on the range,” Gow wrote, referring to the women’s 15 k individual on Thursday. “Fortunately we ended up with almost zero wind, and that lasted for the entire race.”
After initially finishing ninth, Gow was “somewhat confident” he could hang on to a top 20.
“I knew there were a lot of fast guys behind me who were shooting well,” he wrote. “… I had my fingers crossed to be in the top 16.”
He came close, within 5.6 seconds of 16th, but claimed 17th to beat his previous personal best of 18th (which he tallied twice: earlier this season in the Nove Mesto sprint and at last year’s World Championships in the 20 k individual).
“Today’s race was a big confidence boost,” Gow explained. “I still have some areas I can improve upon, but this result is a big step in the right direction. As long as I can stay healthy leading into [World Championships], train smart and stay focused I think I can have a good championships. I know the potential is there, now I have to start capitalizing more.”
Shipulin’s Special Place
On an afternoon with considerably easier shooting conditions than the women faced on Thursday, as Gow vouched for, Shipulin started 33rd and missed just one target on his second prone stage, just like Gow (0+0+1+0). The Russian posted the fastest range time and third-fastest course time to rocket to first at the finish (in 50:38.1 minutes) by a whopping 41 seconds over France’s Martin Fourcade, who started 28th and missed two (0+1+1+0). For Shipulin, it was his first World Cup win of the season and first career win in a 20 k individual.
“I have a special relationship [with this venue] because my first win was here in Antholz,” Shipulin said at the post-race press conference, according to a translator. “I can’t say it was easy today, but I would like to thank all the fans who were cheering for me. And I would like to thank Martin for giving me a chance.”
Fourcade, who ended up second, said Antholz’s altitude was challenging at some 1,600 meters (about 5,2500 feet) above sea level.
“Being back at altitude after two weeks in Oberhof and Ruhpolding was really hard,” Fourcade said at the press conference of the last two World Cups in Germany. “And even though I was in really good shape, today it was really painful.”
While he was skipping Saturday’s relay, Fourcade said he would be back for Sunday’s 15 k mass start (the select, 30-man race Bailey and Gow also qualified for).
“When everybody asks me why I don’t win in Antholz so much, I will try to do it on Sunday in the mass start,” Fourcade said.
Ukraine’s Sergey Semenov was an early leader after starting 16th. He held onto first until Fourcade finished 15.8 seconds faster, bumping him to second, and ultimately placed third, 56.8 seconds behind Shipulin. Semenov appeared to give every last ounce to the finish, stumbling before crashing headfirst across the line.
“Yesterday in our team meeting with our coach, we recalled the last time here in an individual,” Semenov said in English at the press conference. “And if I am not mistaken, my teammate was the winner, it was Sergei Sednev.”
(According to an Antholz organizing-committee press release, Sednev won that race during the 2009/2010 season. Sednev was later suspended for failing a drug test in 2013.)
“At the meeting I thought why not today? Why not to have a good result?” Semenov continued. “Because even without the wind, Antholz is a really tough place for the shooting, maybe because of the altitude, maybe because of the last meters before the shooting range. But even without the wind it’s usually quite a lot of misses here. So I just needed to do a good shooting, and I always feel good on the 20-kilometer races.”
Semenov cleaned three stages, like Bailey, before missing one on his last standing (0+0+0+1).
“Here, it’s not enough oxygen, and for the last shot I was just out of breath,” Semenov said. “I just needed to delay it and begin it one more time, but I was already in a hurry. And then I thought, ‘OK, I still had a good shooting, I still have a good opportunity to stay at the top.’ So I did my best on the last lap, and here I am!”
It was the 28-year-old Ukrainian’s first podium of the season and fifth of his career. Last year at World Championships, he placed third in the sprint in Oslo, Norway.
“I feel quite good,” Semenov said. “At the December World Cups, I had to start with an injury of my shins, so I was not really in a good shape, but now it’s OK, and from race to race I feel better and better.”
Nordgren Back in Top 30, Schommer Shines in World Cup Debut
Also coming back from illness and injury were two of Bailey’s U.S. teammates: Leif Nordgren and Sean Doherty, who finished 29th and 36th, respectively, on Friday. Nordgren was coming off surgery on a fractured toe and Doherty rebounding from mononucleosis at the start of the season.
In an email, Nordgren, 27, explained that he was unable to train for essentially all of December, up until Dec. 24.
“I got back into training full time on the 24th,” he wrote. “I was healed enough by then that I didn’t have to take it easy at all, I could train the full amount. As of now my toe is fine for the most part, I’m missing a toenail so I have to be careful not to stub it or smash it and I have a problem with the joint bending in some directions but overall it’s fine. Skiing and running don’t give me any pain which is good.”
Friday marked Nordgren’s fourth World Cup race this season, after toughing it out in the season-opening relay in Östersund, Sweden, in late November, then returning to the circuit for last week’s races in Ruhpolding. There, he placed 71st in the sprint and 12th in the relay (with Bailey, Tim Burke and Doherty).
“Once I made it back to training I always had this race in mind,” Nordgren wrote of Friday’s 20 k. “I knew that I’d be pretty rough in Ruhpolding, but with those races under my belt I’d hopefully be in better shape this week. With the altitude this is a pretty tough 20km, my goal was to start very conservatively and ramp it up towards the end.”
After missing one shot on each of his first two stages, Nordgren cleaned the last two stages (1+1+0+0) to finish 29th (+4:00.1).
“I was skiing with some good guys on their final loops for my first few loops, so I made the decision to ski with them which may have hurt me in the end, but overall I’m happy with how I skied,” he reflected. “I would have liked to have one less miss, that would have meant a really good result for me. The two misses that I did have were bad errors that shouldn’t have happened, but that’s how biathlon goes.”
Johansson noted in his email that Nordgren needed “more races and hard workouts to get back to his normal race speed,” but he was well on his way.
“Really happy to see that Leif is back and also performs at this level already,” he wrote.
Nordgren was listed as a starter for the U.S. men’s relay on Saturday, along with Burke, who placed 34th (+4:36.5) with four misses (0+1+1+2) and Doherty, who finished 36th (+4:41.6) with three penalties (1+1+0+1), on Friday.
However, ahead of Burke and Doherty, 24-year-old Paul Schommer, a US Biathlon development skier, raced to 33rd (+4:16.6) in his first World Cup race. He started 90th and cleaned three stages, missing two on his first standing bout (0+2+0+0).
“There’s a quote by Seneca, a great Roman Philosopher, that says, ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,’ ” Schommer wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I think that pretty much sums up my success today. God has really shown me how to use some of the gifts He has given me in the last year, and today I was able to put that preparation to the test. After my first standing, I knew I just kind of let those two shots go. I just put them behind me, and concentrated on the next two stages one at a time. I just thought of it as another training session and making every shot count. I have also been shooting in a lot of wind lately so having almost no wind on the range today was super nice.
“There’s a quote by Seneca, a great Roman Philosopher, that says, ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.’ I think that pretty much sums up my success today.” — Paul Schommer, US Biathlon National Development Group, after placing 33rd in his World Cup debut
“The atmosphere here in Antholz is amazing and unlike anything I have ever experienced before,” he added. “However, for most of the race I was just in race mode and did my thing. I tried not to think about the fans, the cameras, and all the other things that could have distracted me. I just wanted to keep my focus on the task in front of me.”
“A really impressive race from Paul today,” Johansson wrote. “First WC start and he shows that he has the capacity to score WC points right away. He will learn a lot from just racing among the top athletes and I am sure that we will see a lot more from Paul in the next years.”
Back in early December, when the U.S., with just three men on the World Cup, was unable to field a men’s relay for Pokljuka, Slovenia, Schommer as the next man on the list seemed like a natural pick. But the “heavy travel and race schedule … did not justify getting someone out of the middle of a training block in Canmore,” U.S. Biathlon Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler wrote in an email at the time.
He said it was important to consider the best options for an individual’s development, adding that the U.S. didn’t intend to miss more than one relay.
“After last season, I made two goals for myself,” Schommer explained. “The first landing a top 20 on the IBU Cup and the second, earning a World Cup start. After not being named to the World Cup team for the first trimester after the pre-World Cup camp in Canmore, I was a little disappointed but also knew it was not my last chance to earn myself a start on the WC. I just stayed focused, qualified for the IBU Cup and thankfully had good enough results in Martell and Arber to be called up for Antholz. Like I said, I set the goal of starting a World Cup early this spring, but when I actually found out I was going to be racing in Antholz, I was pretty excited to say the least.”
The U.S. men were back for the relay in Ruhpolding, where they finished 12th. With the same lineup in a slightly different order (with Nordgren and Burke swapping places), they’ll set out in bib 24 (of 25 teams) on Saturday. Bailey will start them off, Nordgren will ski the second leg, Burke the third, and Doherty the anchor.
“This is a strong relay team and goal is to fight for a top 6 finish,” Johansson wrote.
Canada, which earned bronze in the men’s relay at 2016 World Championships, listed Christian Gow, followed by Scott Gow, Macx Davies, and Brendan Green as its starters (in bib 10).
In Friday’s individual race, Green finished 75th (+7:09.6) with six penalties (2+1+2+1), and Christian Gow finished with the same time for 76th (+7:09.6) with four penalties (0+2+0+2). Davies did not start.
— Harald Zimmer contributed