Before this year’s International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships, American Lowell Bailey had never cleaned a 20-kilometer individual or 15-kilometer mass start race. In layman’s terms, he had never hit all 20 targets in those types of races — the longest formats on the circuit. Not in a World Championships, not in a World Cup. That’s not to say shooting isn’t his strength; that’s just extremely difficult to do.
Fast forward to Sunday, the last day of 2017 Biathlon World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, Bailey finished his third individual race of the championships with perfect shooting, shooting clean in the 15 k mass start for sixth place. In four individual races over the last week, he hit 69 out of 70 targets.
“It’s, no words, it’s unbelievable,” Bailey said after Sunday’s mass start, where he finished with what would have been a career best (sixth) in any other of his previous World Championships appearances.
In his eighth World Championships, this year was different. Bailey started the week off by racing to fourth in the sprint, the second-best result of a U.S. biathlete at World Championships. He cleaned that race. Then he finished sixth in the pursuit for his second-best result at World Championships. That’s the race he missed one.
Not counting Olympics (Bailey finished eighth in the 20 k at the 2014 Sochi Games), he had cracked the top 10 of an individual race at World Championships once before (in last year’s mass start in Oslo, Norway, where he placed 10th). Bailey carried his momentum this year all the way to the Hochfilzen 20 k, which he won to become the first American gold medalist at Biathlon World Championships. That happened Thursday. Three days later, he ended the championships with his fourth top-six result in as many individual races.
And he did so on the same day that Susan Dunklee became the most successful U.S. female biathlete with a silver medal in the women’s 12.5 k mass start.
“I’m so happy for the team, for Susan,” Bailey said. “Our whole team deserves this world champs. We haven’t shown what we’re capable of, there’s always been one setback or another … and the stars aligned for this one. We were waiting for this moment and everything clicked for the team and it’s so great to see, and god, am I glad I stuck around to be here.”
Bailey, 35, is a new dad. Some people refer to him as a buffalo farmer. He got married nearly two years ago and he and his wife Erika welcomed a baby girl into their lives last June. You could say Bailey has a lot going on, and he considered retiring at the end of last season, yet he came into this season with a very specific focus.
“I told my staff, I said, ‘Hey, I just want to be on the podium again. It really doesn’t matter to me where that is because I know every race is just as competitive, so if it’s at world champs, great, if it’s at the first World Cup, if it’s at the last World Cup…,” Bailey explained.
With “25-some-odd” races in a season, he liked his odds. And considering the momentum he has coming out of world champs, Bailey is feeling good about the last nine races of the season.
“It’s just a matter of believing,” he said. “I’ve got the confidence now, I know I can go head to head with the best in the world … I’m just gonna enjoy the rest of the season and every race is a new day and a new chance.”
While sixth sounds pretty good, Sunday’s mass start was even more exciting for fans of Bailey and US Biathlon as he skied in first, second or third for much of the race.
Bailey put himself near the front of the 30-man field early in the mass start, entering the range in fifth for the first time. One of 18 skiers to shoot clean on that first prone stage, he headed out on his second loop in second place, just 1.1 seconds behind Russia’s Anton Shipulin in first.
On that second loop, Austria’s Simon Eder took the lead then traded off with his teammate Dominik Landertinger before Germany’s Benedikt Doll led the pack into the range for the second time, followed closely by Shipulin and Bailey, respectively.
There, Bailey shot clean and posted the fastest range time to leave the range in first, 0.9 seconds ahead of Landertinger. Overall on the day, Bailey’s range and shooting times ranked third fastest.
On the third loop, Doll, Eder and Landertinger passed Bailey early, and he ultimately entered the range for the first standing stage in eighth, just 2.5 seconds behind Doll in first. Despite tired legs, Bailey shot clean again and left the range in second.
“I just kept to what’s been working for me all week,” he recalled. “I kept to the simple fundamentals of shooting. Today I was really feeling it, I didn’t have it in the legs and sometimes that can be a distraction, but I just said, you know, just do what you can do. You know how to shoot and you know how to ski, so just go and do the best you can.”
He followed Eder, also clean through three stages, out of the range with about 3 seconds between the two. France’s Martin Fourcade had worked his way up to third after a penalty in the first stage and trailed Bailey by 0.6 seconds. Aside from Fourcade, seven of the top eight were still without a miss heading into the last shooting.
There, Bailey entered the range in eighth again, 12.1 seconds behind Fourcade, who had worked his way up to first on that fourth loop. Landertinger remained in second, just 0.5 seconds behind Fourcade, Germany’s Simon Schempp third (+0.7), Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø fourth (+1.3), and Eder fifth (+1.8).
Eder, Schempp and Bailey all cleaned — the only three men to do so and finish the day with 20-for-20 shooting — to embark on that last loop in that order. Eder led Schempp by just 2.3 seconds while Bailey trailed in third, 16.8 seconds out of first. Another 8.4 seconds behind Bailey, Bø flew out of the penalty loop (after his first miss of the day) in fourth.
And while third place was undoubtedly on Bø’s mind, he didn’t stop there when he passed Bailey early on the final 3 k loop. Up front, Schempp had caught and passed Eder within the first kilometer. Eder appeared to give up the chase for gold half a kilometer later, and at 13.6 k, he was 7.5 seconds ahead of Bø in third.
Bø caught him and with less than a kilometer remaining, he passed Eder to lead on a downhill into the finishing straight. Schempp skied away, uncontested, for first place in 35:38.3 minutes, while Bø finished 9 seconds later for silver. Just 1.1 seconds behind Bø, Eder notched his first World Championships podium in third (+10.1).
Meanwhile, Bailey’s gap to Bø on the last lap grew to 18 seconds by 13.6 k. Shipulin passed Bailey shortly after, and Fourcade passed him as well to put Bailey in sixth at the finish (+33.5), behind Shipulin in fourth (+25.3) and Fourcade in fifth (+31.3).
“I was able to hang for four laps and I just told myself to hang as long as I could,” Bailey recalled. “Unfortunately I only had four laps and the fifth was bru-tal as they say in Germany. But I’m so psyched with this whole world champs…
“It’s surreal to be sixth,” he continued. “I mean, a fourth, a sixth, a first, and a sixth… I’ve popped good results here and there, but to be consistent for the whole two weeks, I’m so satisfied with how the training’s gone and the preparation. I had great skis today, maybe the best skis I’ve had actually, thank god because I didn’t feel so good. I was pretty tired. It’s amazing, it’s really just amazing. It’s hard putting it into words.”
For the 28-year-old Schempp, who wore the red bib of the World Cup mass-start discipline leader, it was his first individual world title in his sixth World Championships.
“He is wearing the red bib, and you could see he deserves that,” Germany’s head coach Mark Kirchner told German broadcaster ARD. “He has waited a long time for his individual medal, and now he also [silenced] the last critics who talked all week about how he hasn’t won one yet, and even with gold. Sensational.”
“I am just happy that it was finally sufficient,” Schempp told ARD. “Incredible, an amazing race. I am just happy that it finally was enough for the top. Thanks to everyone, I can’t really say anything right now.”
He explained that he made a point to save some energy for the last climb, because he was “determined to attack there,” Schempp said. “And that was enough. A great day.”
“Of course it’s a big relief,” he added. “After all the races here I had to walk through the mixed zone and justify myself, that was not a nice feeling. And everyone asked me about the medal. It’s not easy, but today I finally was able to put it all together for a season highlight, and that’s why I am also enormously proud of myself.”
— Chelsea Little and Harald Zimmer contributed