With the 2016/2017 season officially in the rearview, FasterSkier is excited to unveil its annual award winners for this past winter. Votes stem from the FS staff, scattered across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and while not scientific, they are intended to reflect a broader sense of the season in review. This set of honors goes to a coach or team director who has particularly contributed to their team’s success.
Previous categories: Junior Skiers of the Year | Collegiate Skiers of the Year | Canadian Continental Skiers of the Year | U.S. Continental Skiers of the Year | Nordic Combined Athlete of the Year | Biathletes of the Year | Para-Nordic Skiers of the Year | Canadian Breakthrough Skiers of the Year | American Breakthrough Skiers of the Year
Despite the title of this award, Bernd Eisenbichler has never really been a coach.
He has been an athlete (in Germany), a ski technician (for Ricco Gross, Kati Wilhelm, and then the American biathlon team), the high-performance director for the US Biathlon Association (USBA), and now its chief of sport.
Such a title might suggest that as Eisenbichler has risen through the ranks to direct both the national team and now also the development pipeline for the U.S. biathlon community, he has become more distant from the nitty-gritty, the details or the athletes.
Not so much. This season, you could still see the 41 year old zooming around on skis, or running back and forth between different parts of a stadium. Eisenbichler isn’t one who is content to stand around, or to distance himself and watch other people do work.
And when Lowell Bailey crossed the finish line in Hochfilzen, Austria, in February to become a world champion in the 20 k individual, one man ran out to grab him by the shoulders, scream and celebrate. You guessed it, it was Eisenbichler.
“Bernd was the first person who greeted me at the finish line, tears in his eyes,” Bailey wrote in an email this week. “[He is] one of the most passionate, hard-working individuals I’ve ever known!”
Technically, nobody is allowed in the finish zone except the athletes who just finished the race. But Eisenbichler pushed through the scrum of officials and celebrated with an athlete he had met in the same place, Hochfilzen, back at Junior World Championships in 2000. Back then, he was what Bailey called a “hired hand” to make their skis fast.
At that point, did the German envision himself staying with the U.S. team for nearly 20 years (so far)?
“Along the way, I had different offers from different teams,” Eisenbichler admitted in an interview from his office in the Bavarian town of Frasdorf on Monday. “But I enjoy the freedom I get [from USBA] to create a high-performance program. You learn on the way. You make mistakes on the way. Hopefully you do it better next time. What I always see, though, is the potential to get better… I enjoyed working with Lowell and Tim [Burke] for every day of the 18 years. But every new person who came, they added something to the program. It meant, we are not done here. There are things we can do better, to reach higher.”
Bailey’s gold medal, the first ever by an American, and Susan Dunklee’s silver to make her the first U.S. woman to win an individual World Championships medal – together, they make an argument that this was US Biathlon’s best season ever and that the program is entering a new era.
“We have never, before now, had strong men and strong women at the same time,” USBA CEO Max Cobb said after Dunklee’s silver in Hochfilzen. “This is really exciting for us and a good validation that these opportunities, and the pipeline we have, works.”
The World Championships haul didn’t come out of left field.
In 2013, Tim Burke earned World Championships silver. Then at the 2014 Olympics, Bailey and Dunklee set best-ever marks for U.S. men and women, respectively: eighth by Bailey, 11th by Dunklee.
Just weeks after that, Bailey and Dunklee began accumulating World Cup podiums, and they haven’t stopped.
Since 2014, three different athletes – Sean Doherty, Maddie Phaneuf and Chloe Levins – have turned in top-five performances at Youth and Junior World Championships.
And this season, two athletes with college degrees in just their second seasons of biathlon – Paul Schommer and Joanne Reid – turned in individual top-35 performances on the World Cup and then teamed up with Sean Doherty and Clare Egan to finish eighth in a mixed relay. Five different athletes on the team, including Burke, Egan and Leif Nordgren, picked up top-20 World Cup results this season.
We asked Cobb, the USBA President and CEO, whether US biathlon would be where it is today without Eisenbichler.
His answer was simple: “No. Bernd is masterful in his leadership of our program.”
“Bernd is one of most passionate people I know, and for decades he has directed all his energies into building up USBA’s program,” Dunklee agreed.
“What was always interesting with Bernd, even at [the beginning], was that even though he was a German, he was extremely passionate about Team USA’s results,” Bailey wrote. “He got to know all of the athletes and was genuinely interested in seeing our team succeed, even if that meant beating the German team… At first, he was just waxing skis; then, he was in charge of stone-grinding and waxing; then he was put in charge of some team logistics. Eventually he became High Performance Director. Since that time, I’ve seen our team go from a mediocre ‘also-ran’ to one of the strongest teams in the world. That success is largely due to Bernd’s role and his tireless drive to win by out-maneuvering instead of out-spending. He embraced this David-and-Goliath struggle from the start.”
Eisenbichler prefers to call it a puzzle, referring to the complexity of the sport and the intricacy of the management required to win.
“We always knew that our program and our approach works, and we also had results to justify that,” Eisenbichler said. “But this year it really culminated in a perfect way… You always add to the puzzle and you try to have the perfect pieces to complete it. This year we just completed the puzzle. I think we proved that all the additions that we made to the program over the last three or four years, we really benefitted from it this year.”
For North American nordic sports teams, having a European at the helm seems to have worked out about as often as it hasn’t. But for US Biathlon, it sure has, and the consensus seems to be that it’s because of Eisenbichler himself. Having a German guiding your biathlon program doesn’t automatically buy you success. It’s not nationality so much as what the guy does.
In Eisenbichler’s case, he assembles a coaching team from Sweden, Finland, and Canada, a service team that includes Germans, Czechs, and an Italian, and brings in a shooting advisor from Austria. Plus, of course, Americans.
“We have eight nations represented on our staff, and they all worked so hard towards one goal, over nearly a decade for some of the staff members,” Eisenbichler said. “To see them so happy after Lowell and Susan’s success was just very, very rewarding for me.”
How does it work, gaining buy-in and loyalty from a staff which can be far-flung in the summer months?
“If I was being arrogant, I would say good management,” Eisenbichler laughed. “No, that’s a joke.”
He admits that there have been a few hires which didn’t work out and didn’t fit in with the team. But they have been “actually few.” Part of the staff’s success, Eisenbichler said, was how it fits together.
“We manage pretty well to give everybody a project where they can really identify themselves as being a very important part of the program,” he explained. “As a result they are really giving more than a normal staff member would do, really giving their heart and their energy into these projects. But at the same time they know they are part of the puzzle. There is nobody who is the only one contributing to the success or failure. I really believe it is like a puzzle, and every staff member has — even if at times their role is more important than other times — but they have the feeling that without them, it would not have been possible to be so successful.”
That’s not to say that there have never been cultural differences between Eisenbichler and his team.
“In my early years on the team, we used to have a slight disagreement about the word ‘fun’,” Dunklee wrote, explaining: “I’ve always made it my goal to keep ‘fun’ at the forefront of all my racing and training because the day that I forget to have fun is the day that I burn out. I think Bernd (and many other European coaches I have met) associate the word ‘fun’ with a carefree and unfocused attitude. However, I’ve never thought of fun and hard work or professionalism as mutually exclusive, in fact they can build on each other. I have been most successful and satisfied with the sport when I am directing every effort possible towards a big goal and remembering to savor and enjoy the goofy, spontaneous and joyful moments along the way. On that point, Bernd could agree. We were talking about the same thing, he just preferred to use the term ‘enjoyment’ rather than fun. But he humors me now and sometimes tells me ‘have fun!’ before my race and I always act so surprised to hear that word coming from him. It’s become a running joke.”
In some ways, Eisenbichler is still a ski technician at heart. He works closely with Muck Bauer, the team’s stonegrinder, who is also based in Germany. The pair test skis all year round, and were developing new grinds right up through World Championships. That meant that skis were getting driven from Hochfilzen to Ruhpolding, stoneground, being driven back, and then skied in for 20 k the next morning before being raced on.
“Bernd was excited about some of the new breakthroughs they’d had,” Bailey wrote. “The night before the individual, it was decided that a couple of pairs of my skis should be sent to Germany and re-ground with some of these new grinds. It was one of those pairs that carried me to victory later that day. It’s hard to say what the difference was for me that day, but it’s hard to overlook that fact that, in a race lasting almost one hour, a 3.3-second margin of victory is about as slim as it gets!”
At the end of this year’s U.S. National Championships, Dunklee and Bailey presented Eisenbichler with USBA’s Medal of Honor. The love and appreciation that Eisenbichler has for his athletes, and vice versa, stands out.
“I was meeting with Bernd in the lead-up up to [the 2014 Olympics] in Sochi and one thing he said stuck out to me,” Dunklee wrote. “We were talking about goals and how of course he wants to see someone on the team bring home a medal. He explained how every bit of the high performance budget and staff were being directed towards that main priority. But then he told me, ‘You know, I’ll really gauge my work with the team as successful if 20 years from now, you athletes and staff decide to travel to Munich for an Oktoberfest Reunion together. Then I’ll know I did a good job.’ ”
“I look forward to that reunion some day,” Dunklee concluded.