Soldier Hollow, the Utah venue that played host to the nordic events at the 2002 Olympics, is no stranger to big-name athletes. Just a few weeks ago, World Cup sprint champ Kikkan Randall was there training with the cross-country national team. The medal-winning nordic combined team skis there regularly.
But last week, Utah had a visit from another of the nordic world’s most recognizable athletes: Germany’s Andrea Henkel, who joined the U.S. biathlon team for a part of their annual fall camp in Utah. Henkel, who enters the 2012 season as the most decorated woman currently on the World Cup circuit, hadn’t returned to Soldier Hollow since she won two gold medals back in 2002.
“It’s nice to come back,” she told FasterSkier in an interview on Wednesday. “It has been lots of good memories, fun memories too, not just about the races. When you have a good time somewhere it’s nice to come back and just enjoy it.”
Despite the high quality of the Soldier Hollow trail system, neither the FIS cross country World Cup nor the IBU World Cup have returned to Utah since those Olympics, a fate that seems likely to befall the Vancouver venues as well.
“Biathlon is a European sport,” Henkel said. “I would like it if we came to the U.S. more, but you often get the question, ‘what is biathlon?’ They just have no idea of it, or that there was some [American] who was leading the World Cup, even.”
Time recently spent with the Americans and at the former Olympic site has made Henkel muse on the support for programs in countries like the U.S., where biathlon doesn’t get top billing. In her own home country, it’s the most popular winter sport, and biathletes, especially those as successful as Henkel, are followed by the media as closely as if they were Hollywood celebrities.
“It’s hard for teams who don’t get real respect,” she said of conditions on this side of the Atlantic. “Maybe having more World Cups in America would make it better for them. It would be nice to have more World Cups in America – maybe the future will bring it.”
With the schedule often set far in advance, it seems unlikely that any World Cups will return to the States while Henkel is still competing. But by all appearances, the future is bringing the German star her a fourth Olympic appearance, which will give her the chance to see a venue in another surprising place: the Black Sea, where Sochi is situated.
And the magic, and medal potential, is still there. Although the 2012 season was so often a battle between Henkel’s teammate Magdalena Neuner and Belorussian Darya Domracheva, Henkel took a win of her own in Oslo. It was her 16th regular-season victory to go with one individual Olympic gold, four individual world titles, and five relay wins at championship events.
That longevity – and Henkel’s humble attitude about it – seems incredible to the U.S. women she was training with in Utah.
“As we travel around Salt Lake and the Heber Valley, she has been reminiscing about that experience,” national team member Susan Dunklee, who now battles Henkel on the World Cup, wrote in an e-mail. “I am impressed not only at how long she has been competing in biathlon, but how long she has been competing at the highest level. During the Salt Lake Olympics, I was stressing about the upcoming Vermont State High School Championships… biathlon wouldn’t be on my radar for another six years.”
U.S. as a Second Home
Henkel estimates that she began visiting the U.S. four or five years ago, after she started dating American biathlete Tim Burke. At first, she would train on her own or with the men’s team. Back then, the women were intimidated and shy around Henkel, but that broke down in the coming years as the trips to Lake Placid began racking up and Henkel started to spend more time training with the women.
“Before I met her, Andrea had seemed so larger than life, but when I met her, I couldn’t believe how small she actually was,” Dunklee wrote. After a few years, Henkel and her personality became part of the team: “She is known for blunt honesty. She tells it like it is, and it is refreshing to hear her opinions.”
Things changed for Henkel in 2010, when her teammates Kati Wilhelm, Simone Hauswald, and Martina Beck all retired. Although she’s had plenty of teammates retire in the course of her career, Henkel said the post-Vancouver rush was the toughest: the four women were the same age and had trained and competed together for years. Between that and the impressive length of Henkel’s career, it’s easy to see why she began looking for new ideas to stay engaged in her training.
“I have been doing this for a while, and I have to get my motivation from something,” she said. “It’s been so long that if I have the same focus year in and year out, I would be tired already or maybe I wouldn’t be doing it anymore, even.”
Henkel says that the Americans are “like a second team,” and the feeling is mutual. Dunklee thought that the sense of camaraderie was one of the biggest benefits Henkel might get from training with her team. The German system is different in that there are multiple training centers around the country and the national team comes together mainly for camps, which are generally short – just one week.
“The last couple years, the US women’s team has become very close,” Dunklee wrote. “Andrea fits right in with that. Besides training with us, she has joined us for shopping trips on rest days, volunteered her home kitchen for birthday cake baking, and shared an occasional bottle of wine with our team and staff. Of course I want to beat her on race day, but I am also psyched when she does well. Our whole team is.”
Veterans Train Different
And while the U.S. women have never been as strong as the Germans, they have improved over the last few years into a faster group that has more to offer Henkel in terms of training.
“The team had started changing already when I started coming here,” Henkel said, noting that the hiring of dedicated women’s coach Jonne Kahkonen had helped substantially. “It’s good training.”
Of course, it helps that biathletes like Dunklee have had one of the sport’s biggest stars to learn from. Initially, the American worried that if she spent too long skiing around behind Henkel, she would be annoying. As she has gotten to know the German better, she’s no longer as nervous about that. And besides trying to pick up specific technique, the U.S. women say that Henkel’s attitude in general is something to emulate.
“She is one of the world’s most talented and most experienced biathletes,” Dunklee wrote. “She has high expectations for herself but also lots of perspective, which keeps her even keeled. Her professional attitude towards training and racing rubs off on our team and that has been a very positive thing… and having her around sets the bar higher and gives us a measuring stick. It’s awesome!”
Henkel’s German coaches don’t mind when she travelled to the States: “they know that I train very hard, and they trust that I’m working,” she said. Henkel talks to them regularly while she’s gone to assess what she should be doing for training. Although her plan is different than the Americans’, she tries to jump in with them as much as possible if the day’s goals line up well enough, simply because it’s easier.
But that doesn’t always happen. Henkel has been competing at the World Cup level since 1995, more than ten years longer than Studebaker and Dunklee have even been biathletes.
“The German’s have a slightly different philosophy than we do, but Andrea’s training is different more just because she’s been training for a lot longer than most of us,” wrote Sara Studebaker. “She’s at the point in her career where she has the endurance and the volume, so speed and intensity are more important in her plan than the endurance piece.”
As such, Henkel often jumps in interval workouts and time trials; last week she swept the two time trials at Soldier Hollow that were used to pick athletes to send to the World Cup. She told FasterSkier that she was surprised she did so well; even for such an experienced athlete, flying across eight time zones is no small thing, and she arrived recovering from a cold and initially struggled to adjust to the altitude.
“I was shooting really badly in the beginning,” Henkel laughed. “It got better in the last few days, and skiing was okay I think. I didn’t prepare for the race, but not everybody could. For me it was good to race again, to go this speed. So it was good for my motivation and my mind.”
2013: Still Nerves, Still Pressure
Henkel flew home to Germany on Sunday, and in a week she’ll head to Muonio, Finland, for final World Cup preparations with her team. Then, she’ll fly to Ostersund, Sweden, and stay with the Americans again for a few days before the first World Cup races. When she hits the start line, she’ll have butterflies.
“The first race is the one I’m the most nervous about,” she said. “You get to figure out what you have done already for the last year, and see where you are, what you can do and what you can’t do anymore.”
For instance, one thing that has changed over the years is Henkel’s shooting speed and accuracy. These days, she says, she’s less “comfortable” on the range, although she’s always working to change that. In big races, though, she still seems to have nerves of steel: at World Championships in 2012, it was Magdalena Neuner who had to hit the penalty loop in the women’s relay, while Henkel anchored the team to a 28-second win with perfect shooting.
And for Germany, that’s important. At the end of last season Neuner retired at age 25, leaving a big gap in the roster. For so many years, the German women have been the team to beat in relays; Henkel grew up, athletically, in a climate where if you couldn’t podium, you wouldn’t even have a shot at making a relay team.
“We had a very strong team in 2010, the strongest team we ever had,” Henkel said of the squad that hadn’t even included Neuner. “ At that time I think the coaches expected that every race, somebody would be on the podium. We shouldn’t expect this anymore so much. The new team is very good and we can still have some podiums and good relays, but it won’t be like it was in 2008 to 2010.”
In terms of day-to-day life, Henkel said that Neuner’s retirement didn’t affect her much; even last year, Neuner was doing some training on her own with her coach. She’s more concerned with trying to minimize the pressure put on her by Germany.
“I know that now, for sure, they expect that somebody will be [doing well] and they expect that person will be me,” she said. “Luckily there is also Tina Bachmann, who is able to go to the podium.”
As Dunklee had said, Henkel has high expectations for herself, so the pressure is as much internal as anything else. But, the star explained, she’s just doing the best she can.
“I don’t want to push myself too much in terms of pressure,” she said.
Although the World Cup schedule is much the same from year to year, there are small changes that can break up the monotony for a career athlete, and this year has an extra special opportunity: the first chance to compete on the trails in Sochi, where Henkel will chase her fifth Olympic medal.
“It’s not often that we see something new,” Henkel said. “But last year we saw something new with Nove Mesto, and this year we will see Sochi. I have seen some pictures already, and I’m really excited to go there and check it out. Hopefully the tracks there will be good for me!”
What does that mean?
“I’d like it to be more challenging than Vancouver was, for example,” she explained. “But still doable. And the range should be not too easy, but doable. You need to have a little challenge in both the shooting and the skiing.”