After many years on the national and international stage, 2010 Olympian Haley Johnson is calling it quits.
29-year-old Johnson, who had several of the top U.S. women’s finishes in biathlon events in the last five years, was nominated for the national team again this year. So it came as a surprise to some that she turned down that nomination and is instead moving to Denver to finish her college degree and get married.
“She called me last week and told me about her decision, and in one sense I was thrilled for her, that her career ended on such a very high note, getting to go in the World Cup mass start race [in Oslo], that’s just wonderful,” said U.S. Biathlon Association President and CEO Max Cobb.
“At the same time we’re going to miss her terribly. She was part of the biathlon family for a very, very long time, and representing the sport and country and herself so well. It’s going to be a bit of an empty feeling without her on the team. If she’s ready to move on, I’m excited for her, and we talked about her willingness to continue to be involved in the sport.”
The high note that Cobb was referring to was Johnson’s last weekend of World Cup racing, in Oslo, Norway. There, she finished 22nd in the sprint, 21st in the pursuit, and 27th in the mass start. It was the best-ever weekend of racing for Johnson, who also had her best season this year: she collected nine of her top twelve World Cup result in 2011. Previously, Johnson had captured a single World Cup top-thirty to go along with her 23rd place finish at 2009 World Championships, which was the highlight for the U.S. women at that event.
FasterSkier was lucky enough to interview Johnson about her season, her career, and her love of biathlon before she began her cross-country move.
FasterSkier: To start off with could you talk a little bit about how this season went? It seems like you had a tough start, but then you got back on track, went to World Championships, and had some amazing races in Oslo at the end of the season. How was all that?
Haley Johnson: This year was really interesting, because I definitely went through the full USBA pipeline, all the way from NorAms in December in Minnesota to the most prestigious mass start race of the season, and hit every goal and marker in between that I had hoped to meet. So when I started back in December, I wasn’t too dismayed about having to take a step back after not making the first World Cup round. Instead I retooled the year and went with a plan B, and kind of set out all of the things I knew I needed to do this winter in order to reach what I thought was my international potential for this season.
It ranged from making it back onto the IBU Cup, and then moving from the IBU Cup to the World Cup, and once on the World Cup scoring points and qualifying for pursuits, and qualifying for the Maine World Cups. And then qualifying for World Championships, and then qualifying again, through discretion, but qualifying for the final weekend of World Cups in Oslo, doing well in the sprint there, qualifying for the final pursuit, and then qualifying for the final mass start, which was the first ever of my career. And then topping it off with ending the season with my highest international ranking, and then in that mass start being one of two U.S. women to make it into the mass start, which was historic in and of itself. And of course being part of four women who were able to improve our international ranking to 15 which assures us four start spots for women on the World Cup in the 2011-2012 season.
So I feel like I ran the whole gamut of what one could do in a year with U.S. biathlon. And I’m kind of proud of that, because it wasn’t easy and it was a lot of work and a lot of focus and a lot of sacrifice, but that’s sport.
FS: When you list it out like that it’s a pretty incredible little ascent there.
HJ: Yeah, little. Exactly.
FS: This has been a really amazing year for the U.S. women. Could you talk about how that has changed over the last few years?
HJ: I think it felt pretty cool because it was the first season where we were able to collectively move forward with some really important improvements within U.S. biathlon. For instance, there were enough of us to really warrant having a women’s coach, and having a coach geared toward us in Lake Placid. I think it brought a lot of specificity, and also respect and attention to the women’s team. Not that it wasn’t there before, but it just really recognized that we were a growing team that needed additional support.
Things are working great right now… we were on our way, but I think some of the changes this year just really brought that together. Having Jonne Kahkonen be our head coach was just fantastic and that was really cool to be a part of, because you really felt like you were on a women’s team, like you were a big part of U.S. biathlon. So that felt pretty cool.
And then it’s really hard to move up individually in biathlon because of the nature of the sport, and so it speaks highly of our team that we finally have four or five or maybe even six women who are capable of scoring World Cup points. And that number increases exponentially every year. We’ve just hit a pretty cool rise and I hope it’s not cresting any time soon. I hope that the women can really carry on the momentum that’s been happening every year. Both on the elite, top level, Sara and Laura and Annelies, but also within the developing ranks, that we can slowly, well, that it’s the ripple effect, but in the opposite way, pulling everyone up. Maybe a tidal effect. I don’t know what to call it. I’m hoping that brings more women and more people into the sport of biathlon.
FS: Was retirement something that you were thinking about coming into this season?
HJ: It’s definitely something I’ve been thinking of this season more so than I ever have before, but it wasn’t just a quick decision of, I’m done. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and before I made the final decision I made sure I went through thinking about all the things that I knew I would need to change if I were to continue, and if I were to continue to keep my career sustainable and enjoyable. And those were some changes that I wasn’t ready to make because my priorities were different. My heart was very much still in biathlon, but that’s why I was able to recognize my satisfaction with it and my desire to seek excellence elsewhere. So it’s been almost a year coming.
FS: Did it make it any easier, or more difficult to end the year with those great races in Oslo?
HJ: I think in addition to great races in Oslo it was just how the entire season worked out. I think that all the little moments and all the little things in between to make those other things happen, only reaffirmed my decision that I’ve been able to put everything into my sport and my career, and I couldn’t be happier with that. I feel like I’ve done the best that I could, and I’m psyched. I’m happy with that. That’s all I need. So that just reaffirmed that I’m psyched with one part of my life but ready to move on to the next.
FS: What are you going to do next?
HJ: I’m actually moving to Denver on Thursday morning.
FS: Wow, that was quick!
HJ: I knew that when it came time to make the decision I wanted to have as many options open as possible, so I kind of just laid out a bunch of different things and then when it came to the time, I knew that moving to Denver would be what I wanted to do, so I kind of set things up so that would be possible. I’ve lived [in Lake Placid] almost my entire life. I don’t need to wait any longer. My fiancée lives in Denver and we’ve been in a seven-year long distance relationship so he doesn’t need to wait any longer either. And I’m also starting school the first week of June, in Denver, so that also puts a bit more of a timeline on the spring.
FS: What are you going to be studying?
HJ: I’m going to finish my bachelor’s degree with a communications degree from the University College of the University of Denver.
FS: Can you think of something that you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t been able to do because of your commitment to biathlon, that you are thinking, “now I’m going to do that!”?
HJ: That’s a good question, because I feel like there’s so many things that I’m like, ah, when I finish biathlon, I’ll finally do those things. And of course it would be great to say spend time with family and all that kind of stuff but I’m actually wicked excited to learn how to backcountry ski. And living in Colorado is an awesome place to do it. It’s just something I never ever got to do in the winters because of, well, just because, of everything. So I’m really excited to get to learn how to ski in a different way.
FS: The last time we talked, we discussed your work in Lake Placid with fourth and fifth grade gym classes. How did you break the news to those kids that you were retiring?
HJ: It was pretty funny. The fifth graders weren’t terribly interested. They were bummed that I was leaving. So it was a little less of a discussion with them. They were interested in school and what my married name was going to be. But the little fourth graders were, you know, dramatic and devastated and said that I should come back and be their nutritionist and all sorts of funny little things.
But one thing I did try to talk to them about was that I was moving on to school, and did they think that they too would go to college. And pretty much every kid said “yes”, and the ones that said “no” said that they weren’t because they were going to go into the Marines, and so they were just really neat kids to have that on their radar. And it was really cool to hear, I was really glad to hear that.
And then we played lacrosse, and things like that. Gym class.
FS: Do you think you’ll keep working with kids?
HJ: I think I will. I don’t know how, yet, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
FS: You’ve been in the USBA system for a long time. Is there anything you’d say to other athletes, any advice to give based on your experience?
HJ: Oooh, yeah, that’s a big one. I think that one of the things that I appreciated most about my career and why I felt it worked so well and why I was able to move [from the Maine Winter Sports Center to Bend to Lake Placid] was that I always had a broad array of resources. I always had someone to go to to talk about the financial side. I had someone else to go to to talk about the nutritional side or the marketing side, the endurance side, the coaching side, the shooting side, the mental side, the physical side, the health side, I mean it’s just, looking back on it I feel like there’s some days I talked to maybe ten to fifteen different people about parts of my training and goals.
So if anything I think just not relying on one coach and one source for everything, but really looking for those resources in your local area because they create awesome partnerships and really cool relationships. And those are the people who will stay with you the longest. I was really proud that I kept all thirteen of my sponsors through the recession, and I think it’s just because I was able to get a little bit from a lot of different places.
I don’t know if there’s really one way to coin that idea, but having a variety of resources was just refreshing and stimulating and really supportive, no matter where I was in the entire world.