For a group of biathletes based in Maine, two painful announcements came in the last few weeks: first, the news that their home base, the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) would be drastically reducing the support offered to its Olympic Development Team (ODT), and secondly, that many of them did not get re-named to teams by the United States Biathlon Association (USBA).
When the team nominations came out, neither Russell Currier nor Casey Smith were back on the B-team, and Brian Halligan and Kelsey Dickinson were not re-named to the National Development Group. Only one MWSC athlete, Maddie Phaneuf, retained her spot, in her case on USBA’s upper-tier development squad, the X-Team. Phaneuf, still a junior, got her first World Cup start this past season.
Smith, Currier and Dickinson had represented the United States at IBU Cup competitions, the circuit one tier below the World Cup. Halligan, a first-year junior, had competed at World Youth and Junior Championships. All four are now struggling to decide whether to stay in Maine for the upcoming training year, and if so how to support themselves both financially and with coaching at trials competitions, since MWSC will no longer send staff to out-of-region races.
USBA Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler heard about the cuts and has talked to the athletes, but it did not affect the national team selections. He said in a phone interview that while he wishes that he could support the struggling MWSC athletes more, it’s not the job of the federation to take over for the clubs.
“Maine Winter Sport is a great partner for us,” Eisenbichler said. “Together we must see what we can do for the athletes. But it is also clear that the federation cannot take care of all biathletes in America. So we have to have criteria and we have to have a qualification system to get more funding, resources, and coaching attention along the way. There are not a lot of clubs out there with lots of resources, so it’s not really good for us what happens there right now, I have to say honestly. But I also really want to speak to [MWSC President] Andy [Shepard] to hear more details about it.”
At the time of his interview, Eisenbichler emphasized that he had not yet spoken with the MWSC CEO, Shepard, who made the decision.
“I don’t want to talk about inside things as I don’t know,” Eisenbichler said. “I just can say that I know Andy and his team did a great job over the last decade being a great development resource for us and our athletes, and getting them ready for the next level. I feel very thankful for that. If there are changes now, there will be a good reason for it. I want to talk to him in more detail.”
For Dickinson, though, that support from MWSC just gave her a painful taste of what she could have had, before it was taken away.
“People don’t realize necessarily the commitment that it takes to be a senior level biathlete that’s not getting massive amounts of support from U.S. Biathlon,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to be in this place where I’m looking at next year and trying to make it work because I want to pursue biathlon. A lot of people are feeling that right now. I’m not the only one.”
Not Quite Good Enough
In most cases, the athletes saw it coming that they wouldn’t get re-named to the USBA teams. Currier, a 2014 Olympian who has two previous World Cup top 10’s to his name, had his worst season in several years..
“The season started out pretty well but by January I was mentally and physically exhausted,” he explained. “Since then I have felt a little better. For me it was a good summer with some big improvement. I just got really stressed out on race day and couldn’t put it together on the shooting range, and that spilled over into the skiing. I never really got going the way I wanted things to go. It just sort of snowballed.”
Neither he nor Smith made the criteria to get re-named to the national B-team. The objective criteria would have been two top-35 performances on the World Cup or at World Championships. While Currier raced the first period of World Cups, with a top finish of 61st, Smith did not appear at the sport’s highest circuit. His top IBU Cup finish was 38th in a sprint in Ridnaun, Italy; Currier placed consistently in the high 30’s in early January.
While the USBA rules allow for discretion in naming the B-team, Eisenbichler said that none of the athletes made a compelling case for themselves with their non-World Cup results.
“The B-team for us is really a team that we really want to have people who when they come to the World Cup they would be really competitive there,” Eisenbichler said. “And unfortunately nobody really made the criteria, and for nobody was there an outstanding result where you can say, okay, this is a discretionary thing. We know that all these athletes, Casey Smith, Russell Currier and Wynn Roberts, have the potential to be there, and have already showed that they can be at a much higher performance level than they were at this year. But unfortunately this year was not their strongest year.”
Roberts, a 2010 Olympian who is a member of the National Guard biathlon program, also had his hat in the ring. He placed in the top 30 of the IBU Cups in Canmore, Alberta, in three different races. But the fields were not deep, with just 45 or 46 finishers, and even when he placed 22nd in a sprint, he was 1:41 back in a race that took the winner just over 24 and a half minutes, or about 6% slower than the winner.
Smith, an Under-26 athlete and younger than Currier and Roberts, could have also qualified for the B-team by placing in the top third of the field at Open European Championships. But his best finish, 61st out of 98, did not come close.
Still, Smith, who crashed hard while training on course at the final IBU Cups of the season in Canmore, believes that if he hadn’t had to abandon the rest of his season he could have turned in results that would have netted him a nomination. As it was, he was laid up with broken ribs, bones in his back, and a punctured lung, and will be recovering for a long time before fully resuming training.
And he also believed that domestic results should have spoken in his favor.
“I would have thought that after winning the IBU trials two years in a row they would see more potential in me,” he wrote.
The USBA criteria note that winners of the National Championships – which Smith missed with his injury – would be invited to a summer training camp and evaluated for eventual inclusion on the B-team or another team, although such a naming is not guaranteed. The double victor at nationals, Patrick Johnson of the Auburn Ski Club, was named to the X-team, an intensely-focused training group based in Lake Placid, N.Y., for outstanding juniors and cross-country skiers converting to biathlon. A standout skier, Johnson has been doing biathlon for roughly a year.
As for why Halligan and Dickinson were not re-named to the Development Group – a lower-tier, non-residential program below the X-team – both understood that they hadn’t raced as well as they had hoped this season. Halligan, for instance, said that he had overtrained.
“By the time I got to Europe my body was just exhausted and I didn’t have too great of a result,” he said. “So I honestly didn’t expect to get called back to the Development Team this year.”
As a first-year senior, Dickinson was thrilled to have made the IBU Cup team, a goal she said she hadn’t been confident she could achieve. She hoped that that accomplishment would have been recognized, but at the same time understood why the results themselves were not. She got to race in Poland and Italy, where she had a top finish of 68th, as well as in Canmore, where she twice placed 28th out of 36 women.
“There are criteria,” she said. “I didn’t do well when I was over in Europe. It was a bit of a rough trip. The new levels that they have are pretty tough especially because it’s mostly the A1, A2, and A3 teams now I think. I understand… I get why I didn’t get named.”
In order to be a better biathlete in the future – and biathlon is the sport she intends to follow long-term – she has read the criteria and, metaphorically, the writing on the wall. Incidentally, what she needs to do may not in the long term be incompatible with a return to the College of Saint Scholastica, where she was enrolled before spending a year at MWSC to focus on biathlon full-time.
“My goal this year is to ski faster,” she said. “That’s why they didn’t name me to anything. It was because I wasn’t skiing fast enough this year. Skiing for the NCAA circuit and skiing for [coach] Chad Salmela, I think I could make some of those advances.”
Cuts on the Home Front
Between the dual cuts, the four athlete are looking at a loss of opportunities to train in Lake Placid with other top-level biathletes, reduced contact with national team coaches and other support staff, like sports psychologists, and, perhaps most significantly to their chances of getting re-named to a national team down the road, a cut in both funding and coaching support for national trials races in the summer, fall, and winter.
That also affects other biathletes, like Katrina Howe, who also represented the U.S. at IBU Cups in Canmore but hasn’t been a member of their development program since 2010, the year after she graduated from the University of Vermont.
“Last year our trips, like to Canmore and Minnesota for trials, were all covered by Maine Winter as part of being on the team,” said Halligan, who paid to be part of MWSC’s postgraduate training program for the last two years. “This year the trip to Junior World trials will be covered. But all the others, like for rollerski races and IBU Cup trials, you have to cover those on your own. And also since Seth [Hubbard] is the only coach at the moment, they won’t be sending a coach out there either. So you’ll have to go at it alone, or have to hook up with another team.”
Hubbard did not return a request for comment.
The financial stretch seemed to trouble some athletes more than others; Halligan didn’t seem overly concerned with the increase in tuition of the postgraduate program, although covering travel expenses was a stressful prospect. For the senior athletes, however, who had not been paying program fees, the vastly increased expense seemed devastating.
“For me it’s a financial thing,” Dickinson said in an interview. “I can’t afford to fund myself and be completely unsupported next year.”
With Will Sweetser leaving as the head of MWSC’s cross country skiing program, Hubbard’s responsibilities in northern Maine have changed and increased. Not having him with the team on the road is one of the most daunting changes for the biathletes: there’s additional components to preparing for a biathlon race compared to a ski race, like zeroing on the shooting range.
“With me the biggest thing was even if we could hire a part time coach to come with us to Canmore, Minnesota and those different places, it’s a little different in biathlon especially because when you’re working with someone through the whole year they really understand your shooting,” Dickinson said. “It’s harder to just jump in with someone else.”
Halligan and Smith both said that the support changes are making them look at other clubs and doing some cost analysis. Smith wrote that the change “makes me question if [MWSC] will continue to be the best option for me.”
For Dickinson, the financial aspect as well as the coaching support is what is making her contemplate a return to college.
“I qualified for World Juniors in Presque Isle basically training [at College of Saint Scholastica] and doing biathlon on my own,” Dickinson said. “I didn’t have a coach. I was shooting on my own – there’s a range, although I don’t know what the status of it is now that I’m going back. I had a little help from Chad [Salmela, the CSS coach and a former biathlete] but not really because he’s so busy with the team. He supported me going to different races. The problem is that I made this really big jump last year as a first year senior with qualifying for the IBU Cup and that level of training does require have a coach and having higher level opportunities. I see that a little more difficult for me to make that happen on my own in Duluth while I’m going to school. It would just require so much more.”
While all lauded the training group atmosphere in Maine, which will remain despite the funding changes, Currier is the only one who seemed to be definitely staying, although he said that he is still working out the details of how that can be compatible with international competition.
“For me, it still makes sense to be there because nobody knows training in the area like I do,” the 2014 Olympian explained. “I know where all the good roads are. For me it’s home, really. From a training perspective that’s a big advantage.”
An Open Door?
Eisenbichler said that just because athletes were not named to the national team in the spring did not imply that they would never be named again. In a new strategy, USBA expanded their national team by nominating or promoting six athletes in November last year. According to Eisenbichler, the same thing could happen this year as early as the end of August, after national rollerski championships in Jericho, Vermont.
“It’s first of all good to have rewards on the way for athletes who are developing in a fast way,” Eisenbichler said. “But also to use the opportunity to say okay, we add an athlete who shows a good performance level right now to the team and make the [national] training group even stronger, so everyone can capitalize on that.”
For Currier, “that’s the plan,” he says, in terms of getting his national team creds back and all of the coaching and supplementary support that entails. He hopes to still talk to national team coaches in the coming months about changes he is thinking of making to his training, and wishes that he could maintain his relationship with the team’s psychologist and other staff.
“We’ve talked to all of them individually and it’s really important for me to be clear, and say that the door is not shut for any of the teams during the training period,” he said. “If you show a really good development, or show a really good performance marker during the [rollerski] nationals compared to our A team who are really World Class performers… you have a really good chance to get named to the ‘B’ team end of August, or be invited to some camps in the fall.”
Smith is more cynical about the offer.
“With adding people to the ‘B’ team, they said the same thing last year, that there would be more opportunity for training and coaching in Lake Placid after the rollerski races in August,” he wrote in an email. “This turned out true only for athletes trying biathlon for the first time, not existing athletes. I am not holding my breath that this will actually happen and think that it is more just to pacify us for the summer.”
Dickinson, meanwhile, said that she applied to be a part of the Talent ID Camp for a second year, hoping that by competing with other junior-level biathletes and elite cross country skiers she can prove that she deserves funding or at least the invitation to some national team camps. She indicated that USBA staff had encouraged this move.
“I had hoped to get more opportunities to work with Jean [Paquet, USBA’s Head Development Coach] this year,” she said. “For people like Maddie who have had complete access to the national team resources, you look at the jump that she’s made this year. It really does make a difference. It’s going to be really hard for all of us that… aren’t getting anything.”
— Lander Karath contributed reporting.