During one of my training sessions in 1996 at the Mt. Van Hovenberg biathlon range near Lake Placid, Kris Seymour, the New York Ski Education Foundation coach asked me if I would let these two young guys try shooting and talk to them a little about biathlon. Both Lowell Bailey and his best friend, Tim Burke, then 15 and 14 years old, didn’t say much and kind of looked down and pawed the dirt with their feet as Kris and I got them set up to shoot. They were extremely respectful and attentive. I don’t remember much about that day, besides how quiet they were, and how well Lowell shot. I thought, â€œman, these kids are intense!â€ Looking back on it, and after nearly two decades involved in the sport, it might turn out to be one of the greatest days I’ve ever had in the sport of biathlon.
Lowell probably said three words through the whole experience, and he was the talkative one. We didn’t have a left-handed rifle for him, so he shot my right-handed rifle left-handed. From the standing position, he hit 4 out of 5 shots the first time. I’d never seen a beginner hit 4 out of 5 prone, let alone standing, and I don’t believe I have since. And add the fact that he was shooting a right-handed rifle and already a stand-out junior skier, and I knew some day I was going to see this kid in the Olympics, racing biathlon. He had talent – no question.
Fast forward 11 years, and Lowell Bailey has already raced in the Olympics. He’s been in the top 20 in World Cup competition. He’s finished on the podium twice at the NCAA Skiing Championships. He’s shined at the Junior Olympics. He has faced most of the tough decisions that a young American skier with world-class potential has had to face. Skiing or biathlon? College or full-time training? Normal life and career, or the Olympics? The only question left is, no medal, or medal?
Lowell Bailey is an integral part of a Men’s U.S. Biathlon Team that is truly world class. For the first time in history, the men’s USBT squad of four men all have realistic visions of individual medals at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. But more importantly, they have a collective goal of America’s first Olympic biathlon medal â€” in the relay. They have shown in a short time that they are able and are closing on that goal, leading for the first leg of the Olympic relay in Torino, and staying in the medal hunt through two legs at the 2007 World Biathlon Championships before an ailing Bailey and Jeremy Teela had trouble bringing it home.
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FasterSkier: You grew up racing in Lake Placid in a program that has produced other top Nordic athletes your age, like your U.S. Biathlon teammate Tim Burke, and Bill Demong of the U.S. Nordic Combined Team. All of you are mixing it up for real on the world stage. Is there anything you see from your formative years that has helped you, and the other two guys you grew up with in Lake Placid, that foreshadowed the successes you're having now?
Lowell Bailey: At the time that Bill, Tim, and I were training together as juniors in Lake Placid, there was a really strong local ski program in the region and we were all fortunate to benefit from a couple of extremely talented coaches, Kris Cheney-Seymour and Al Barrett. I know that one of the biggest reasons I have stayed in the sport is the fact that I am still having fun, regardless of what level I happen to be competing at. Kris and Al showed all three of us the idea that although training for Nordic sports is sometimes grueling and always challenging, it is also pretty fun.
FS: You are a skier who has had a relatively large amount of success in both cross country skiing and biathlon. How do your experiences as a top-level Junior Olympics skier and top NCAA skier help you today as a biathlete on the World Cup?
LB: I have been skiing since I was four years old and I hope to continue skiing the rest of my life. Somewhere along the line in high school I was introduced to the sport of biathlon, a sport that retains the whole skiing thing, but adds a new element to the equation. Every junior skier should strive to attend at least one Junior Olympics. I know for me, it was the first time I felt like the sport of skiing was something bigger than just an activity I participated in after school and on the weekends. From Junior Nationals, I moved into biathlon via a United States Biathlon recruitment program. In 2003, I left the US Biathlon Team and skied for UVM for three years. Finally, in 2005, I moved back into the sport of biathlon.
FS: How do you feel your path to the biathlon World Cup differs, if at all, from your teammates, Jay (Hakkinen), Tim (Burke), and Jeremy (Teela)?
LB: A lot of people take greatly different paths in the sport of biathlon. I suppose my athletic history differs a bit from the rest of the team in that I suspended my biathlon career for a few years in order to finish my bachelor’s degree. At the time, as I left US Biathlon and dedicated all my efforts to UVM, I was fairly certain that I was out of international biathlon for good. I loved skiing on the NCAA circuit and I really enjoyed my time at UVM. However, as my senior year drew to a close, I found myself looking for ways to get back into the sport. Thankfully, James Upham and Maine Winter Sports Center invited me to train with their development team in Fort Kent following my graduation. Without their support, I would never have been able to make it back into the sport.
FS: You have a lot of talents, including the ability to be a professional musician, if not being successful in one of any number of professional careers. How do you reconcile your focus of hurling yourself headlong down a path of success in a sport that garners very little exposure in your own country, against all the other routes you could have taken with your life?
LB: The reasons I initially pursued success in biathlon were definitely not for fame and fortune. Everyone has a reason why they do what they do. I have stayed in biathlon because it is by far the most challenging thing I have ever done. It takes years to see small improvements, but when you have a good race it is one of the best feelings in the world. Right now, music fulfills a vital role in my life; it gives me something other than biathlon to focus on. You have to give your mind as well as your body a chance to recover and music is some of the best mental recovery for me.
FS: How does your current path as an athlete figure into your lifelong plan beyond sport?
LB: By now I’ve realized that I enjoy a competitive environment and I hope to maintain that long after I am through with skiing. Where that may lead, I haven’t figured out yet.
FS: You are one critical link in a U.S. Men's Biathlon Team that is inarguably the best in history, and your personal results on the biathlon World Cup would have garnered significant attention just 10 years ago, yet today, in light of some of your teammates' successes, they've gone relatively unnoticed by comparison. How does this motivate you?
LB: This spring our coaches sat down and presented a PowerPoint presentation of data compiled from last year. At that point, looking back on last season, I was happy with my results but also concerned that perhaps I hadn’t made as much progress as I needed to in order to be up with the best in the world. Seeing that data and seeing the percent improvement over the previous season was all the motivation I need.
FS: Does coming short of a seasonal goal or seeing teammates reach a little higher, frustrate you at all?
LB: I am motivated by the challenge of setting a goal and seeing if I can reach it. It is definitely frustrating to narrowly miss a goal while other teammates reach their's. But, if you can’t get over it, you will always be watching everyone else succeed instead of focusing on the things you need to do to get better.
FS: A big question that seems to be a buzz in the United States Nordic skiing community is the role of collegiate skiing in the development of world class athletes. You are an athlete who clearly had success in college at the University of Vermont. Today, you are competing solidly in the front half of the biathlon World Cup field. How would you describe your experience in collegiate skiing in the context of your development into the biathlete you are today?
LB: I don’t think there is any universally accepted path to the World Cup. Some athletes train their entire careers as biathletes while others win world cup medals in Nordic Skiing before switching over. For me, college skiing was exactly what I needed at that point in my life. Until the point I entered UVM, my life was very one-dimensional in the sense that I focused on biathlon every day. UVM presented an opportunity to pursue something quite different and much more varied. Instead of just focusing on training day in and day out, I had the chance to take classes, meet other people besides athletes, and maintain a competitive level of skiing.
College skiing is not for everyone. It is sometimes very difficult to schedule enough time in the day for class, training, and recovery. But for me, it was the perfect thing at that time in my life.
FS: Was collegiate skiing challenging in any way towards your development as a skier and as a person?
I am grateful to have had the chance to participate in collegiate skiing. The challenges presented by juggling a busy school schedule with skiing are a lot different than the challenge of training for the World Cup, but I think that is to be expected. More than anything, I gained a lot of insight into what the rest of the world is like outside of biathlon.
FS: What advice would you now give yourself if you could go back in time and talk to yourself as you contemplated skiing for UVM?
LB: â€œStop stalling and go for it!â€
FS: You and your team come into the season ranked 10th in the world. What do you see the U.S. Men's Biathlon Team doing in 2007-08 on the world stage?
LB: Well, I’m not sitting in the middle of Sweden for the sights. I see medals in our future.
FS: What is the best thing about being Lowell Bailey?
LB: I love what I do. Even though it can be very painful at times, the payoff is more than worth it.
FS: Thank you Lowell, and good luck to you and your team for the coming season.
LB: Thanks for taking the time to interview me and our team. Also, I would like to thank FasterSkier.com for their continuing coverage and support of our team.
For more about U.S. Biathlon: www.usbiathlon.com
Related Articles on FasterSkier.com:
Tim Burke Wins Ostersund Sprint; Lowell Bailey Nabs Third Place
The Sleeper Comes Alive – An interview with U.S. Biathlete Tim Burke
Chad Salmela is the head ski coach at The College of St. Scholastica and is an owner of Midnight Sun Adventure Company, in Duluth, Minnesota. He is a former member of the U.S. Biathlon Team and has been the color commentator of the Biathlon World Cup on OLN, FSN, and NESN, as well as at the Olympics on NBC.