Sarah Konrad, Record Setter and Athlete-Advocate In Chief

Chelsea LittleDecember 14, 20101
Sarah Konrad skiing in Australia this summer.

Five years ago, Sarah Konrad made history as the first U.S. woman to compete in two different sports at the same Winter Olympics.

In Torino, Konrad finished 32nd in the 30 k mass start in cross country and was part of the U.S. relay team. She also contested both the individual and sprint events in biathlon.

In the three-year period from 2005 to 2007, Konrad racked up some of the best results for U.S. women in either sport and appeared at all six World Championship and Olympic events. In 2005, she finished 23rd in the 10 k skate race at World Championships, a sensational result for her at the time. In 2006, besides her strong mass start performance at the Olympics, she also finished 38th at Oslo’s Holmenkollen, the most storied World Cup race on the schedule. Two weeks later, she finished 30th in the sprint at the last biathlon World Cup of the season, also in Oslo.

And, oh yeah: Konrad was 38 years old in Torino, the oldest female Olympian that year.

After retiring from international racing, she returned to Laramie, Wyoming, where she had done her PhD work in geology. She now does research, modeling how mosquitoes act as disease vectors, and coaches a group of masters racers on the side.

But Konrad hasn’t abandoned high-level athletics entirely. She currently serves as the biathlon representative to the Athletes Advisory Council (AAC) of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), as well as an athlete representative on the United States Biathlon Association (USBA) board and its International Competition Committee (ICC).

FasterSkier called Konrad while she was in Las Vegas, Nevada, at an AAC meeting to talk about what it means to be an advocate for other athletes.

FasterSkier: Could you describe what it is that you do as an athlete rep?

Sarah Konrad: There’s several different levels. I’m the athlete rep for biathlon, which means that I sit on the USBA board of directors, and I’m the biathlon rep to the AAC, which has one rep from every sport.

FS: On the USBA side of things, you’re on the International Competition Committee, too, is that right?

SK: Yes. The ICC has five members and one of them has to be an athlete.

FS: I know that the ICC crafts selection criteria, but what else do you do?

SK: We craft the selection criteria and then make the actual selections if discretion is involved. It’s mostly that – who gets to compete where. There’s selection criteria for individual races and selection criteria for the national team.

FS: It seems like some of the selection criteria are divided up based on age. What was the philosophy on that?

SK: There’s the philosophy – and this is funny for me to talk about, because based on my experience I obviously believe that age should not matter – but the main philosophy is that it’s age for things that are about development. Age comes into it for naming of the teams and training groups, but not so much in terms of who gets to compete in a race. But in terms of development and who needs support for the future, there’s this orientation, and most teams have it, that we need to take the young ones, the promising ones – and it’s not just age, honestly, I know it’s raised that way in the criteria, but the philosophy of Berndt Eisenbichler, the High Performance Director, is that it’s people who have not been in the sport that long, as well. They’re the ones we really want to see develop, because they are the ones who can be on a steep learning curve.

It’s tricky. The whole thing with [Lanny and Tracy] Barnes, and I just know from my own experience, and Susan [Dunklee] has had some of these experiences as well, is that it’s very very hard to write criteria to tell you exactly who the best people are going to be. It’s really difficult. And for me, from an athlete’s perspective, it means to try to make it as objective as possible and not hugely discretionary. When it’s objective, then the athlete knows what they need to do, it’s very clear-cut. And I think that’s important as an athlete, to have goals: okay, I need to do this, and if I do this, then I can do that. Whereas if it’s mostly discretionary, no matter what the athlete does they don’t know if it’s going to be good enough. I think that’s a rough way to go.

Of course, there has to be some discretion, and that’s going to be valuable as well to the athlete who has got everything lined up and everything’s going really well, and they get sick at the key races. There’s got to be some way to deal with that. So we try to take an approach of having discretion make up no more than 25 percent of a team.

FS: It seems like USBA isn’t the best about posting and getting this stuff out in a particularly timely fashion. What’s up with that?

SK: Yeah, I would agree with that.

FS: How can that be improved?

SK: We’re definitely working on that, and improvements are happening, although slowly. The biggest problem at the root of it is that USBA is pretty understaffed. It’s working on a small budget, and so there’s just too much that needs to be done. The other people on the ICC are coaches and everyone has huge time demands, so trying to get that done in a timely manner is somewhat hindered by just trying to keep everything else going. That’s not a good excuse, either. It really needs to get done for the benefit of the athletes.

This whole season at least, is quite clear. All the steps of what needs to be done and what races you can compete in this season and what that will lead to, are posted.

FS: This year there’s more fluidity between the World Cup and IBU Cup [the next level down] circuits. Is that something that was brought up by the athletes, or where did that originate?

SK: Unfortunately all the ICC meetings are confidential, and I can’t really say.

FS: Oh, okay. Well, it seems like it’s a good change, though.

SK: Yeah, I think so. The idea is to give many people the opportunity. Where a lot of Americans are, and where I was when I was competing, doing the World Cup and coming in 70th just isn’t really a fun thing. You get World Cup experience, but the IBU Cup, there is really good competition there, where you can still get that same exact experience of competing against Europeans, but with a little bit better psychological reinforcement. So, I think it’s a really good idea to have a lot of people competing on the IBU Cup because we can get the experience that we can’t get competing in the States, but also not get beaten down too early.

FS: In terms of team criteria, it seems like racing domestically doesn’t have any rewards attached to it, and most of the best biathletes don’t do it. How do you see that affecting development of younger athletes – they don’t even get to race the best people in the U.S.?

SK: From the perspective of the ICC, this is hugely on the radar. For this sport to survive in the United States, we do need to have development, and we do need to have grassroots, and the first obstacle to that is money. It’s obviously a very expensive sport. You need all the ski equipment, but also a rifle, et cetera et cetera. There needs to be some sort of overhead to at least establish the structure. We’re trying to raise some money to start a new position of development director, who would really be looking at all this – how to get younger people, how to get established centers of excellence, to really give a place for that to happen.

And you might have seen this back east, but paintball biathlon is really starting to take off.

FS: Yes, it is in New England too.

SK: And obviously you can’t go directly from paintball biathlon to regular biathlon and be really good, but it does give a flavor of what biathlon is about, so it’s a great way to start increasing interest.

But it’s tough. How do you build a sport pretty much up from nothing and make it what it is in Europe? One thing I think USBA can do better, and we’ve talked about some, is really making use of its alumni, because they’re the people who know the sport and are passionate about it. That’s what needs to happen. You get some rifles for the juniors and if you have someone there who is psyched to start working with the juniors, showing them what it’s about, that’s what makes a program take off. As soon as kids see, ‘hey, that looks fun and here’s someone who enjoys it,’ that’s what makes people get into stuff. It’s not, ‘that thing is kind of weird and it looks difficult.’ It’s making something accessible and making something fun, and the people to do that are really the alumni. There’s a fair number of us out around the country. It takes some motivated ones, though.

FS: It’s cool that with the USBA, you really get to have a big part in some of this stuff.

SK: The thing is, the position is a tough one in some ways, just because it’s volunteer, and to do it well it takes a lot of time. A lot of people don’t have that type of time. I’m lucky in that I’m working half time and am able to support myself on that, so I have more time to be able to put into the athlete rep thing. And also, I really see the need for it and enjoy it. Brian Olsen [another athlete rep] came on at the same time as me and he feels very similarly. He’s quite passionate about it, so between the two of us working together, we’re able to bounce ideas off of each other, and go to [USBA President and CEO] Max Cobb with them.

I think at first Max was a little bit surprised with how forward we were. So really, it’s what the athlete makes of it. And it works well for both Brian and I in that we were both recently retired so we still had good connections with current athletes. Sometimes athlete reps, when they’re done competing, they’re a little bit too far out to really feel that type of connection.

It’s growing, and it’s really give and take. I give to biathlon some, and put energy in, and give them ideas. And they say, ‘wait, wow, she’s really willing to do this, and Brian’s really willing to do this, and they’re not just throwing ideas out there, they’re willing to follow through on them.’ And when biathlon saw that from us, then they started asking us to take on more stuff.

It’s worked really well, and we have a really good relationship with the national governing body. And with the athletes, too. We work really hard to maintain connections with the athletes, and to make contact with them directly, not just always sending out group e-mails, but trying to make time to talk one-on-one and let them know, too, that we’re really engaged. That’s something that we learned, that you can’t always assume that people are going to approach you. You have to reach out; you have to be the one who is creating those paths.

FS: How much longer do you think you’ll do the athlete rep thing?

SK: Well, I’m two years into a four-year term, so I’ll definitely finish that. You can only do it when you’re within the ten-year rule, so you have to have competed in an Olympics or World Championships within those past ten years. So I could be re-elected for another four-year term, and if that’s what the biathletes want, I’d be happy to do it again, just because I think it is a pretty rewarding position. I feel like I’ve accomplished stuff that I’d like to keep doing. And the rule is a great rule, as well, because after that point, I just shouldn’t be there. Even before that point, you get further removed, and I’m not sure it’s ideal. So, if the biathletes wanted to elect someone else, I’d totally understand that, too.

FS: Maybe that just means you need to go to another Olympics.

SK: Exactly! Maybe.

One example of the way that biathlon has reacted and given back to us, is that I was up in Canmore for the team trials in November. I don’t think biathlon has ever done that before, to fly the athlete rep up to be at trials. And that was their idea – they asked me if I wanted to do it, and I thought it was a great idea. So that’s the kind of give and take that is building, that’s making it a better thing. It was a really valuable experience for me just to be there, and to see the athletes and get the chance to interact with them one-on-one, not just on the phone or over e-mail, and really get a feel for where everyone’s at and how people are feeling about the organization, and I thought that was great.

FS: That really is a good relationship.

SK: The funny thing is, within the AAC and the USOC good relationships between athlete reps and national governing boards are recognized, and I was just contacted by some people at the USOC the other day to speak to the board of directors of curling, which I guess is going through some troubles. So they asked me as an athlete rep with an organization that’s doing pretty well, and was in a position a few years back that was not as good – they wanted me to speak to the role of the athlete rep, and how I work with the board and how I work with the staff, just as an example for curling.

It’s great that the USOC sees that it’s working well here, and that they want to share those best practices with another national governing board, and perhaps share some guidelines. The reason to do it is that if curling is having some communication breakdown between the athlete and the governance, then hopefully this will be something that will help the athletes in the long run.

FS: Tell me more about the USOC and the AAC.

SK: That’s a pretty neat organization – it’s been around since the 1970’s, and it was started by athletes to start getting more rights for themselves. That was before the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, and they were responsible for that coming around. It’s really been their mandate to work as a group, strength in numbers, with people from different sports to share experiences and best practices and kind of be the conscience of the USOC.

FS: What projects do they do now?

SK: There’s several different divisions. There’s athlete support, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), and governance. I’m part of the athlete support division and what we’ve been working on is, there’s a survey that went out today to poll all the Olympic athletes in all sports about things that we can do to help them. So we try to stay open.

But I’m also leading a task force on national governing bodies compliance, so we’re trying to look at how different bodies actually follow bylaws and the Ted Stevens act, to see if they do things they are supposed to do, like have 20 percent athlete representation on all boards and committees and giving athletes rights to hearings before they say, “no you can’t compete.” There’s all sorts of rights there that need to be enforced somehow. We’re not in enforcement, we’re in oversight.

They also do the whole career program, OJOBs. It used to be Home Depot and it’s now going to be with the Hilton.

And with the USADA side of things, we’re the ones who sent out the survey to see how people like the new drug testing plan instituted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and people didn’t really like it. So we’ve been working with USADA to talk to WADA about changing some of those things.

FS: How did you get involved with the AAC? Was it when you were still an athlete?

SK: No, not at all. And in fact, that’s a big thing the organization can do better, because most athletes don’t even really know it exists. I didn’t know that it existed, really, until I became elected as the athlete rep. There’s the AAC rep and the AAC alternate, so since I had the most votes in the biathlon election I was named to be the AAC rep, and Brian Olsen was the alternate. So we’re both USBA reps, but I’m the AAC rep. So I was just told, ‘okay, now you’re part of this and you’re going to these meetings,’ and I really had no idea what to expect. But I’ve actually been really impressed. I think it’s lost a little bit of its teeth, compared to where it was in the 1970’s and 80’s, but I think there’s a lot of people there involved who want to make it something, to give it some more teeth. It really exists just for athletes, and there’s a lot that can be done.

Chelsea Little

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One comment


    December 14, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Way to go Sarah!

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