Lowell Bailey (USA) was so sure that he wouldn’t be racing in Sunday’s mass start in Fort Kent that he told his family to go home.
His sister still stuck around. But when Bailey did luck into a start, skiing and shooting his way to a career-best ninth place, his mother wasn’t around to see it—she was driving back to New York.
“I owe my mom a little bit of an apology, I guess,” he said in a press conference afterwards.
Only 30 athletes get to compete in the mass start: the top-25 ranked on the World Cup circuit, and five wild cards based on their results from earlier in the weekend.
Bailey’s chances to contest the race had plummeted to next to nil after Saturday’s pursuit, when he took himself out of contention by forgetting two of his clips.
But with the World Championships approaching in early March, an unusually large number of competitors skipped out on Sunday’s race due to illness and injury, giving Bailey the last of the 25 ranked spots.
Bailey had shown up at the venue ready to go, but he didn’t find out he’d gotten lucky until an hour-and-a-half before the start, thanks to some teams that were late turning in their entries. He said he thought his coaches were joking when they informed him he’d be on the line.
“I waited until Bernd [Eisenbichler, U.S. Biathlon’s High Performance Director] showed up with the actual bib in his hand, and then, I knew I was actually racing today,” he said.
The race didn’t start out auspiciously—Bailey was one of just 11 of the 30 starters to miss a shot in the first stage. That put him back into 26th, but he said it didn’t bother him—he proceeded to reel of hits on 14 of his next 15 targets.
“It doesn’t matter how you get 18 hits,” he said. “You miss your first two targets and hit the rest—I’ve seen it…I’ve been there enough to know that you’re not out of it, by any means, if you have a bad stage at the beginning. It almost takes a little bit of the pressure off.”
After a miss in his third shooting stage, Bailey came into the range for the last time in 18th place. It took him just 20 seconds to fire off five more hits—tied for the best time of anyone in the men’s field. That kicked him all the way up to eighth.
“Anything can happen in that last standing,” he said. “If you can clean that stage, crazy things happen.”
But with Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen just four seconds behind, and others in the mix, Bailey’s work wasn’t done. While he couldn’t quite hold off Svendsen on the last loop, he did manage to keep Ukraine’s Serguei Sednev and Germany’s Daniel Boehm at bay, before collapsing in a heap at the finish.
“I knew that was top 10,” he said. “I left everything out there.”
After the dejection of the day before, Bailey’s result on Sunday was a catharsis—not just for him, but for the entire U.S. team. Coaches and administrators were already high-fiving after Bailey’s last shooting stage; Eisenbichler greeted him at the line with a huge bear hug.
With two misses, Bailey was just 38 seconds off the winning time—that of Frenchman Martin Fourcade. Since penalty loops take some 23 seconds apiece, that puts him in striking distance for medals at the upcoming World Championships in Russia, in early March, according to U.S. Head Coach Per Nilsson.
“He can be all the way up there—he has that capacity,” Nilsson said. “He skied with the best; he almost followed
the best guy in the world, Svendsen, on the last loop there.”
But if Bailey does have the potential to crack the podium in Russia, that’s not his mindset going in, Nilsson said. In the past, Nilsson said, a focus on results has been a “weakness” for Bailey, but not so any more.
“He’s getting better and better,” Nilsson said. “He has no pressure—he has a really good approach to how he goes into the races.”
Fourcade Finally Gets His Win
In two races World Cup races in Fort Kent, Martin Fourcade (FRA) had been fourth and second. In Sunday’s mass start, he finally got the win he’s been waiting for, passing Poland’s Tomasz Sikora on the final lap.
With two penalties total, Fourcade was third after the final shooting stage, skiing with Germany’s Andreas Birnbacher. Sikora was up ahead, having cleaned all four stages.
Fourcade put in a move after course’s big climb to catch Sikora, leaving him with clear snow in front of him. But he said that he had no idea he was leading the race.
“I didn’t know that [Sikora] was first,” Fourcade said. “When I caught him, my coach told me, ‘now you have to move—you’re first!’ I had no idea, before.’”
Sikora stuck to Fourcade for a bit, but he couldn’t quite match the pace—he trailed in for second, three seconds behind. Norway’s Tarjei Boe was third, another second-and-a-half back.
Boe’s teammate Emil Hegle Svendsen was in contention heading into the final shooting stage, but he couldn’t hold it together, missing two targets. His coaches didn’t have much to say, but in the press conference, Boe said he had talked to Svendsen, who wasn’t pleased.
“He’s a very good biathlete but he knows that he has this weakness on this last shooting,” Boe said. “I think he wanted to prove to himself that he could manage to shoot clean. He’s a top athlete, so when he has two mistakes, he’s very angry…I can understand—he had a chance to win.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.