(Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with U.S. Biathlon Association coaches and staff. The first was with USBA Head Coach Per Nilsson.)
Last summer, the U.S. Biathlon Association made a big change by hiring Jonne Kahkonen as a dedicated head coach for the women’s team. Up until that point, the women hadn’t had their own program.
“There were enough of us to really warrant having a women’s coach, and having a coach geared toward us in Lake Placid,” Haley Johnson told FasterSkier in an interview earlier this month. “I think it brought a lot of specificity, and also respect and attention to the women’s team.
“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.”
And while Kahkonen, who was previously the head coach of the Finnish national team, humbly sidesteps the issue of how much credit he deserves for the team’s recent success, under his guidance the women have certainly flourished. The 2010-2011 season was one of their best ever.
Sara Studebaker ended the season ranked 34th on the World Cup circuit, after having collected two top-twenty finishes and scoring points (which are reserved for the top forty finishers) in fourteen separate races.
Laura Spector, who in Oberhof, Germany in January became the first American woman in six years to qualify for a World Cup mass start, ended ranked 53rd.
And Johnson finished ranked 58th despite being on the circuit for only half the season. In the last weekend of racing in Oslo, Norway, she and Studebaker both qualified for the mass start, a first for the team.
On top of that, the U.S. climbed up to a 15th-place Nations Cup ranking, increasing their start quota from three to four.
It was a good season, and team was quick to thank Kahkonen.
“Working with Jonne has been great,” Studebaker told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “Having a coach of his caliber around all the time has been very positive, especially for the women’s team. Right away I could tell how much Jonne cared about his athletes and it only became more apparent how our successes were really exciting for him as well.
“It’s great having coaches that believe in you so much and are both super excited when you do well, but also able to comfort you and help you see the bright spots when things don’t go as well.”
FasterSkier interviewed Kahkonen via Skype on Monday, when he was starting the first training camp of the year in Lake Placid.
FasterSkier: So first of all, congratulations, it seems like the women had a really strong season.
Jonne Kahkonen: Yeah, thanks, it was really a big step forward for the whole team.
FS: And for you as a coach, too; it seems like this was maybe one of your best seasons?
JK: Yeah, just looking at the improvements it was for sure one of the best ones. The whole women’s [group] just took that big step forward, and reaching out towards the top results, that was amazing.
FS: When you came to the U.S. a year ago, what goals did you set out for the women’s team, and did they meet them or surpass them? Were you surprised at how well they did?
JK: I saw the potential and I knew that this kind of results was possible, and it’s still possible to reach forward, but to gain so much in a year, that was for sure a surprise for me. The goals, we surpassed them. Basically we set the goals to have one or two women not even consistently on the points, but to get some [World Cup] points, because in the past few years we weren’t accustomed to having women on the points [list] on the U.S. team.
FS: Well, you definitely got that one…
JK: Yeah. Like always, when you get that positive feeling and that ball rolling in the right direction then it builds up, and it was just amazing to see how it caught up to each and every one of the women.
FS: So do you think that mentally things were better for the women this year, in addition to just doing good training?
JK: That’s what I always say. In biathlon, because it’s an endurance sport, despite the fact that you still have to be a good shooter and have some other elements as well but the endurance shape for skiing is still the base and it takes several years – it’s not like I did something magic over the last few months. It’s the hard work and the training that the girls have put in in the previous years.
And then the other part of that is that since there’s the shooting involved it’s not only about the endurance and who can ski fast, it’s about the skiing and the shooting, the combination. And then it’s about the mentality, the psychology, and how you can put things together.
And this is where I think the girls themselves did a really good job. They were really motivated and they were supportive to each other, and it tells about the team’s spirits as well.
FS: On that note, there will be some changes in the team this year, with Haley Johnson retiring and neither of the Barnes sisters on the national team, and then there will be some new people. How do you think that’s going to affect how the team works, and the dynamic?
JK: Well, I’m going to start with Haley. For our team, it’s a big loss, for sure. She was an important part of the relay team, for example. And replacing her, it’s going to take some big boots to fill in! But at the same time, I think this is normal. It’s like when Michael Jordan quit, the Bulls needed a new leader and it took some time but they got it, and it’s just the same. It’s a loss but it’s a big big opportunity for the others to step up and I think, seeing last year how the women trained, I can’t say one particular name right now but I’m sure there will be an athlete who can fill in those boots.
FS: When you were hired, Max Cobb told us that he hoped you could take some women into the top ten at Sochi, and into the top 20 on the World Cup this year. You definitely did that this year; how are you feeling about the next few years?
JK: We’re definitely en route to getting those top ten results, whether it’s going to be this year or in Sochi, I can’t really say right now. The pressure gets harder each year and each step you take towards the top. But the last pursuit race, Sara was in the top ten already, so for sure it’s doable. It’ll take more training so whether it’s this year or the next one or in Sochi I don’t know. I hope it’s going to be in Sochi, at least!
FS: I’ve heard a lot about the coaching team at USBA – how much of what the women are doing is your system, and how much of it is Per’s? How do you work together on that?
JK: The core, the basic training is what Per has developed over the course of the years, and I didn’t want to change that last year when I came in so late in the season. Now seeing the first full season I think it’s a system which works in America. I think that’s essential for us. It has to be the combination, maybe it’s not the Swedish system and it’s not the Finnish system but it has to be a combination of things that works in America. And I think that’s accomplished a lot already, between the men and women.
It’s only small things that I’ve changed. An easy example is just that the hours are a little less for the women. It doesn’t have to necessarily be that way, but right now, that’s just where the women are and maybe they can catch up to the guys over the next couple years. We’ll see about that.
FS: So what are the differences between a Finnish system and a Swedish system, for example?
JK: Well actually, I think that the Swedish and the Finnish training systems are pretty much the same. That’s what made the work so easy for me to jump in in the middle of the training season, is that I knew Per from the last year, the last couple of years, and I knew almost exactly what he was thinking. Making all the plans and transferring the plans from Per to me was simple.
If you look at all the training methods maybe the biggest differences would be between, I’d say, the Scandinavian way of training compared to the German or the Russian way of training.
FS: You mentioned that you were starting a training camp this week. What’s on tap?
JK: We actually started just this morning, so this is the first time that the new team is together and we’re here in Lake Placid. And basically, I warned the girls that it’s going to be boring because it’s the basic stuff we’re going to do both for shooting and for skiing, so they have to be mentally prepared that it’s going to be the same thing again. At the end of the workout or halfway through I’m just going to tell them to do it again.
FS: I have to ask: Kaisa Makarainen, one of your former athletes, went from never having won a World Cup to winning the overall this year. Have you talked to her about it?
JK: Oh yeah. I saw her at the World Cups and obviously congratulated her for a job well done already halfway through the season, and then at the end of the season. I’d just say that it was amazing to watch from this side of the pond, about her races and the results. For me, it was just confirmation that the work I’d done before was really paying off. It didn’t happen while I was coaching the team but it’s nice to see that she finally made the results now.
FS: What do you think made the difference for her this year?
JK: The way I see it, obviously I don’t know all the details, but the way I’ve seen her shoot and ski, there’s not big changes, so it’s just small things that are a little bit easier. Maybe there was not so much pressure since it was not the Olympic year. Because in Finland, she was pretty much the only athlete who could achieve those results that she did last season, even two seasons ago, before the Olympics. So for sure there was a lot of pressure on her to get on the podium, and get the results.
FS: Do you think that’s something the U.S. women are going to have to deal with more, now that they’ve had a really good year?
JK: For sure. It’s like a roller coaster. If things go well, then the pressure will add up, and basically what it comes down to is how you can handle the pressure. And typically most of the pressure comes from you, from yourself, not from the outside. For sure there might be a little bit more interviews or more people that are aware of good results, but in the end it’s just a matter of where you set the bar for yourself and how you deal with the pressure from yourself.
FS: Do you work with any of the athletes on psychological stuff like that, or are you just a ski coach?
JK: I try to. I call them mind games and I always add some elements to the training just because in biathlon, a lot of things might happen on a normal day of racing. So basically we’re practicing on this every time we go out and do some combo training. The women are used to that already. It’s not the same as having something bad happen in the race, in the World Cup or in the World Championships, but at least we’ve practiced on that. It’s just the mentality of being prepared for anything and being able to focus on your own performance while something might happen.
We do have Ross Flowers from the USOC who has been working with the team and with the athletes for several years now. I think he’s doing a wonderful job and for sure we get the benefit of that.
FS: You lead the training group in Lake Placid, for both the men and women. What’s a typical day for you?
JK: I’d say a typical day is that I get to the training center early in the morning, have my morning coffee and breakfast here with the athletes, then we go for the main workout session for the day, which is typically combos. After that is done I get back to the training center, finish with some computer stuff, like posting the results from the shooting or time trials, something like that. I have lunch, chat with the athletes, and then they have a little bit of a break, so I can have another coffee. And then the afternoon we try to give a little more free choice for the athletes, so it’s not too much coaching. The coaching is available all the time but it could be a longer, easier session that they do by themselves, or it could be more individual shooting technique or skiing technique.
FS: So you’re pretty busy. How is your family adjusting to life in Lake Placid with you going all over the place?
JK: Well, it’s not that bad. Like I say, I do get that break in between the sessions, so most of the time, for the afternoon coffee I go back home to see my wife and play with the kids for a little while. I might even take a nap, if there’s time for that. And then I’m refreshed and ready to go for the second session. So compared to the system in Finland where I had the camps and I was always traveling even in Finland, it’s actually better here.
FS: In the winter, you still go to the World Cup races, right?
JK: Yes, but again, the system that we have now, with several coaches, it works ideally because it’s a coaching staff that can rotate, so not everybody has to be on the road all the time.
FS: It’s pretty cool that you’ve worked out a system where a lot of you can be with your families a lot of the times. It seems like a unique and better system than a lot of other teams can arrange.
JK: Yeah. I think this system is close to what the Norwegians have except that they have probably double or triple the amount of people rotating. But for us, it can always be better, but I think this is a good system. It’s a working system already. And I think it’s important also that the coaches need some recovery because then we can be more fresh and bring more ideas to the athletes as well.