(Note: this is first in a series of interviews with the coaches and staff of the U.S. biathlon team.)
When Per Nilsson took over head coaching duties for the U.S. biathlon team after the 2006 Olympic Games, the U.S. men had already begun a slow ascent in the nations cup standings, climbing from 20th place in 2003 to 15th after Torino.
With Nilsson’s help, the rise has continued: the men have now finished either 10th or 12th in the standings every year since. Last season, U.S. athlete Tim Burke wore the overall yellow leader’s bib on the World Cup circuit, an achievement which earned Nilsson a Coach of the Year nomination.
And the success didn’t stop there. 2011 was a banner season for U.S. biathlon: Lowell Bailey had a World Cup top-10, Burke was a consistent performer all year, Leif Nordgren notched spectacular performances at World Championships, and for the first time two women qualified for a mass start. In addition, the men raced to a best-ever World Championships relay finish and the women moved up to 15th in the nation’s cup standings, securing themselves another starting position on the World Cup next season.
How important was Nilsson in all of this?
“I think he’s been indispensible,” said U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) President and CEO Max Cobb.
When Cobb offered Nilsson a job, the Swede was enthusiastic but hesitant. Like most European coaches, he didn’t want to relocate his family to the U.S., and then be gone all winter on the World Cup circuit. But Cobb and USBA understood the predicament, and worked out a plan that enabled Nilsson to stay in Sweden the majority of the time.
“It wasn’t easy for us to find a good solution for our national team coaches, just because most of biathlon happens in Europe,” Cobb said. “I’m proud of us and of Per for being willing to look at a nontraditional approach to how to set up a national team program.
“All of us realize how lucky we are to have him in the program… A coach with his experience has a lot of other options.”
FasterSkier got in touch with Nilsson at his home in Sweden the same way most of his athletes do – via skype.
FasterSkier: To start off with, can you explain how you first ended up in the U.S., coaching at the Maine Winter Sports Center in 2001?
Per Nilsson: I was coaching in my town, Solleftea, at the time, and every couple of years we would have a U.S. exchange student. And one of the exchange students was Walt Shepard. When he came over here he was really not very good, but he improved a lot and got on the junior national team and even got on the podium here in Sweden. So of course Andy Shepard who is his father runs Maine Winter Sports Center. When they needed a coach they called me up and asked me to come.
[author’s note: Walt Shepard went on to compete at junior world championships three times, senior World Championships once, and win at North American Championships.]
I was excited because I could kind of do whatever I wanted to with the coaching philosophy and start the program. So that was really great.
FS: What was your first impression of the U.S.?
PN: I come from a very small town in Sweden so for me, that part of it wasn’t that bad, although it certainly is very far away in Maine.
FS: When you returned to Sweden, what program did you coach?
PN: We have these ski academies and ski gymnasiums, so the athletes are between 16 and 20 years old. That’s the first step to elite athletes in Sweden. I was a coach at the school here in Solleftea for ten years. It’s a really good school, I must say. At the last Olympics in 2010, in Vancouver, from that school we had 12 of 25 athletes. So it’s well known and it’s a gold standard. It’s eight full-time coaches for cross-country, alpine, and biathlon. And it’s fully supported by the government, so it’s really good support and a good start if you want to be an elite athlete.
FS: I’m assuming there are still a lot of athletes you coached there who are still on the World Cup. Do you stay in touch?
PN: Yeah, of course, if you’ve had them for four years, you always talk to them. Not coaching them, for sure. But it’s pretty funny, the major part of the Swedish team I had, all of them, when they were juniors. Like Helena Ekholm and the women, and a couple of the men also. Like Fredrik Lindstrom, the newcomer, I had one year before I left for the U.S. But I know them, all of them.
FS: While we’re talking about Sweden, what do you think about Head Coach Walter Pichler going to Russia?
PN: Well, more and more you see people moving, like it’s soccer or football. It’s really multinational. Of course it’s a little bit bad timing, but I kind of understand also. Pichler, because he’s had big success in Sweden and many years, so maybe it was time for him to move also.
FS: What drew you back to the US?
PN: I had never thought about moving and I did not search for a position. It was after the Olympics in 2006 that Max Cobb called me up and asked if I was interested. The experience from working with the American athletes [had been] really fun.
It’s a little bit of a culture difference. The Americans are really open to going all in and trying, so it’s a nice culture you have there. So far everybody is fully motivated and they are a little more open to try something, to change a little bit where we are a little more conservative here in Scandinavia if you want to do some small or bigger changes in the training or philosophy.
So it was, again, like I said in Maine, exciting when I got the offer to work with a new group and work on a new philosophy with the biathletes in the U.S.
FS: Max told me a little bit about the unusual arrangement you have where you spend most of your time in Sweden. How does that work in practice?
PN: It works. The World Cup is, as you know, mainly in Europe, so still I’m away from home, but it’s not in the U.S. And then for the training part we have pretty long camps, two to three weeks, so I go work with the team for two or three weeks and then they have home-based training. Most of our athletes stay in Lake Placid where we have coverage with two coaches right now. So they work really hard for two to three weeks and then they have a full training block or sometimes even more of home-based training.
I mean, all of them are professional. They train hard. And I think it’s good also that you have time to think yourself and listen to yourself a little bit in the periods where you don’t have the camps.
For the communication part it’s always better if you talk to the athletes, to talk face to face, but it works pretty good with Skype and all these technologies that you have.
FS: I’ve heard a lot of athletes talk about how well your staff works together as a team. Can you tell me about that, and about your coaching philosophy?
PN: I think that this is maybe the most important, especially now when we have the World Cup and we have so much travel. I think it is one of our most important tools, is to have a clear philosophy in the training. It’s changeable every year, but still we have the basic philosophies, how much we train and how much intensity and the age at which we do that. I think that’s a strength we have developed. When we talk to the athletes we talk the same language.
And from the coaching side we are all different nationalities. We have Swedes, Finnish people, Italians, American people, so it’s kind of good for us also to learn from each other, to take the best part from each culture. We are taking it step by step so it isn’t like the wind goes from right to left. Our basic philosophy is there and then you can discuss it.
We feel right now that we have a really good team with the coaching staff, open-minded and able to discuss all things, and nobody is so proud that they want to take all the credit.
FS: Very few American coaches have been through a coaching program at school. What did you learn there, and what do you think the difference is between American coaches and European ones?
PN: I think it’s maybe a different system. Like for us, I went to a sports university and I spent three years there. I didn’t learn too much specific about biathlon there. You get that education through the federation. But to be at the university and learn a lot about the basic principle of physiology and biomechanics, that’s for sure the base for me in my coaching. So maybe that’s something that’s the biggest difference if you compare that to the Americans.
I always say that I base my training in the theory of physiology and biomechanics and so on, and then you have your practical knowledge and your experience that you can change a little bit. But I will never take shortcuts from the basic theory about the training. That’s always… when you do a plan you have to have that in your mind.
FS: So on the experience side of things, what have you learned as you worked more with US athletes?
PN: In the U.S. you want to know why you do things. And I like that, for sure. And maybe when I coached the younger athletes, before, they didn’t know as much. The guys I work with now, they are grown up and they are smart guys and they read a lot about the training, so they have a little better knowledge. But often they ask, “Why do we do this?” And you have to explain, and then they are all in again. So I think that’s a little difference, but I like that. It’s good communication and it’s more motivating if you know why you do certain things.
FS: Are there any performances or athletes you are the most proud of as a coach?
PN: If you look at the U.S. team we are moving up a little bit. The level is high so we are happy with everything that we have. Of course with Tim last year when he was the overall leader in the World Cup that was a big achievement for the whole team also. He was the first American that was up there. If you’re the leader of the World Cup after one trimester and the beginning of the year then you have a good level and respect to other athletes also. So that’s maybe the biggest moment if you talk about the performance.
But then you have other small things also, from the level that each athlete started with, as a coach you feel proud when you have one person shooting clean for the first time, or take their first World Cup points or do something that they haven’t done before. So it’s different levels. But if I could pick one highlight for sure it was when Tim took the yellow bib.
FS: What are your goals for the team in the future?
PN: I’m really excited because in our sport, in endurance sports it takes time, and as a team we have worked hard for four years now. We have had good years and bad years and different for different athletes but we always have the goal to move up, and I think that the people who have been in the program for a longer period of time and have put in the hard work, they should have the best years still to come. For the next Olympics – this year we had Tim and even Lowell showing great potential for the men’s side. Then you had Leif with an extremely good World Championships. You have three good athletes there and then you have our most experienced guys with Jeremy Teela and Jay Hakkinen to bring in some good years coming into the Olympics also. For the men’s side it looks better than before. And especially perhaps with Leif that he showed so much [improvement] so now we have five good people.
And also like you saw for the women, this year was really a breakthrough for them. We have a mixed relay coming up for the Olympics now, and we have two or three athletes showing good results in the World Cups, so I see it more bright than ever for the full team, both men and women.
FS: How did it feel to be nominated for coach of the year last year?
PN: It felt a little awkward to be honest because the other guys had…. such good results in the Olympics, that I was pretty sure not to get the award. But I think I got this nomination when Tim got the yellow bib and that’s a big achievement for the respect of the program. So I was happy and proud, but I never thought that I would get the prize.