After finishing the 10 k World Cup sprint in Ostersund, Sweden on Friday, Lowell Bailey didn’t have to be chatty. He only needed a few words to describe how his race had gone.
“It was a great race for me,” Bailey wrote in the opening of an e-mail to FasterSkier.
That might be an understatement. The American placed fifth, the best finish of his career; he was less than ten seconds off the podium. Every man in front of him owns a big gold medal from World Championships. So do more than a few behind him.
But in typical self-deprecating fashion, that wasn’t what Bailey focused on in his remarks to FasterSkier. Instead, he talked about simply following his plan for the race.
“I just tried to go out and execute the things that I have been working on in training leading up to this World Cup,” he said.
Whatever those things are, they’re working. In Wednesday’s individual – Bailey’s first race with a bib this year – he placed ninth, tying his previous best finish. Then today he improved thanks to clean shooting.
Teammate Tim Burke just missed the top ten, finishing twelfth with one penalty. On most days, his result would have been the highlight – but so far this season, American biathlon has suggested that they’re capable of more.
“I don’t ever remember having two in the top twelve,” U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) President Max Cobb said in an e-mail. “Maybe in 1994 in Canmore with the women… anyway we have not had day like this for the me. Of course podiums (from Tim [Burke] and Josh Thompson) are amazing but this depth of great results is not something I can remember!”
Two races into the season is a bit early to be considering overall World Cup rankings, but it’s hard for the U.S. not to, simply because they are in such uncharted territory. Bailey is currently ranked fourth, Burke 25th, and Jay Hakkinen, who placed 18th on Wednesday, checks in at 31st.
“We have three men in the in the top 31 of the World Cup ranking- I don’t think this has happened before either,” Cobb said.
The team is also ranked seventh in the nation’s cup, ahead of traditional powerhouse Russia and only ten points behind Sweden.
“I think today was a great team performance overall,” High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler said in a USBA press release. “With our 7th place ranking in the Men’s Nation Cup, it shows that the team has strong potential.”
Bailey’s potential was clear today – he actually left the range after his final shooting stage in third position before running out of steam on his final 3.3 kilometer loop.
“By the last loop, I was definitely a little gassed, but I was happy to see my ski time in there with the top guys finally,” Bailey wrote.
Overall, he had the seventh-fastest ski time of the day and was one of only twelve men in the field of 102 to shoot clean.
Burke, too, was quick on his skis; if he hadn’t missed a shot in standing, he would easily have joined Bailey in the top ten. Burke owned the eleventh-fastest ski time of the day, a major improvement over his performance on Wednesday, where he struggled to 58th place.
“Unfortunately, I was a bit sick the week before the first race so I missed some hard interval sessions and a time trial that would have better prepared me for the start,” Burke explained. “I think I needed that really painful effort on Wednesday to get my form back and I am hoping to feel even better for the pursuit.”
While it was a banner day for the U.S., Canada had their own highlights: Brendan Green finished fourteenth, just nine seconds behind Burke, and tied his best-ever World Cup result.
For Green, it was a rebound of an even larger magnitude than Burke’s: he had placed 72nd in the disastrous, windy individual race.
“I really struggled on Wednesday and honestly wasn’t sure how today would go so I guess more than anything today’s result is a relief,” Green said in a Biathlon Canada press release.
“I’m definitely pumped with today’s result and it feels great. I was able to put in what felt like a consistent and solid effort throughout the entire race, and I felt like I was in complete control of my shooting.”
The cosmos around Green seem to suffer from a bit of triskaidekaphobia: it was his third time finishing 14th in a World Cup. As he left the range after his last shot, he was almost dead even with thirteenth place, and a new career best seemed within reach. But like Burke, Green tired and his last loop was his slowest, leaving him with yet another 14th place result.
But he looked at the positives, not the negatives.
“Being able to tie my career best result in the second race of the season is a confidence booster, and I’m feeling optimistic towards the rest of the season,” Green said in the press release.
All three are eagerly awaiting Sunday’s pursuit – Bailey in particular, since he’s never started so close to the front of the race before.
“It will be great to start up at the top of the field, and I’ll have company too with Tim starting just a little behind me,” Bailey said.
When asked whether such a prominent starting position would change his approach at all, he said no. Like in today’s race, Bailey simply hoped to execute his technique work, race hard, and adapt to the conditions as necessary – that’s the only thing that would change his strategy.
“The course was a little bit different today which called for some different tactics on course,” Bailey said. “Because of the way the temps have been wavering above and below freezing over the last 24 hours, there were a lot of sections on the downhills that opened up into ice sheets over the course of the race. Then, on other parts, the course broke down and was deep sugar snow. I tried to alter my technique accordingly.”
While all of the racing in Ostersund so far has taken place at night, the men’s pursuit on Sunday will be held around noon, meaning that they’ll be faced with different snow (and likely wind) conditions.
“I will just try and execute a solid performance and let the results be what they will be,” Bailey said.
Burke was pleased that today’s conditions – fast and icy – had made the course fast, because it meant that even out of the top ten, he was still close to the podium.
“Today the times stayed pretty close, so it should be a really exciting pursuit where anything can happen,” he wrote.
But while it’s easy to look forward to more, Cobb thought it was important to take a moment and appreciate today, and what it means for U.S. biathlon.
“I am so happy for Tim and Lowell, and the whole team that has worked so hard and well together to bring the group up to this level,” Cobb said.
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Meanwhile, Swede Carl Johan Bergman shot clean to pick up a seven-second win over Tarjei Bø of Norway. Emil Hegle Svendsen, also of Norway, finished third with one penalty.
The home crowd went wild for Bergman, who had only won a single World Cup before today. The 33-year-old was not a favorite coming into this season.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said in a post-race press conference, clearly as stunned as anyone else. But he used his victory to motivate other athletes.
“In my dreams I thought of a win in Östersund. [And] I always think about [beating the Norwegians]. If you do not think you can do it, then you should stop right there. You have to believe in yourself and that you have the capacity. I showed that today by shooting clean and skiing fast.”
Bø, rather than being too upset about losing, agreed.
“It is good when you see a guy like him up here,” said last year’s overall World Cup leader. “He works hard and showed that it pays off.”
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While the North Americans accomplished a rare feat by placing three in the top fifteen, the rest of their athletes didn’t fare as well.
For the Americans, Jay Hakkinen placed 39th with one penalty, while Leif Nordgren, who had also been hit with a head cold, was 79th.
Scott Perras was the best of the rest for Canada, placing 69th with three penalties. Scott Gow shot well, missing only once, but struggled on his skis to place 80th. Finally, JP Leguellec had a tough day on the range, placing 86th with five penalties, or 50 % shooting.