After a frustrating individual race on Thursday, in which the top finish was 44th, the U.S. men’s biathlon team was left with two choices: wallow, or rebound for a great day Saturday.
Luckily, the men in red, white and blue aren’t prone to feeling sorry for themselves. They picked up and moved on, notching top results in today’s 10 k World Cup sprint in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
They were led by a man who had seemed like an unlikely hero: Russell Currier, a former national team member who has returned to his roots the Maine Winter Sports Center and joined the team this weekend for his first World Cup action of the season.
While the other three Americans – Lowell Bailey, Tim Burke, and Jay Hakkinen – have already notched top-ten finishes this season, Currier hadn’t even been in Europe until earlier this month. He raced domestically in the fall, then qualified through a series of trials races to move onto the IBU Cup. After success last weekend in Italy, he was bumped up onto the World Cup squad.
And here, he has continued his ascent, posting an exciting, if surprising, result: sixth place, clean shooting and 23 seconds behind winner Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway, and 14 off the podium.
“I was always confident in my capabilities, but can’t say I was expecting the split I got on the last loop,” Currier told FasterSkier.
That split showed that he was in the top ten, and caused Currier to up his game. He turned in the fastest loop yet and moved from seventh to sixth in the final 3.3 kilometers.
His teammates also had solid finishes, with Tim Burke placing 11th, Lowell Bailey 21st, and Jay Hakkinen 31st.
“Wow,” was the first thing U.S. head coach Per Nilsson could think of in response to FasterSkier’s questions. “[We went] from the worst result of the year two days ago to the best today!”
U.S. Biathlon Association President Max Cobb took things a step further and compared the results not only to this season, but to others.
“This could be our best day ever,” he wrote in an e-mail.
But while the four-man team’s performance as a group was impressive, Currier was the one that everyone was raving about.
“This was a fantastic day for the team and most of all for Russell Currier – this was a spectacular breakthrough,” Cobb told FasterSkier. “His years of hard work have come together this season, and today he emerged on the world stage.”
Nilsson echoed those sentiments.
“Russell’s performance was over all expectations!” he exclaimed. “Well deserved with all the hard work he has put in over the years. Finally he is putting the shooting together. There are seven races in a row now with 80 percent as the worst shooting.”
Nilsson brought up the reason that everyone was so pleasantly surprised today: while it has never been in doubt that Currier is a very fast skier, in the past he has been hampered by erratic shooting. He has competed at several World Championships, with a best finish of 56th, and received his first World Cup start in 2008, but he never stayed on the circuit long. In fact, he had never finished in the top 60 in a World Cup until today, and on several occasions shot worse than 50 %.
But as Nilsson said, those problems seem to be behind Currier now.
“The coaches and I made a few changes after the camp in Utah back in October,” Currier said. “Since then performance has been on an upward swing. Despite not seeing any of the coaches for a few months we kept up with lots feedback through e-mails and skype about how the changes were going. We took a somewhat systematic approach to my shooting and so far it has worked.”
Currier was one of the very last starters in the field due to his lack of current World Cup results, which is part of the reason spectators were surprised when his splits began to come through. When Currier reached the finish wearing bib 103, the rest of the top finishers were long gone – meaning that he had television and camera crews to himself, for one thing.
The conditions in Nove Mesto today were snowy, but unlike in the women’s sprint on Friday, they were consistently so, and the wind always came from one direction. Currier said that the breeze did not affect his shooting.
“It was windy from the moment I went for a run in the morning, and never really let up,” he said. “Everyone had to deal with the same conditions, unlike in the individual.”
Even the snow didn’t build up enough to punish the later starters, something that would have removed Currier from contention. It did, however, turn skiing into a slog – which may have helped stronger skiers like the Americans.
“The conditions were slow to say the least,” Currier said.
For him, the top-ten result is validation for the work he has done since being a five-time World Junior Championships racer, and the changes he has made in his shooting.
“I never really had a full chance to demonstrate [my abilities] because I wasn’t on any team, and was going to have to work my way back up the ladder,” said of his season so far.
Burke was expecting his second top-ten performance of the season, but was bumped down to 11th when Currier finished. Still, he was pleased with his race, where he had two penalties and the 12th-fastest ski time.
“I was very happy to get back on track with a solid result after many sub-par performances,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I still don’t feel like I am in my best shap,e but I hope to save that for World Championships!
“It was great to be part of such a strong team effort today, especially after a frustrating day for everyone in the individual.”
Bailey shot the same as Burke, but was slowed by his skiing. It’s an unusual problem for the New York native.
“I was not as fast skiing today, and I don’t really know why,” Bailey said. “I have had good speed throughout period two, so I’m not too worried. Ski shape is a funny thing- it can change from one day to the next. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s pursuit.”
Bailey reported the team was “really happy” with their results today.
“It’s the best team result for the U.S. that I can remember, and it’s a great point to be at considering the disaster we had in the individual here,” he said. “[The pursuit] will be great having all four guys up in the top half of the field!”
Nilsson, the coach, wasn’t sure why the team had so consistently and drastically improved in two days; he guessed that the travel over the holidays may have been dragging them down. Instead of looking back, he was excited about the future.
“I’m Looking forward to tomorrow,” Nilsson said. “Everybody has a good start spot.”
And Currier? He’s looking forward to the pursuit, too. He’ll be in an unfamiliar position: at the front of a World Cup race.
“I can’t deny that the competition is a little intimidating,” he said.
But Currier wasn’t getting caught up in things too much. Instead, he used an example of how the team achieved their success today, and said he’d follow that template.
“Our entire staff and athletes demonstrated professionalism today, and it showed with one of our best days ever. All we did was stick to the task that we already knew how to do.
“I obviously can’t make a promise on a result for the pursuit. What I can do is carry out with my task in the whole scheme as best as I can.”
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The strong American results led to another unusual situation: every U.S. biathlete beat the top Canadian.
It wasn’t that the Canucks raced poorly, either. Brendan Green and Jean-Phillipe Le Guellec each had three penalties and placed 32nd and 35th, respectively. They are around two minutes behind Svendsen, but only forty seconds – or two penalties – out of the top 20, and are set up to do well in the pursuit.
The third Canadian starter, Scott Perras, placed 45rd and will join them in the pursuit.