SEEFELD IN TIROL, Austria—
It’s been a week of memorable firsts here in Seefeld Stadium during these Winter Youth Olympic Games. The very Youth Games themselves, hosted by the Austrian city of Innsbruck, served as the winter debut for the International Olympic Committee’s latest concoction, thereby making Innsbruck— the two time host of the Olympic Games, in 1964 and 1976— the first city to host three Olympic Games. The Youth Games is a shiny new event with a fresh new message, which is reflected by many of the unique athletic events which debuted during these Games, including today’s exciting Cross-Country/Biathlon Mixed Relay.
While the Gold medal went to the Germans, who skied a near flawless race, it was the underdog American team which powered its way towards a historic first in Seefeld today—finishing a half second behind the mighty Russian squad to claim the Bronze medal. The finish marks the first Olympic medal for the US Biathlon program, and the second for the Cross-Country squad.
A New Event Requires a New Strategy—
The much anticipated Biathlon/Cross Country mixed relay assumed an exciting format—the female biathletes would scramble the mass start, skiing one lap of a 2km course before they headed to the range for a prone shooting stage. Athletes were entitled to three spare rounds per stage in order to keep penalty loops to a minimum.
From there, the first leg racers completed two more laps of the 2km loop, interrupted in between by a standing shooting stage. The biathlete then tagged off in the stadium to the female cross-country skier, who completed two fast laps of the same 2km loop. After an all out 4km, the female skier would then tag off to the male biathlete, whose three loops of a slightly different 2.5km course were also interrupted between laps by one prone and one standing shooting stage.
The anchor leg, skied by Paddy Caldwell—fresh off of a top 5 finish in Thursday’s Freestyle Sprint, entailed two laps of the 2.5km course. It was a straightforward, yet high stakes effort which that set up the drag race to the line.
In terms of strategy, all four athletes would need to fight for every meter to keep the team in overall contention. But due to the two shooting stages, which could instantly drop a team from first to worst and open up huge time gaps, strong biathlon legs would be absolutely critical.
“The biathlon legs are critical in this relay,” Biathlon Coach Piotr Bednarski told FasterSkier in a pre-race interview, “You can move up ten places in one shooting. Poor shooting will take a team right out of the running.”
Less than ideal pre-race conditions—
As if more snow were just what western Austria needed this season, a meter of Tyrol’s finest white stuff fell over the race course throughout the 24 hour period preceding the start, with snow continuing to fall throughout the event.
According to Team Cross Country Coach Sverre Caldwell, the soft conditions would punish racers who started too hard.
“With such soft conditions, I kept repeatedly reminding Heather and Paddy: ski smooth, ski smooth,” Caldwell told FasterSkier. “We really wanted to make sure they didn’t go out too hard chasing some of those faster guys.”
But it wasn’t only the new snow that had the US squad on edge before the race. Heather Mooney— whose Middlebury Teammates are competing in the first EISA Collegiate Carnival at Bates this weekend—came down with a nasty cold the night before the race. She woke up unsure if she’d be able to compete.
“I woke up and was feeling pretty sick,” Mooney told FasterSkier. “I had a bad sore throat, my nose was pretty congested, but when I got here, I knew I had to race. I figured I’d just try and go as smooth as possible. It turns out, for me, in these soft conditions, I was probably a bit faster—just thinking about being relaxed instead of just hammering.”
When asked how high the chances were that Mooney wouldn’t be able to start, Caldwell told FasterSkier, “Hmmm, she was medium-close! We really just weren’t sure what to expect this morning. The biathletes were 15th in Thursday’s Biathlon relay, Heather wasn’t feeling well, you really just never know with this stuff.”
With solid shooting by Kubek, the women set it up—
With Mooney feeling well enough to grind out four full gas kilometers, the US was back in the mix. Duluth, Minnesota native Anna Kubek and the rest of the 23 scramble-leg skiers charged out of the stadium for their first loop and when they came in for their first shooting leg, it was clear that solid shooting would indeed be critical.
Kubek used one extra round in her prone stage, and two in the standing to avoid skiing any penalty loops, and she tagged off to Mooney in 8th position.
Biathlon Sprint Champion Franziska Preuss of Germany took the reins early on in the race, using just one spare round in her standing shooting stage to avoid a penalty loop, and the team didn’t look back— not once relinquishing the overall lead.
Not all powerhouse nations fared so well during the first lap, as Russia’s Uliana Kaysheva— who won Gold in the Pursuit event earlier in the week— struggled on the range during the snowy conditions. She used all six spare rounds and still ended up with two penalty loops, dropping her team to 14th place after the first exchange.
Despite her sickness, Mooney maintained her focus throughout her two laps, keeping her pace smooth and powerful.
“Normally, I’m much better in harder, firmer conditions, but just thinking about being relaxed and not hammering helped me keep my pace under control. It ended up OK!” Mooney told FasterSkier after the race.
With the leaders still fairly tightly grouped, Mooney managed to post the 12th fastest lap of her leg to hand off to biathlete Sean Doherty in 9th position.
Men capitalize on Doherty’s shooting to fight for the podium—
Doherty, who hails from Conway, NH, knew he had his work cut out for him during the third leg. The young skier had been skiing consistently fast all week, but his shooting was the key variable. Doherty had worked his way up to 7th in Monday’s Pursuit event before “dirtying” his first standing stage, missing all five shots, dropping him back to 12th. He’d need to deliver a big one for the team to stay in contention.
Deliver he did.
“I’ve been having some trouble on the range this week, like during the Pursuit. ‘Little mishaps’, like that one. So I did some dry-firing this morning, a little extra confirmation in the zero, and then it all just came together. Solid opening leg, great skis. So awesome,” Doherty told FasterSkier.
Doherty combined his reliable ski speed with exceptional shooting to instantly vault the US into second place after his second standing stage. The young athlete from New Hampshire only needed one spare round per stage to avoid penalties despite the stormy conditions. His effort netted the fastest overall split of the leg, 11 seconds faster than that of France’s Fabien Claude.
Several of the pre-race favorite faltered during the third leg, sending their teams far back in the standings. Norway’s Kristian Andrew Aalerud, who took 5th in Sunday’s Sprint, dragged his team from a comfortable 2nd to 9th after skiing three penalty loops on his prone stage, even after he’d used all of his three spare rounds. This left their closer, Chriander Holth—who placed 4th in the Classic race—with too little real estate to close the gap. The team would finish a disappointing 9th overall.
Just as Bednarski cautioned, poor shooting could handily take a top team out of the mix, which opened the door for the United States to attack the podium.
After Doherty’s massive effort left the US suddenly sitting in 2nd, anchor leg Paddy Caldwell simply put his head down and went to work. But with Russia’s Alexander Selyaninov—winner of the Classic event— starting a mere 15 seconds behind him, the race for the second was on.
With just a few seconds to register that they were now fighting for second place, Paddy and Coach Sverre touched base briefly before the tag.
“Sverre just told me, ‘Look where we are, and remember what we’ve got going here!’” Caldwell told FasterSkier. No pressure whatsoever.
But that pressure didn’t seem to phase the young New England skier. He stuck with the Russian on the fast course, and hatched a plan to try and foil Selyaninov in the final sprint.
“We were definitely playing a little cat and mouse out there. He [Selyaninov] caught and passed me after the first lap. I stuck behind him, and we kept going back and forth,” Caldwell explained to FasterSkier. “Towards the end of our last lap, I passed him and pushed the pace. I knew we had a pack close behind in 4th and 5th, and I just wanted to really hammer it home.”
The Russian put on a surge coming over the final climb behind the range, and took the best line coming through the s-turns to the finishing straight. The Russian ended up nipping Caldwell by a half a second in the sprint, but the US Team had delivered—they’d bagged Bronze, boxing the Scandinavians out from the podium in the process.
A Historic Moment—
The day marks a historic occasion for US Nordic Skiing, as this medal is the first ever for the United States in an Olympic Biathlon event, and only the second in a Cross-country event— Vermonter Bill Koch took Silver in the 1976 Games in the very same stadium.
While the Americans were clearly the underdogs coming into this unique event, it was their unbelievable consistency which allowed them to surpass many of the world’s best.
Coach Bednarski— who has devoted his coaching career to preparing young biathletes to compete on the world stage— was moved, having witnessed a crop of his junior athletes deliver such a groundbreaking performance on the world stage.
“I’m pretty proud. I’m a little emotional—I’ve been doing this for a real long time. It just made all those years a little more worthwhile. But they’re all worthwhile,” Bednarski told FasterSkier.
Kubek, whose solid leg was so crucial to the team’s success, told FasterSkier, “I’m just on Cloud Nine right now. It’s such an honor to be part of this team. To be honest, it hasn’t really hit me yet. We’ve become such close friends throughout the course of this week.”
Tim Caldwell, who famously took part in the Men’s 4x10km relay during the ’76 Games which were so monumental for US Nordic Skiing, proudly watched as his son deftly marked the Russian on the very trails he’d raced on thirty six years beforehand.
“Everyone skied so well, and then Sean really broke it open during his leg. And Paddy skied great. It was just so exciting to watch him ski to that medal, it was really great.”
Paddy, whose closing effort secured the team’s finish, praised the efforts of the entire team.
“This is a great thing. It’s so exciting to have done so well with the team here. It was just so great to work with the biathletes this week, it’s really been a true team collaboration throughout this entire event,” Caldwell told FasterSkier after the race.
It’ll surely take a while for the gravity of the team’s accomplishment to sink in, but for now, the athletes are eagerly awaiting tonight’s Medal Ceremony, where they’ll get to stand on the impressive podium in the middle of Innsbruck’s famous downtown boulevard— the Maria Theresien Straße. It’s quite clear that this medal speaks volumes about the rising level of cross-country ski racing in the United States. The bar has been raised, and aspiring skiers can look to this finish and know that US juniors truly rank amongst the very best in the world.
And it’s only fitting that this medal came out of the Mixed Team Relay, a brand new and undeniably exciting format which combines Biathlon and Cross-Country squads—teams who normally compete separately during their European tours. It’s an accomplishment in the true spirit of these Games.
“Teil Sein ist Alles—Be part of it!”