Note: this is the beginning of a three-part series following several groups of biathletes as they negotiate the college question. .
In the summer of 2002, Lowell Bailey was a national “A” team biathlete living in a trailer at Camp Ethan Allen, a national guard training site in Jericho, Vermont.
In some ways, his career as a biathlete was looking up: although he had missed the previous winter’s Olympics by two spots, a few veterans had retired, leaving Bailey near the top of the heap on the U.S. team. And after years on the junior national team and the previous season on the senior team, he was beginning to accumulate the kind of training that can make skiers fast.
There was just one problem, and the trailer and military base had something to do with it.
“I was at a point in my biathlon career where I was kind of burnt out, believe it or not, at age 21,” Bailey told FasterSkier in an interview last fall. “I was thinking, ‘man, what am I doing?’ The funding for biathlon was pretty much nothing. I had a lot of pressure from my family and my grandparents, and a lot of people that were wondering what I was doing with my life.”
Ten years later, Bailey is a two-time Olympian and has ascended to the top of the international field. He netted four individual top-ten World Cup results in 2012 and landed 14th in the Total Score. How he got there, however, was by taking the road less traveled – not only by U.S. nordic athletes, but by the other biathletes he is now battling in Europe.
Bailey spent three years at the University of Vermont, training with the college ski team and racing on the EISA circuit and at NCAA Championships. While he was quick to say that college isn’t for every athlete, Bailey was clear that in his case, it was a career-saver.
“I really think that if I didn’t go to UVM, if I didn’t have college and the things that college has to offer, I don’t think I would have gone back to biathlon,” he said. “I think I needed that mental break from the sport at that moment in my life.”
The Changing Face of USBA Development
Typically, national team coaches in the U.S. don’t support the college model; just this spring, both Matt Whitcomb and Chris Grover told FasterSkier that education was not compatible with athletic commitment to the U.S. Ski Team program. Biathlon coaches agree.
“It’s for sure nothing that we recommend, going to college, if we see potential for an athlete,” U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) Head Coach Per Nilsson wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “We prefer to keep them more under our guidance.”
That was even more true a decade ago, when USBA had a well-funded and successful junior national team program. In 2002, Lanny Barnes, Tracy Barnes, and Carolyn Treacy (now Bramante) teamed up for silver in the World Junior Championships relay, putting the U.S. on the podium for the first time since Jay Hakkinen’s 1997 sprint title, and other athletes were frequently finishing in the top 20.
At that point, Bramante seriously considered heading off to a university like other high school seniors, and applied to Dartmouth College. But after being accepted she decided to defer, taking summer classes at Colorado College instead.
“On the ‘A’ junior team nobody was really going to school except for me, and not on the senior national team either,” Bramante told FasterSkier. “Biathlon has only been an Olympic sport for women since 1992, so when I was looking at the women who had gone to the Olympics, none… went to school while they were training. There were very few examples to look at of how to do school and training.”
The U.S. coaching staff couldn’t give her the answers she wanted, either.
“When I was a junior I really liked our coaches, but they were very discouraging of going to school,” she said.
And why wouldn’t they be? The team provided coaching, racing opportunities in Europe, and fast, hardworking teammates; it seemed like a no-brainer for dedicated athletes to stick with biathlon full-time to until finishing their junior careers at age 20. Tim Burke, Walt Shepard, and Anders Osthus were among those who trained with development coach James Upham out of Burlington, Vermont.
But after the 2002 Olympics, much of that funding disappeared, leaving both juniors and first- and second-year senior racers in the lurch. The development program was routed through the then-still-nascent Maine Winter Sports Center, and although that organization provided support, the timing was ripe for biathletes who wanted to go to college to assert themselves.
“There was pretty much zero support from U.S. Biathlon at that point, and that was a huge influence on my decision,” Bailey said.
The reasons to consider college were numerous and highly individual; Bailey and Bramante, who enrolled at Dartmouth a year later, were followed by Annelies Cook heading to the University of Utah, Shepard to Bowdoin College, and Laura Spector to Dartmouth. For Bramante, Spector, and Shepard, finances were less of the equation, since Ivy League and Division III schools cannot offer scholarships.
But Cook and Bramante, for example, considered themselves strong shooters who wanted to improve their ski speed, and chose college teams accordingly. Shepard wanted to move back to southern Maine, where he had grown up, and to work with former Canadian and U.S. national team coach Marty Hall, who headed the Bowdoin program at the time.
And then there was the consideration of life after biathlon.
“The trend at that point, and to some degree today, is that you do your ski career and then you pick up on real life after that,” Bailey said. “The trouble with that is – I mean, right now I just turned 30, and I’m looking at Sochi very seriously, so at the end of that season I’ll be 32 or 33, and there’s still the possibility of continuing on. If I do choose to retire, I’m a 32-year-old and I have to start from where a 21-year-old college graduate is starting. To me, that’s a pretty scary prospect.”
Shepard, who retired after the 2010 season, echoed that sentiment in an interview, pointing out that he is now almost 30 and in his first full year in the work force. Cook hopes to go into nursing, which will require additional education, while Spector is planning on a graduate degree and Bramante recently earned her M.D. Not all athletes have such ambitious career goals, but for those who do, the thought of starting undergraduate classes at age 30 is understandably daunting.
“I didn’t want to push medical school off forever, because medical training is a really long road,” Bramante said. “I was really excited to start learning.”
The All-American Route: Bailey at UVM
While Bramante knew exactly what she wanted, Bailey was in more of a general funk – and didn’t have much of an inkling that he would blaze a new path and inspire other biathletes to broaden their horizons. A single interaction with assistant coach Al Serrano, however, changed the course of his athletic career.
“Al one day mentioned during training that he was the head coach at UVM,” Bailey told FasterSkier. “He mentioned for the first time the possibility of me skiing for UVM, and the fact that scholarship money was available.”
Bailey now wonders if the comment was made in jest, since he was on track to be a career biathlete. But the idea quickly grew in his mind, and it took only one night before he went back to Serrano and asked how they could make it work. At first, Serrano was careful not to steal Bailey away from the biathlon team, and Bailey wanted to keep racing for the national team that had given him so much support. In 2003, he attempted to compete as both a collegiate skier and an international biathlete.
“It was probably the busiest year of my life,” he said. “I went and raced the December and early January race circuit in Europe. Then I came back and raced the college circuit and I remember perfectly – we had NCAA’s at Dartmouth that year and I finished the final race, went back and packed my bags, and was on a plane to Russia the next morning. I competed at World Championships for biathlon and I think I was racing five or six days later.”
Bailey did fine that year – he finished 45th, 50th, and 59th at World Championships, placed second in the 10 k skate at NCAA Championships, and helped UVM to the runner-up trophy – but he realized that it wasn’t sustainable (four years later, Spector would make the same discovery). Believing that he had to pick a single focus, he chose Vermont and said goodbye to biathlon.
“At that point, as much as I was really grateful to U.S. Biathlon for the opportunities that I’d had racing and the lifestyle and all of that, I thought that I was transitioning into a different phase of my life,” Bailey explained. “I wanted to focus on nordic skiing and school, and enjoy my time at UVM. I really liked the team atmosphere.
“I mean, there’s nothing like a college ski team.”
Bailey excelled as a skier: he was an All-American every season at UVM, and in 2004 he replicated his second-place NCAA finish. In 2005, he finished fifth in the U.S. Nationals 10 k classic. Of the four men who beat him, three – Ivan Babikov, Justin Freeman, and James Southam – went on to compete in the Olympics in skiing, and two (Babikov and John Stene of Norway) were foreigners, so Bailey ended up with bronze.
As graduation drew near, Bailey began thinking about what to do with his degree. Once again, he was approached by a coach. This time it was Upham, the USBA development team coach who had moved to the Maine Winter Sports Center. Upham saw Bailey in Burlington – “I played guitar with him, actually” – and urged him to at least try out his program. After all, the upcoming Olympic trials would be in northern Maine.
“I even said he could stay at my house,” Upham told FasterSkier.
Bailey was undeniably in great shape, so despite uncertainty about how quickly his shooting would come back, he figured he might as well “give myself a year to see what I can do in biathlon.” Since then, he has not looked back, except to say thank you – both to USBA for its support early and late in his career, and to college, without which he doesn’t believe he would have made it to the 2006 Olympics.
“Competing at the college level relieves the pressure of the long term development goals, and we got to focus on the moment and let the rest fall where they may,” Serrano said of Bailey’s years at UVM. “I think this helped him reinvent himself for the next stage of his international career – which he has had do a few other times since. His ability to do this is extraordinary, and I am in awe of what he has accomplished.”
Bramante and Spector: Olympic-Bound Students
When Cook headed for Utah, she more or less copied Bailey’s plan, only competing as a biathlete at U.S. Nationals every spring. Shepard, too, mostly eschewed biathlon while he was at Bowdoin, and raced on the EISA circuit until 2010, when he took the year off to train for Vancouver. But athletes also have another option for their college years: remaining a full-time biathlete. Bramante blazed that path in the runup to the Torino Olympics, and since then Spector has done the same thing.
While coaches feared that athletes leaving biathlon for college skiing would train less, stop shooting, and never return to the sport at a high level, Bramante’s approach carried different worries. In the past several years, only one school – UVM – has had any sort of collegiate biathlon program, meaning that students who want to continue as biathletes have no training or race support and must spend a significant chunk of time and energy on logistics, travel, and planning.
At Dartmouth, Spector and Bramante had to tackle a lot on their own. Bramante started fixing up the old shooting range at Dartmouth and re-started the Biathlon Club, which had been a division of the school’s Outdoor Programs Office; Spector often traveled an hour and a half to Jericho, Vermont when she needed a better range.
Despite those challenges, Bramante made the senior national team in 2004-2005, then qualified for the Olympics the next season. In her eyes, she had proven herself. But she still felt pushback from USBA.
“I think the coaches were definitely impressed that I had been able to do it while being in school, but… they wouldn’t endorse [that approach],” Bramante said. “Bernd [Eisenbichler] was the new High Performance Director and coming from a German background it was understandable that he wouldn’t support me going to school. I don’t want to sound too negative against USBA, because I don’t blame them for not wanting us to go to school.”
By the time Spector arrived at Dartmouth the next fall, she didn’t get the same feeling. But she also hadn’t received as much support from USBA as a junior, which she said meant that the team was less invested in her sticking to its program.
She was immediately hit by the challenges of her situation.
“She was trying to go up to Jericho to train and do the shooting, and then she’s come down and try to train with us , and she’d try to go to the carnivals, and she’d try to go to World Juniors,” Dartmouth women’s coach Cami Thompson told FasterSkier. “It was way too much. She just wasn’t focused enough, and she got tired and run down and it impacted her results. She skied okay, but she could have skied better and she probably could have done biathlon better.”
The next year, Spector focused entirely on biathlon and qualified for her first senior World Championships. Then in 2010, she became an Olympian, finishing 65th in the sprint and 77th in the individual in Vancouver. Her best season came in 2011, when – still a student – she qualified for two 30-woman mass starts and had her first World Cup top-20.
Five years after Bailey’s first Olympic appearance changed the game, Spector’s results had a similar effect. At the time, they were landmarks for the U.S. women’s team; the last American to appear in a World Cup mass start had been Rachel Steer six years earlier.
“Laura is really structured in her personality and can get in the right amount of training,” Nilsson, the current head coach, said. “The compromise for her is shooting and combination training – it gets a little more complicated to find time for shooting when you have studies plus 20 hours of physical training, and then try to squeeze in a drive to go and do combo training. But obviously it’s possible to progress, as she showed last year! She did a good job.”
You Can’t Always Win, But There’s Accident Forgiveness
In fact, both women found that they struggled once they left school. Bramante finished Dartmouth in the fall of 2006, had her best season in 2007, then started medical school at the University of Minnesota, which was a “hard decision” to make while thinking about the 2010 Olympics. She ultimately decided to take time off – in Bramante’s world that means getting a masters degree in public health – to prepare for Vancouver.
That year’s trials were a disaster. Bramante struggled with rifle problems, and also felt that her strategy to spend more time on biathlon had backfired.
“There was not quite as much academically, and that allowed me to go to training camps,” she said. “I didn’t get any slower in speed, but I didn’t get faster, and I think I almost trained too much that year because I had so much time and I was going to all the camps and whatnot. For some people that amount of training just doesn’t work. There’s a beauty to just doing one thing and getting really into it, but for me that never felt right, and it just wasn’t as successful as when I also had school going on.”
Spector faced similar challenges. Her last term at Dartmouth came in the summer of 2011, after which she moved to Lake Placid for her first fall training full-time with the national team. But instead of continuing her rise towards the top of the biathlon standings, Spector began backsliding. She failed to make the top 70 in the first period of World Cups, and raced on the Continental Cup for the rest of the season. Spector said in an interview last week that she believed the transition away from school had negatively affected her performance.
Except for Bailey, who seemed to skate effortlessly from one success to the next, there have been hiccups and disappointments along the way for each athlete who tried the college route.
Cook, for example, was hoping to replicate Bailey’s route all the way to the 2010 Olympics, but it didn’t work out. After leaving Utah she was immediately invited to the national team, where she initially floundered.
“It was such a big change from the way that I had been training as a nordic skier and college athlete that I had a really terrible year, actually,” Cook told FasterSkier last fall. “I was really burnt out and I didn’t get to build into it at all. Unfortunately that was an Olympic year, so I didn’t make the Olympics and that was kind of a bummer, and then I didn’t get re-named to the team because they restructured everything.”
Shepard, too, missed the 2010 Olympics; he made it to the last series of trials races in Altenberg, Germany, where six men were competing for the final two spots on the Olympic team. It was disappointing – he had dreamed of racing at the Olympics since he was a kid, and had been preparing for Vancouver ever since missing the Torino team – but Shepard didn’t blame the failure on his training or his decision to attend Bowdoin. Instead, he humbly explained that he just wasn’t good enough.
“I mean, if Tim [Burke] and Lowell and Jeremy [Teela] weren’t such good friends I would have a lot of cause to write them out of my will for my career coinciding with the glory day of men’s biathlon,” Shepard joked in an interview.
While Spector has been on the national team for the past several years, Cook, Bramante, and Shepard all spent time off the roster and still either made or came close to making the international racing squads. And that’s one place where USBA policy diverges from that of, say, the U.S. Ski Team.
For each international tour – such as World Cups, World Championships, and Olympic Games – there are explicit trials procedures. The trials themselves change from year to year, but never more than a handful of national team athletes are prequalified for any competitions; if one of USBA’s own athletes is beat out by someone else, so be it. Discretion seldom comes into play.
“It was just based purely on the math and the times and the percent back,” Shepard, one of the team’s Athlete Representatives, said of his first trials before Torino. “It was the polar opposite of the way they were choosing the nordic team, which was heavily based on discretion. We had gone the other way because on the nordic side there was a lot of controversy, a lot of people upset about the process, and it created a lot of headaches for USSA.”
The downside, he said, was that there was no room to accommodate athletes who might be the best pick but had raced poorly for one reason or another. But the upside, for athletes like him, seems obvious: there’s no nepotism, and athletes can’t be penalized for working outside the national team system. If biathletes show up and race well, they’re in.
For example, Cook trained largely on her own in 2011 – “I had a lot of help from people” – and not only started her first World Cup that season, but also made World Championships. After that she was re-named to the national team, and has since been one of its core members.
A Matter of Perspective
The resiliency shown by Cook and others likely isn’t entirely unrelated to their career paths. For instance, several of them talked about how college freed them from getting hung up on biathlon-related disappointments and minutiae.
“It’s really easy for any biathlete or nordic skier to get wrapped around all the little training elements,” Shepard said. “You wake up in the morning and your heart rate is a couple beats out of whack, and you’re generally being a geek about your life, that to me can be a really negative process, where if you get up and everything isn’t totally in its place then you’re going to have a bad day.”
Shepard had taken time off after high school to race full-time, but still didn’t feel that he was mature enough as an athlete when he tried out for the 2006 Olympics.
“There was a lot of pressure, a lot of travel, and not necessarily the kind of perspective that I really needed to be successful,” he said. “That was a big part of the decision-making process for me in deciding to go back to school, was that I just really needed to be a more well-rounded person if I was going to have a shot to make the 2010 Games… When I was in the last year of my career, I was a completely different person.”
All five biathletes said that the traditional reasons to attend school – scholarship money, the promise of a job after biathlon, new training partners, being surrounded by people one’s own age – were joined by another, and that was balance.
“If you look at an athlete as a human being who has facets other than just being a good athlete, if you actually look at them as a whole person, then something like college can actually be a good thing,” Bailey said. “It can be a positive for their sports career because it gives you a different perspective, and I think you’re just mentally fresher and more able to put your heart and soul into the training sessions. You’re not faced with the monotony day in and day out.”
Conversely, having taken time off to compete in biathlon full-time before entering college also improved their educational opportunities.
“When I went into college, I told myself, I really want to go back into biathlon when I’m done here,” Cook said. “I had four years of training experience under my wing, so I didn’t go to school as an 18-year-old who might have been more prone to wanting to party. I had a good time, but I definitely treated myself as an athlete and a student first.”
Shepard, too, said that he did better at college than he probably might have had he gone directly to Middlebury, where he was accepted after high school. Instead, he lived in Burlington for several years and trained with Burke, Bailey, and company. That made all the difference when he made it to Bowdoin, where he maintained his progression of increasing training hours every year.
“To go back to school five years later, I had a lot more life experience and perspective, and I think I got a ton more out of my academic experience,” Shepard said. “And it really made me so much more of a calm person when it came to 2010, because when all I was doing was biathlon, that felt pretty easy to me all of a sudden.”
Does College Slow You Down?
When Bailey initially left biathlon to attend UVM, his excitement for learning and joining a college team did nothing to answer the questions of whether leaving the national team would cause the kind of athletic decline that many predicted. He and Bramante were the guinea pigs.
What did they learn? Bailey, for one, was the first to admit that on paper, school isn’t the smartest route for elite athletes, and the reasoning is based firmly in truth.
“I’m not going to say that it’s the ideal training environment,” he said of college. “If your main focus is having the most ideal training environment, I would definitely say that a college campus isn’t it.”
Ideal or no, the proof of whether athletes can compromise is in the proverbial pudding: a comparison of the development of athletes who took the college detour and those who didn’t.
When Bramante was reunited with the Barnes sisters at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, all three were about to turn 24 – on the young side, as most medalists were in their late 20’s or even mid 30’s. Bramante she finished 80th in the sprint, while Tracy Barnes placed 71st in the sprint and Lanny Barnes 64th in the individual. Bramante wasn’t quite even with her peers who had stayed in the national team program, but she was close. (By the time Vancouver rolled around and they reached the age where athletes are more likely to win medals, only Lanny made the Olympics, where she finished 23rd in the individual.)
Bailey had joined them in Torino and fared better, placing 27th in the individual and in the mid-40s in the sprint and pursuit. That was about as well as Burke had finished, and the men – who had each placed 11th at World Junior Championships in the early 2000’s – still seemed to be back on par.
In 2012, that’s still the case. Although Burke had his major breakthrough first, wearing the overall yellow World Cup leader’s bib in 2009, both finished 2012 ranked in the top 20 in the World Cup Total Score; Burke’s top finishes were fourth and sixth, while Bailey placed fifth twice.
“Lowell was the first person to go to college and take a three year break from biathlon, fulltime, which went against everything that every biathlon coach would ever tell you in this country: that if you stop doing biathlon, there’s no chance for you to have success afterwards,” Shepard said. “And Lowell totally disproved that.”
Meanwhile, Cook and Spector’s teammates from their World Junior Championships days are no longer competing. While they certainly left the sport for a myriad of different reasons, from other interests to burnout, allowing athletes the chance to pursue education likely wouldn’t worsen the dropout rate – and in some cases, like Bailey’s, it might even make them more likely to continue in the sport.
“It was a very much needed break,” Cook, who had previously spent three very productive years at the Maine Winter Sports Center, said of her time at the University of Utah. “You can imagine living in northern Maine and not going to college. I did miss out on the whole college scene, and that was at times difficult, I would say. All my friends were doing different things, and I was a full-time athlete.”
The national team, due to low participation numbers in the sport, admits that it must accept that some athletes will want to go to college; if top biathletes aim to get an education, the team has little choice but to demur. But thanks to this group’s success, taking a break from the sport doesn’t necessarily seem like such a bad option.
“After your studies, when you have some more experience in life, maybe you still feel that you want to be a really good biathlete,” Nilsson said. “Then you can get back to it with high motivation again. This was the case for Lowell.”
It takes a highly organized and dedicated athlete to maintain an elite-level training load through college. Nevertheless, there’s been a softening of the biathlon community’s attitude. Instead of saying no, some are asking: why not?
“You look at a guy like Lowell Bailey, who was able to do really robust training as a junior with us, and then go on and have a really successful career at the UVM, stand on the podium at NCAA’s, and then come back to biathlon and make the Olympic team in 2006 fresh out of college, and continue to be a strong member of the team – I think that’s a good example for us,” Cobb concluded.
What advice do these athletes have for others currently navigating the college question? Stay tuned for part three of the series, when we’ll check back in with Bailey, Bramante, Shepard, Spector, and Cook, as well as the current crop of juniors. Part two, focusing on USBA’s 2007 and 2008 development teams, will run next Monday.