Note: This piece is a preview to our upcoming series on how American biathletes navigate the question of college. Check back next Monday for the first installment, which will address in more depth many of the issues brought up here.
After the 2011 IBU World Cup season, American biathlete Laura Spector was riding high. That January, she had collected her first top-20 result and become the first U.S. woman in six years to qualify for one of the circuit’s prestigious 30-woman mass starts. She had a total of five top-30 races that season, and seemed like a solid leader on the rapidly rising women’s team.
A year later, things looked different. In the first period of World Cup racing, the 2010 Olympian failed to crack the top 70. She stepped down to the IBU Cup level and didn’t return.
“I’m definitely not happy with how the season went,” Spector told FasterSkier in an interview last week as she prepared to move to Bozeman, Montana. “It was below par and below what I was expecting.”
Spector said that she knew as early as October that things weren’t quite right; by the time the team was having their fall camps, she was already tired.
“I think I went into the season already pretty worn down from all the training in the summer and the fall,” she explained. “I talked to my coaches about it just a little while ago, and they pretty much agreed that that was probably what had happened. Trying to push through four months of racing without being able to take breaks didn’t really help things.”
Spector attributed the change to her first autumn of training full-time with the national team. Prior to 2012, she had been a student at Dartmouth College, taking the winters off from school to race but attending classes in the spring, summer, and sometimes fall. She had never trained day in and day out with the national team or its coaches.
“When I was at Dartmouth the previous fall, which was right before I had some of my best results, I was able to be a lot more responsive to what I was feeling because I didn’t have a coach watching me every day,” she said. “I think that part of doing more training than I was able to handle was being with my coach every single day, and therefore having to do the exact workout whether I felt like I could do it or not.”
The women’s national team coach, Jonne Kahkonen, agreed that Spector had come into the season at less than full speed, but saw a different cause, and believed that she had been tired as early as the end of the summer.
“After school was done – typically when you finish something you might get sick, or you get more tired actually after you finish that work load,” he said in an interview from Lake Placid. “I think that had a big role in that for sure, even more than Laura really realized, and that probably carried a little further out than any of us could really think of.”
According to Kahkonen, part of the reason that it took a whole season to realize what was happening was due to the fact that he had never worked closely with Spector before, at least not in comparison to the other national team members who were in residence at the Olympic Training Center. Without a good understanding of her baseline and how she showed stress, it was more difficult for him to pick up on the problem.
“If I’m being really honest, for me, as a coach, that is for sure not an ideal situation,” Kahkonen said. “Even last year she wasn’t training fully with the team because she finished school at the end of August, so there was not that much time after school was done and before the season started…Even getting to know Laura a little better, it wasn’t the same as when you see an athlete every day.
“I think all these motivated athletes, especially like Laura, she is really motivated and when the plan is there, she will do it by the book, by the second,” he continued. “It’s tough to get that really honest answer of whether you really feel tired right now, or if you feel good then maybe you could do even more of some other kind of training.”
By the middle of the season, Spector was able to finish 10th in an IBU Cup race in Canmore, Alberta. She also had several top-30 finishes in IBU Cup races in Europe and at Open European Championships in Brezno, Slovakia.
It wasn’t much consolation, though.
“It’s hard to go through an entire season and watch yourself racing at a level that you should not be racing at,” Spector said. “The whole time I knew that I was not racing as well as I could, but I couldn’t really race any better because I didn’t have any time to recover. It’s definitely hard.”
And so Spector is trying to get back on track by returning to what has worked in the past: school. A biological sciences major at Dartmouth, she hopes to attend graduate school in the future. This summer she’s taking an intensive organic chemistry course at Montana State University.
What does that mean for biathlon?
“We’ll see,” she said. “I’m going to go to school this summer and I’m taking everything out with me. They have a biathlon range at Bohart, and I’ll be running and biking and staying active. I don’t have time to fly back East to go to camps or anything… then when the fall comes around, we’ll see what happens. Really I’m just playing it by ear.”
Based on her IBU Cup results, Spector was named to USBA’s “B” team, a step down from the “A” funding level she has been at for several seasons. That didn’t faze her, but she also said that she didn’t plan on integrating fully into the national team system any time soon.
“I plan to not ever in the future be just solely an athlete,” she said. “Because that just doesn’t work for me.”
For Kahkonen – who said that he “didn’t have any finalized plans yet” for Spector, and that they still needed to have another conversation about her season – it wasn’t the most welcome news.
“To be honest I’m kind of worried that that’s something that might happen,” he said of the possibility that Spector wouldn’t return to Lake Placid. “Obviously from my point of view I’d love to have Laura here, just to get to work with her more individually, because that’s how I feel about coaching, and that’s how I want to be coaching. I haven’t really had that chance with Laura yet, and obviously when you look at her results there’s huge potential there.”
Nevertheless, he said he’d do what he could to give Spector the best shot at success.
“If school and taking classes is something that she really wants to do right now, it is obviously her decision,” he said. “What I always say is that if you want the top result, then you need to do biathlon 100%, but at the same time biathlon is only a part of life, and you have to be happy doing biathlon. It’s sometimes a tricky combination. I want to give all the information and all the support that I can give, and then the final decision is up to the athlete.”
Spector was grateful for that support, and said that she felt like USBA staff understood her choices.
“They’ve seen that I’m able to handle it pretty well, and still perform well,” she said. “Since I’ve talked to them they are definitely supportive, because they know that their athletes have to have a healthy mind as well as a healthy body. Whatever it takes, they are willing to support you as long as you turn in good results.”
With her return to school, she hopes that she can give them – and herself – just that.