Note: This is the last piece in a three-part series following several groups of biathletes as they negotiate the college question. Part one featured five top juniors who took a detour through college before returning to the international stage, while part two looked at USBA’s 2007-2010 Development Team.
In November, 2011, Casey Smith was named Junior Biathlete of the Year for 2011 by the United States Biathlon Association (USBA). In a European country, that might mean a pat on the back from a coach at practice, perhaps an honorary celebration thrown by an athlete’s club, or maybe an added bargaining chip in sponsorship negotiations.
Smith, though, barely even has a club. The Winthrop, Washington, native, who turned 20 in February, was in the midst of his sophomore year at the Montana State University (MSU), where he jumps in time trials with the college’s ski team and otherwise trains primarily by himself. There is no coach, and “practice” doesn’t seem like the right word for a solo rollerski.
“[The award] helped me do some more fundraising, I guess, because it adds something else to your resume,” Smith told FasterSkier in an interview this spring.
That fundraising, along with lots of planning and motivation, helped Smith get to Europe three times during the 2011-2012 season. Once there, Smith is finally part of a team – Team USA.
“There’s lots of support from USBA and the coaches,” he said.
First, Smith raced in the junior division of Open European Championships in Brezno, Slovakia, where his best finish was 15th in the individual. A few weeks later he competed as a junior for the first time at World Youth and Junior Championships (he had twice represented the U.S. as a youth), notching a top finish of 31st. At the end of the season, Smith made one more trip for Swedish National Championships and to do an exchange at the National Sports Academy in Ostersund.
“The kids there were surprised that [some of us] don’t really have teams that we train with regularly,” Smith said after talking with the Swedes. “They definitely have a lot more opportunities. They had three biathlon coaches, so for one thing they have coaches to work with at the range every day.”
Not only does Smith not have a coach to work with in Bozeman, but he estimates that only about half of the targets at Bohart Ranch’s range are actually functional (a local masters group, headed by Madshus rep Peter Hale, is helping fix it up). In 2012 he did, however, have more company than before: World Junior teammates Sam Dougherty and Kelly Kjorlien enrolled at MSU and trained through their freshman year The three traveled together to this year’s Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland.
“I like it here in the West, and I think I’m doing okay with what I’m working with,” Smith said. “I have a couple of coaches that I work with here in Washington, for my training plan and my skiing technique, so that helps a lot.”
Smith plans to continue training at MSU for another season, his last as a junior. Once a senior, he hopes to make the national team outright, although he admits it might take a few years. Still, he thinks he can do it.
But even if Smith’s training is working, it’s certainly not the ideal situation – and the lack of options available to even juniors identified as the very best highlight a struggles both USBA and the athletes themselves face in trying to develop internationally-successful seniors.
Kids These Days
While not going to college may once have been the norm for American juniors, times have changed. USBA no longer supports a development team, meaning that the transition to senior status can be tough. And the junior national team is no longer well-funded, either.
“There’s a few camps that I can go to,” Smith said of what he earned by being named to the junior national team. “But you don’t have to be on the junior national team to do that. That’s about it, really. There’s not a whole lot of benefits, I don’t think, other than that you’re named to the team.”
He is not, for example, has provided with either funding or coaching. The team has a Midwestern Regional Coach, Vladimir Cervenka, who is based out of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. It also has an Eastern Regional Coach in Olympic gold medlaist Algis Shalna, who lives in Burlington, Vermont. There is no Western Regional Coach to provide support for Smith either at home in Washington or at school in Bozeman, or for anyone in the Rockies or Alaska.
And there’s no suggestion that juniors to move to a central location to train together, as has sometimes been the case in the past. For instance, current senior national team member Annelies Cook remembers making her own decision about college. She said she had a lot of options.
“I went through this process of, am I going to go to college?” she told FasterSkier last fall. “Do I do a postgrad at some place like the Green Mountain Valley School? I decided that it would be pretty cool to go be with the junior biathlon team in Duluth. They had started a new thing where they split the men and the women up, so there was a group of us [girls] who ended up moving out to Duluth to train.”
These days, there’s no residential program in Duluth, and there’s also not a biathlon coach at Green Mountain Valley School. The only real program accepting postgraduate biathletes is the Maine Winter Sports Center.
As a result, a large number of top juniors from the past few years’ World Youth and Junior Championships teams have chosen the college route: Ethan Dreissigacker, Hilary McNamee, and Carly Wynn are at Dartmouth College, Addie Byrne is at Harvard, Meagan Toussaint skied for the University of Maine Presque Isle, and Brynden Manbeck for Saint Scholastica, to name a few, in addition to the crew in Bozeman.
“I never really considered deferring from college to focus on biathlon, frankly because I didn’t think there was enough competition in the U.S. to make it worth focusing just on biathlon,” said Dreissigacker, who has competed in several more World Junior Championships as a college student. “I was mostly just planning on skiing in college. The great thing about biathlon is that it is skiing – you just get to shoot also! So it never made sense to me that one might be required to ‘not focus on skiing’ in order to focus on biathlon.”
Dreissigacker did take a winter term off of Dartmouth, but it wasn’t to race in the U.S. – he spent a large chunk of that season traveling in Europe, competing against superior athletes and gaining experience. With Smith’s three trips across the Atlantic this past season, the Montana-based junior has a similar goal.
“If you want good competition for biathlon, there’s not really any in the U.S.,” Smith said. “There’s two or three other good kids that you’ll go race against at a NorAm, but they’re the same ones every time, and you can pretty much know where you’re going to place. But you go over to Europe and there’s fifty kids, and five seconds can be a couple of places, rather than a minute at some of the races over here. I’ve tried to get over to Europe and do as many races as I can.”
Why Not Skip Class?
But not all of Dreissigacker and Smith’s compatriots see college as the best springboard for their flight to Europe. Despite the lack of resources, a number of athletes have found a way to dedicate themselves to biathlon.
They are following in the steps of recent Olympians Jay Hakkinen, Jeremy Teela, and Tim Burke, who between them have several World Cup podiums, dozens of top-tens, and Burke’s stint in the yellow leader’s bib in December 2009. Tracy and Lanny Barnes followed similar paths, with Lanny placing 23rd at the 2010 Vancouver Games for the best Olympic result ever by an American woman.
“I’m of the mindset that if you want to be a world-class biathlete or skier, it pays to put school on the side for at least a little while,” 23-year-old national team member Leif Nordgren told FasterSkier in the fall.
He’s one of a group of young biathletes who went full bore through their junior years and into the senior ranks. That includes Wynn Roberts, who made the 2010 Olympics at age 21; Roberts has since lost national team status and is now supported through the National Guard. It also includes 24-year-old Russell Currier, who has raced for the Maine Winter Sports Center throughout his career. In 2012, Currier had two sixth-place finishes on the World Cup, and has since joined Nordgren on USBA’s “A” team.
It was a surprising path for Nordgren, who didn’t make the first World Youth and Junior Championships squad until his senior year of high school. He had been touring colleges and planning to ski race, but after the trip to Martell, Italy, he decided to focus on biathlon full-time for a year and see what happened.
“At first my parents were shocked that I’d even consider skipping school,” he said. “I started training with the junior national team all summer, thinking I was just going for a year. That winter I won a bronze medal at Junior World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany, and I figured that I could actually be good at biathlon if I continued.”
Nordgren received a few World Cup starts in each of the next two seasons, and then had his first full season on the circuit in 2011. He doesn’t think that he could have made it to the sport’s top level so fast, scored World Cup points that season, or had his three top-30 finishes at World Championships if he had gone to college.
“I guarantee that both skiing and school would have suffered,” he said. “Now, I can put all my energy into being a world class biathlete. The ages from 17 to 25 are some of the most important ones for physiological development.”
Fellow Minnesotan Raleigh Goessling hasn’t made it to the World Cup yet, but he agreed with Nordgren that delaying college had made a difference in his career.
“I realized that I was very motivated to train for biathlon and not motivated to attend class,” he said of his senior year in high school. “If I went directly to school, I would have compromised my academic performance and college experience. I know this isn’t the case for everyone, but I’m very happy with my decision. During my two postgraduate years at the Maine Winter Sports Center I learned a lot about what it means to be an athlete, how to function independently, and how to conduct myself professionally.”
A College Coach’s Dream
Each of the more than a dozen biathletes contacted by FasterSkier for this series – some of whom don’t have degrees, others who went straight to college, and still others who postponed school for several years but now have diplomas – said, like Goessling, that they knew they had made the right choice.
They suggested that it was an individual choice, and that different athletes need different environments to succeed. With only a minority of top juniors taking postgraduate years to focus on biathlon (Goessling was joined by Ben Greenwald and Andrea Mayo), more and more biathletes seem to be comfortable with the challenges of combining education and athletics – parly because the vast majority of teams available to older junior skiers and biathletes are associated with colleges.
“Now with the lack of support at the national level, it might become more of an important question,” former University of Utah coach Eli Brown said in an interview. “There’s a huge resource in college skiing. It’s always a drive of mine to stick that almost, but not quite, perfect puzzle piece into the development pipeline.”
College coaches have in many cases welcomed biathletes with open arms; Brown, who coached Annelies Cook during her college years, was speaking about nordic sports in general, not only nordic skiing. Part of Brown’s enthusiasm came from a certain amount of selfishness. He wanted to recruit the fastest team that he could, and adding a high-level biathlete to his roster helped with that goal.
“I knew Annelies, I’d seen her ski,” he said. “I’d been around biathlon [at the] Maine Winter Sports Center and I knew her attitude and work ethic would rub off on the group. She’s literally – well not literally, I guess, because of NCAA rules, but unofficially – a professional athlete, and brought that lifestyle to the whole group, which I think raises the level a little bit.”
Former University of Vermont coach Al Serrano said the same thing of Lowell Bailey, who earned two NCAA podiums during his time as a college skier: “He is a huge asset to any team and a coach’s dream.” And Dartmouth coach Cami Thompson, who worked with Olympians Carolyn Bramante and Laura Spector, had the same sentiment, despite the fact that the pair focused on biathlon during the winters; Bramante raced one full season of carnivals, while Spector did just half a season (in her first race, she was third).
“The pros are that when you have a high-level athlete, anytime they’re training with your team it’s a good thing, whether it’s how they ski technically or that they’re pushing your team in workouts, or just that they’re thinking outside of what we’re normally doing,” Thompson said. “It gets people thinking about what else is out there in skiing.
“And from the con side I’m not even really sure there’s really that much of a con.”
Embracing the Challenge
But as longtime observers of cyclical changes in development funding, coaches have a different perspective on how their programs can help athletes into their 20’s, and see that college can be a benefit for the athletes, not just for the teams. Serrano, for example, discussed how Bailey had been able to forget about the long-term pressures associated with the Olympic cycle and focus on smaller, incremental goals and having fun with his sport.
“Mix it up for a little while,” Brown agreed. “As we all know it’s a game of attrition. If you can still be doing it when you’re 30, you’re probably going to be doing all right. There’s a value to having balance in your life, being part of a team, training hard, and using [a college team] as a stepping stone.”
And just as elite biathletes can be assets to a college team, there is plenty the shooters can learn from their skiing teammates as well; the exchange goes both ways, and both Cook and 2006 Olympian Carolyn Bramante said that they had gone to school with the deliberate intention of gaining ski speed.
“I didn’t think that I was a fast skier,” Cook said looking back at her 2006 decision to go to Utah. “I felt like shooting was my strength, and I thought, well maybe if I just ski for a while, I will become a better skier, and then I can come back and be a better biathlete all around.”
It worked, and she suggested that biathletes should have no qualms about picking a fast college ski team and trying to learn as much as they could.
“I know there’s the whole European/American college debate, but the way that it affected me was really positive,” she said. “I had experienced athletes to train with and they were good, and fast, and I had someone to chase and really good people around me to watch and learn from. So I’ve benefitted a lot from that.”
Coaches and athletes alike admit that the college route can be tough. For instance, only a few universities have access to a range, and in many places shooting practice requires a long drive.
“The biggest challenge is getting in combo workouts, with shooting and skiing,” Dreissigacker said. “There’s a place to shoot and a place to ski, but there’s no place in the Hanover area to do both together. There is a great biathlon venue in Jericho, Vermont that’s about 80 minutes away, so I can train there occasionally on weekends.”
In Bozeman, the trio of racers has to drive 16 miles to the range, which Dougherty said adds a lot to the time commitment of a normal college skier. Both athletes said that UVM would probably be the best location to be a biathlete – and regional coach Algis Shalna does work with a number of college-aged athletes there – but it’s difficult to sync with the varsity team, which is small and focused on winning races.
“Their ski team doesn’t seem to have the flexibility that we have at Dartmouth,” Dreissigacker said. “I think that maintaining a flexible connection with skiing is key for developing biathletes in the U.S., because in order to compete with the Europeans in biathlon you have to have to be one of the faster skiers in the U.S. as well. Luckily I get great support from [Dartmouth coach] Ruff Patterson and Algis Shalna, and both are flexible enough to let me work with the other.”
With so few biathlon races on the calendar, travel to competition can be even more arduous, especially during an academic term. Biathletes even describe the question of whether a campus is gun-friendly or has easily available off-campus housing as considerations. And, of course, there’s the lack of institutional support for biathlon.
But the benefits, such as scholarship money, may equal or outweigh those costs – if an athlete is prepared to work hard and plan carefully.
“You can definitely be competitive [as an American], you just have to be self-motivated,” Smith said of his current situation. “There are more people [in European programs], especially in the youth category, so the athlete doesn’t have to have as much self-discipline to go out and train on their own every day… they just have to show up.”
That discipline, he said, can be an advantage.
“I think in the long run, if you can keep going and keep up your motivation, it will make you a better athlete in the end.”
After years as a careful observer of the sport, Brown agreed.
“We operate in sports where there’s not much depth at all, especially compared to Europe,” he said. “In the U.S., [biathlon] results are separated by minutes. I think it was a really smart move by Lowell and Annelies to get in a place where they can really be pushed.”
Is Montana The New Biathlon Mecca?
Recently, it seems that another option is emerging for biathletes who are leaving high school: already at three, the Bozeman biathlon scene appears to expect more growth. Althogh elite nordic athletes have flocked to Bozeman for years, it’s still a surprising place for a biathlon boom. Bohart’s ten-point range is only open two days a week at this point, and the always-available two-point range is squirreled away in the “back forty,” according to Smith.
But a number of biathletes already had connections to the area, and others are making some. Corinne Malcolm, who spent two years at MSU before beginning biathlon and making it onto the national team, is reportedly considering a returning to Bozeman in some capacity. 2010 Olympian Laura Spector is taking organic chemistry there this summer. And the group has a fledgling website, Biathlon Elite, which lists Kyle Rutar of Casper, Wyoming, and Erik Rupert of Duluth, Minnesota, as team members.
It’s a bid to market themselves and snag some more resources – perhaps club funding from the university, to start with – and if they succeed, it will be an significant development in the short history of collegiate biathlon.
But even if it doesn’t, the athletes know that they are lucky to have training partners, something that most of their predecessors who went to college lacked. Even at Dartmouth, Dreissigacker is currently the only one pursuing biathlon seriously, despite the presence of McNamee and Wynn.
“We don’t have a local shooting coach per se, but we try and stay in close contact with our hometown and national coaches for advice,” Dougherty said of the Montana group. “Both Casey and Kelly have been on the national and international biathlon circuit much longer than I have, and it’s great to be able to learn from them and apply their knowledge and experience to my biathlon training.”
Smith appreciates the company: “It is way better than the [first] year, because there’s people to go shooting with, and it’s easier to motivate yourself when you have others,” he said.
Both Smith and Dougherty touted the involvement of Hale, the Madshus representative, who spent five years on the U.S. biathlon team when he was himself a competitor. Hale’s main role in the scene is to organize a masters group in Bozeman, but he has also helped galvanize support for range improvements.
“Mr. Hale has been really great to us, and wants us to get the most out of biathlon while we’re here,” Dougherty said. “We feel like there are a lot of people here in our corner, which makes everything much more pleasant and feasible.”
What Does the Future Hold?
Several of the country’s most promising biathletes – Sean Doherty, Anna Kubek, and Tara Geraghty-Moats – are actually still youths, meaning that they don’t have to make the college decision quite yet. But when they do, will they have any more options than today’s juniors?
Maybe, or maybe not. Given current conditions in the biathlon world, today’s youth competitors may find themselves at UVM, Dartmouth, the growing MSU training group, or somewhere that offers scholarship money. The other options are limited to the Maine Winter Sports Center and going it alone.
“I feel like the junior programs are a little bit weak around the country right now, and that’s a major problem,” said Cook. “How do you develop young biathletes and how do you keep them interested, and how do you give them a coach and a place to live? I definitely think that’s a reason for biathletes to turn to college.”
Geraghty-Moats, who focused on nordic combined as a younger athlete and has been homeschooled for most of her career, isn’t on a standard path, but she thinks that college may factor in at some point.
“At the moment I’m working on getting my Associate’s Degree at Community College of Vermont,” she said. “It’s possible I’ll transfer those credits and do my last two years of college years at UVM. “But for next winter I plan on keeping biathlon as my main focus. I’ve gone from never having shot a rifle to being 18th at World Juniors in not quite two years. I’m big on short term goals and taking things one step at a time – I’ll figure out how I can gracefully transition from being a junior a to a senior in a few years.”
For young biathletes who choose the college route, there may be another powerful ally in their corner: USBA President and CEO Max Cobb, a Dartmouth graduate himself who said that being a student-athlete was a formative experience. While acknowledging that his organization isn’t doing the best job with development – with their small budget, the team has chosen to focus on high performance – he said he hoped to make college an easier option for biathletes who want a degree.
“Being able to pursue sport and college together is fantastic,” Cobb told FasterSkier. “I think that’s a great opportunity for every young, talented athlete that’s coming along, and the important thing is to try to find that balance, to have your eyes wide open as to how your commitment to college academics does or does not affect your Olympic aspirations… The question for us is, how do we make the next Lowell Baileys better in terms of the kinds of training they can keep up with while they’re studying? It’s a long-term push for us. It’s not something we’re going to solve in the next six months.”
And in the end, doing so would give his athletes more long-term career options. Today’s juniors mostly say that they are committed to getting an education – “if I took time off from college, it would be too hard for me to return and finish my degree, which is very important to me,” Dougherty said – which USBA understands. Cobb pointed out that the average medalist at the 2006 Olympics was 32 years old, and most people don’t want to start college after they retire in their mid-30’s.
“That a college education is widely known to be a really important part of one’s preparation for life, whether you’re a full-time athlete on a track to make the Olympic team or not,” he said.
USBA’s commitment to that talking point will likely be tested in the next two years. Spector, who after competing in the Vancouver Olympics went on to have a breakthrough season in 2011 and collect her first World Cup top-20, has said that she “plans to not ever in the future be just solely an athlete.” Though still a member of the national team, she will not attend any camps this summer, and has not decided the extent of her involvement the rest of the year; the women’s coach, Jonne Kahkonen, has expressed frustration with the inability to work with Spector when she is outside the national team system.
But in the end, say some, if athletes are talented and motivated, all roads just might lead to Rome.
“The big question you have to go back to is to compare Lowell and Tim [Burke], in terms of development and making that choice or not making that choice, and then compare Andy Newell and Torin Koos,” said Brown. “They’re almost the same athlete in the end, totally different path. It’s hard to really quantify if those decisions were negative or positive in terms of just results.”