Just as he had in Sunday’s sprint race, Sean Doherty of the U.S. got off to an inauspicious start in Tuesday’s youth individual race at World Youth and Junior Championships in Obertilliach, Austria. After earning silver and gold in the previous two races, Doherty quickly collected two penalties.
Missing two shots in the first stage is especially punishing in the individual format, where each target that doesn’t turn which is penalized with a minute of additional time. Just 2.5 k into the 12.5 k competition, Doherty was already in a hole, 1:48 behind the leader, at that time Aslak Nenseter of Norway. (Penalties later piled up for Nenseter, who finished 26th.)
Ranked 52nd after that initial prone stage, Doherty was quick on his skis and made up some of the time. But a stage later, he missed another shot and fell to 2:13 behind the new leader, Aristide Begue of France. At this point, however, other racers had also begun missing, and the American’s fast skiing pulled him up to 24th.
It wasn’t great, but it was something.
“It’s not uncommon to have first or second or any stage go wrong for top competitors at any level,” Doherty’s coach Algis Shalna wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “Sean is especially good at not giving up or losing confidence. After first two shooting stages I was nervous – I thought a few times the medal is gone, but believed he will stay focused and shoot well last stages and he did. Just watching him on the course after he missed those first shots he looked like he felt he is still in the game, but just had a late start.”
Doherty, who was unavailable for comment, put his head down and got it done. Over the next two stages he was flawless, not only hitting all ten targets but doing so more quickly than anyone else in the field. By the time he left the range the last time he was sitting in second, 18.5 seconds behind Begue.
“We coaches tell athletes before every race to focus until last stage of shooting because the game is not over until everyone is through the range and done shooting and results are posted,” Shalna said. “There is always a case someone misses targets at the begging of the race and someone at the end.”
Doherty nearly did the impossible and snagged the win, making up 12 seconds on Begue in the final 2.5 kilometers. But he was left with his second silver of the weekend, while Begue claimed his second title in this event in as many years.
It was an emotional day for Begue, whose coach Matthieu Rouveix died this summer at age 32. The sharpshooting Frenchman missed a single shot out of 20 to claim his title.
“I competed for my late coach Matthieu today and dedicate this gold medal to him,” Begue told the IBU press service after the race. “I was happy at the finish because I had a good race. If Sean was faster or not was not so important, there is always next year.”
Anton Myhda of Ukraine earned bronze, like Begue missing only one shot. He was 35 seconds behind Doherty in the first podium of his international career.
It was a strong day for the Americans across the board, with Jakob Ellingson finishing 21st with three penalties, Jordan McElroy 46th with six, and Brian Halligan 54th with seven. That’s a huge improvement over earlier in the week, when Doherty was the only American to make the 60-man pursuit.
Depth on the team and excellence at the top: that’s something that the U.S. can celebrate. So is the fact that Doherty became the first American biathlete ever to earn three medals in youth and junior racing.
After the hubbub surrounding his first silver medal and the subsequent gold in the pursuit, it would be easy for a 17-year-old athlete to get distracted. But Shalna marveled at Doherty’s resolve.
“Overall his confidence is very stable,” he wrote. “It’s a gift… the emotions are high and me, personally, I am trying not to think what just happened but think what is the next thing I need to get done and do everything the same way, to stay on track for preparation for the next race. I know Sean does pretty much the same thing. He makes the plan in his head and sticks with it until it’s done.”
Focus like that is what can bring an athlete back from such an early deficit – and it’s what Shalna has been trying to teach Doherty to do in the off-season, through hard work at shooting ranges in northern Vermont.
“When we do shooting drills, I teach athletes not to think about what happened but focus on the next task,” he explained. “I say whether you had good shooting or bad, keep your focus on the next task and just forget what happened before, positive or negative, in order to have the next task done good quality. I believe worrying too much becomes distraction and lowers the confidence.”
That’s no problem for Doherty, who has taken the words of Shalna – who, as a relay gold medalist in the 1984 Olympics, knows a thing or two about pressure himself – to heart.
“I thought of nothing, really,” Doherty told the IBU press service of his time on the course. “The coaches told me that I was doing okay, that I should not give up on the competition. So I focused on the second half of it.”
* * *
In the youth women’s 10 k individual, Anna Kubek of Mount Itasca again led the U.S. team, placing 38th with six penalties. Aleksandra Zakrzewska and Mikaela Paluszek finished 72nd and 79th.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.