By all accounts, it’s been a rough few months for Corrine Malcolm. In her second year on the U.S. national biathlon team at just 23 years old, she narrowly missed getting selected for an IBU Cup race tour to Europe – and consequently fell into a limbo that developing senior athletes are all too familiar with in North America: the only racing option was NorAms, where the fields are tiny (sometimes just two or three women) and opportunities for real development few and far between.
With few options left, Malcolm decided to move back to Bozeman, Mont., where she had attended Montana State University (MSU) for two years before taking up biathlon full time. She jumped in some ski races for the rest of the season, hit up the spring biathlon weekend in Mammoth, Calif., and had fun – but there was always the question, what next?
“My spring was pretty high on the anxiety side of things,” she said on the phone last week.
Malcolm was not invited back to the shrunken national team and declined to move to the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC), one of the only senior biathlon programs in the country. Instead, she was determined to stay put in Bozeman and try to figure out a way to be a biathlete on her own.
“I really like the athletes at MWSC and got to travel with them this spring and had so much fun with them,” Malcolm explained. “But for me at a personal level, going up to Maine isn’t really an option. I feel the most settled and at home having chosen to move out West. I’m trying to get more balance.”
What does that mean? After a year in northern Maine at the start of her biathlon career and then two years in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the national team is based, Malcolm wants a different life for herself and believes that it will help her succeed as an athlete, too.
“I feel like I have a real life here in a lot of ways,” she said of Bozeman. “I live in a house with three incredible guys and we barbecue and eat dinner on our back deck every day, and we have a garden and a greenhouse. In Lake Placid, I was a weird segment of the population – I was 22 at the time. At the training center you were either 16 or you were 27, it felt like. The local population is mostly young professionals with pretty definite futures. Bozeman is probably as transient as a functional city can get.”
And so those rough few months have also, in many ways, been a happy few months – even happier than she was before.
“When you make an effort to have a normal life and have friends outside of your sport or activity of choice, there’s just a lot more offerings,” she said. “It feels like home. When sport is your job, it’s really important to have time to turn off and just be a human. Not that athletes aren’t human, but most people when they come home from their nine to five jobs, they don’t still talk about accounting or what kind of checks they deposited that day.”
After the move back to Bozeman, there were two resources at her disposal: Biathlon Elite, the loose club team of college-age athletes started by MSU skier and several-time World Junior Championships biathlete Sam Dougherty, and further north, the Biathlon Alberta Training Center in Canmore.
Malcolm started out the spring with a trip to Canmore to work with Richard Boruta, the coach there, and his athletes. It was a great week – she described everything as “phenomenal” – but soon, the reality of being a self-supported biathlete hit home.
“I was trying to buy ammunition and could easily need to come up with $5,000 just for that for the year,” Malcolm said. “That’s terribly anxiety-provoking.”
Indeed: Malcolm is working 20 to 30 hours a week as a nanny in Bozeman to pay the bills and chase her dreams, but even that doesn’t leave a whole lot of cash lying around. She hasn’t sold her rifle and still plans to do biathlon and try to qualify for the Olympics, but training full-time seemed financially overwhelming.
Since this realization, Malcolm has had a crazy and confusing month of negotiations. She was interested in skiing with the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF) and talked to the coaches about joining the program. She says she has a good relationship with them and is a close friend of Jennie Bender, so would love to join the team. But BSF said they couldn’t support her financially, which led to more anxiety as she contemplated training camps that would cost the equivalent of four months of rent.
When she headed home to Hayward, Wis., and visited the Central Cross Country (CXC) Regional Elite Group camp, she found a new option: CXC was willing to support her and cover her expenses even if she remained in Bozeman, which she feels is important not just for her happiness, but so that she can re-establish her residency and finish her degree at MSU.
“I was really surprised that CXC was okay with me being in Bozeman, but Bill Pierce was one of the guys who got me into skiing to begin with,” Malcolm said. “CXC was the first program I ever raced for when I started racing my senior year of high school. There’s a lot of history there.”
So, at last, she has a plan. Sort of. Saying that she feels as fit as ever, Malcolm is planning to race the early-season SuperTours in West Yellowstone and Bozeman, head to U.S. National Championships at Soldier Hollow, race the Boulder Mountain Tour in Sun Valley and Birkie in Wisconsin, and see where else the season takes her from there.
As for biathlon? She hasn’t given up on her goal of making the Olympics. But it’s getting harder to envision that happening.
“Financially I can’t afford to fly out East [to Jericho, Vt.] for the first round of trials in August,” Malcolm said. “I had resigned myself to saying, ‘Well, I can’t afford to go in August, but I can go to the trials in Utah because they are almost in my backyard in a way and I can drive there.’ But I just got sent the criteria recently only to find out that it’s best three out of four races.”
With two races each in Jericho and Utah, skipping one race series would necessarily leave Malcolm out of the running for a berth, which hit hard.
“I understand that it makes certain athletes maybe have to come to the U.S., or show up for both sets of races, and holds athletes more accountable,” she said. “But I was a little disappointed to see that.”
At the moment, she still doesn’t plan to go to the first set of trials in August, but hasn’t given up on trying to make the team, either. It’s a stalemate.
“At the same time as this was going on, I got the e-mails from U.S. Biathlon and U.S.O.C. with me on the list of athletes who needed to file Olympic paperwork,” Malcolm said. “So it’s like I am supposed to be pursuing this, but I don’t know if financially I can pursue it to its fullest extent.”
As Malcolm looks at the next year and into the future – she could start taking classes at MSU again as early as the spring, and definitely by the summer – these seem to be recurring questions.
“It’s been a really interesting experience in that regard – are these your new circumstances, and do you have to accept those circumstances?” she asked rhetorically. “Working 30 hours a week is not ideal, so will I perform at a lesser level? Am I setting myself up to be disappointed because I’m not taking that time to rest and recover, and I’m definitely loading my non-working days with as much training as possible?”
She insists that she won’t change her goals, and she will probably never stop racing.
“I’m a super-competitive person by nature. I don’t see that changing, but I think that there’s a great chance that I might have to – not necessarily change my goals, but I should change my expectations. I always think going in to any race that it’s anyone’s game. I never go in to a race thinking that I’d like to be top 10. You go for it no matter what. But maybe my expectations aren’t so high this season in terms of personal, internalized stress.”
And despite everything, she feels ready to excel. Her training and racing is now based largely on fun and happiness, and she feels like her fitness is improving because of it. She’s looking forward to doing some running races, including the XTerra Trail Championships in September in Ogden, Utah, and the U.S. Half-Marathon Trail Championships in November in Moab, Utah, something that was difficult to do within the confines of the national team.
All in all, as Malcolm tries to blaze a new path for herself, she’s simply shifting the things that a coach might see as most important – and setting her own rules to live by.
“I definitely still have my skis and hopefully race them fast and have a lot of fun doing it,” she laughed. “High levels of fun are on the priority list this year, and a lot of happiness training, and a large consumption of cookies are basically my plan at this point. Being happy and well-balanced is the most important right now.”
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.