After four rollerski races’ worth of battling, eleven biathletes have been selected to attend U.S. Biathlon’s fall training camp in Östersund, Sweden, to prepare for the World Cup season. The camp is also an important step in the Olympic qualification pipeline, as early-season World Cup results are one way to snag a trip to Sochi.
Six athletes – 2013 World Championships silver medalist Tim Burke, plus teammates Lowell Bailey, Leif Nordgen, Susan Dunklee, Annelies Cook, and Sara Studebaker – were prequalified for the Sweden camp. Hannah Dreissigacker and Jeremy Teela, both also members of the national team, were the trials winners after competing in Jericho, Vermont, this summer and then Soldier Hollow, Utah, last week.
Lanny Barnes, an Olympian who underwent compartment syndrome surgery at the end of the 2013 season, was added as a discretionary pick. The Durango-based athlete who trains with her sister under the team name Twin Biathletes was the next-ranked woman in the trials standings.
On the men’s side, national team veteran Jay Hakkinen earned a discretionary nod, with USBA High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler noting that the Alaskan was highly ranked in the trials and “actually beat Jeremy in three races.”
Sean Doherty, the 18-year-old who won three medals including one gold at World Youth Championships last season, also got the nod as a discretionary pick. The New Hampshire native trains with Algis Shalna in Jericho, Vermont.
How to Qualify: It’s Complicated
These eleven athletes aren’t necessarily the ones headed to Sochi, but booking a ticket to Europe certainly gives them an advantage in a multi-step process which provides several ways to qualify.
Importantly, the team’s top three racers – Burke, Bailey, and Dunklee – are already pre-qualified based on results from the last season of World Cup racing. They met criteria such as a top 30 ranking in the Total Score or two top-15 finishes in World Cup and World Championships racing.
The U.S. has spots for five men and five women, although the team can only start four athletes in each competition. It’s unclear whether they will bring the full roster of five or not.
The next way the U.S. will try to fill its team is based on the first period of World Cup racing. After the openers in Östersund kick off on November 24, the IBU World Cup will move to Hochfilzen, Austria, and then to Annency, France. Rosters for those races will be determined by performance at the pre-race training camp, while athletes not picked for the World Cup will be sent to the second-tier IBU Cup circuit, with the opportunity to move back and forth based on current performance.
In these early World Cups, a top-30 finish is good enough to be added to the Olympic team. Up to three men and three women can be selected to the team by the end of December, counting Burke, Bailey, and Dunklee – so one more man and two women can qualify this way. If more athletes have top-30’s, the ones with the best results will be picked. Conversely, if no athletes in a given gender reach the top-30, the athlete with the single best result will be added anyway.
Of the athletes who will go to Sweden and haven’t pre-qaulified for Sochi, Nordgren, Cook, and Studebaker all had top-30 finishes last season.
For the remaining spot or spots on the Sochi roster, athletes will have one last chance to fight their way onto the team in January. Importantly, it’s also possible for athletes who did not make it to the Sweden camp to step in on this part of the process: trials races held in December will select a few more racers to join the IBU Cup circuit, where they will join any non-qualified athletes from the fall World Cup and IBU Cup squads.
In this final step, Americans will compete in Ridnaun, Italy, or Altenburg, Germany, and also potentially in time trials. The best athletes will be selected using a percent-back ranking from three of four races and time trials. USBA also allows one discretionary pick per gender for the Olympic team.
Performance Notes: Women’s Team Looking Strong
Eisenbichler said that he was very happy with the level of performance by his women’s team, and also that it was relatively easy to identify Dreissigacker and Barnes as the two women who should be added to the roster for Sweden. Dreissigacker won the sprint in Jericho this summer as well as the final sprint in Soldier Hollow; Barnes was second in the last Soldier Hollow sprint. Her sister Tracy had better performances in Jericho, but did not compete in Soldier Hollow.
More importantly, Dreissigacker and Barnes turned their performances up a notch in the last competition, going 1-2 while both shooting clean. Barnes is a veteran and traditionally one of the best shooters on the circuit; Dreissigacker is a relative newcomer to the sport after coming in as a skier.
“That was really important to see, that even with a fair amount of pressure in that last race they shot clean,” Eisenbichler said in an interview on Saturday. “This is the first time for Hannah.”
Eisenbichler was also pleased with his pre-qualified athletes. Dunklee cleaned in a sprint win on Tuesday, where Cook was second and Studebaker third. Cook didn’t compete in the final race; she tweaked a nerve in her neck, and since she didn’t have to qualify through the races, Eisenbichler said it was “safer not to take any chances.” The problem has since been fixed and she is back to training.
He called Studebaker’s two third-place finishes in Soldier Hollow “solid” and was gratified to see that the women’s team had improved considerably since Jericho.
“Opposite of Jericho, the women really were shooting very well,” he told FasterSkier. “I don’t want to seem overoptimistic, but I’m really happy with where the team is right now.”
Men Knocking at the Door
Eisenbichler was also enthusiastic about the performances from Bailey, who has swept all four of the trials races, and from Burke and Nordgren, who were often close behind.
“I think that once these three guys get to the World Cup, they will be able to be having some really good results right away,” he explained.
After that, though, the committee’s job was considerably harder in making discretionary selections for the Sweden trip. Teela was the trials winner based almost entirely on a single exceptional performance where he cleaned his targets to place third in the first Soldier Hollow sprint.
Hakkinen and Doherty were fourth and fifth in the final sprint, behind the three pre-qualified men. Hakkinen was consistent throughout the four trials races, but these strong performances late in the game and under pressure certainly helped the pair earn their discretionary nods.
National team member Russell Currier and National Guard biathlete Wynn Roberts also had top-six finishes in Soldier Hollow; both also raced well in Jericho, where Currier was second in the sprint and Roberts seventh, but the fifth American. They found themselves just on the outside when the final rankings were tallied.
“There were a lot of guys in the mix for that fourth spot on the trip, like five or six of them,” Eisenbichler said. “Even the ones that didn’t make it, I think will have good performances if they go to the IBU Cup in January. It’s going to be very competitive.”
Doherty’s selection was probably the most surprising. He did not compete in Jericho due to illness, but had a stellar final sprint in Soldier Hollow.
“Sean’s preparation this year has been great,” Eisenbichler said. “Compared to his progression in October last year, he has made huge improvements. We really thought that sending him to Sweden will be the best thing for his development as a biathlete.”
Link to Trials reports and results:
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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.