HOCHFILZEN, Austria – Four years ago at the Vancouver Olympics, the best American results in biathlon came from a pair of veterans: Jeremy Teela, who placed ninth in the sprint in the best-ever finish for a U.S. biathlete at a Games, and Lanny Barnes, whose 23rd-place finish in the sprint was a historical record for a U.S. woman.
You might not have seen much of either racer last season, but they’re still around – and in fact, you might say they are making their comebacks. Both Teela and Barnes were on hand this weekend for World Cup racing after spending most of last year on the second-tier IBU Cup circuit. In Friday’s sprint, they both placed 65th, just outside the cut for Sunday’s pursuit. But on Saturday they upped their games and turned in strong relay legs: Barnes helped the U.S. women finish eighth, the best result since she joined the team more than ten years ago, and Teela tagged off after the third leg in sixth (the U.S. men eventually finished 11th, but closer time-wise to the podium than they often are).
Were these the best performances of their careers? Certainly not. But for a pair of athletes who didn’t get to see this level of competition much last season, it’s a step in the right direction.
“You might say that everything since Vancouver was a down season,” Teela laughed. “But I’ve had a really good season of training.”
Like Barnes, he is hoping to qualify for the upcoming Sochi Olympics. It would be the third Games for Barnes and the fourth for Teela – definitely his last, he said.
After Vancouver, Teela began spending more time on other aspects of his life. Maybe most importantly, he now has a child. That changes your priorities a lot, he said. He was still training hard, but wanted to spend time with his family. That’s the main reason he’ll retire at age 37 at the end of this season.
This year? All of that is suspended temporarily while he tries to go for it one more time.
“An Olympic year is always extra motivation,” Teela said. “Oh yeah.”
Both athletes qualified through rollerski races in Jericho, Vermont, and Soldier Hollow, Utah, to take part in a national team trip to Sweden this fall in advance of the race season. There, they raced in the IBU Cup openers. Teela did well enough to earn an immediate promotion to the World Cup.
Barnes wasn’t so lucky – she started off with a strong race, placing 13th in the opener, but in the second sprint shooting woes knocked her way out of contention. So she spent a second weekend on the IBU Cup while Hannah Dreissigacker got the World Cup starts. But Barnes stayed consistent in the next IBU Cup races, placing 16th and 18th, and got a promotion (the U.S. now has five women traveling with the World Cup despite only having four start spots).
“It feels good,” Barnes said on Friday of her first World Cup start of the season. “That was one of my goals for the year, was to climb my way back up.”
While Teela has fatherhood to deal with, Barnes and her sister Tracy faced a different challenge. This spring they had surgery for compartment syndrome, a painful condition that affects the lower legs, particularly in skating. They are now back to 100 percent and feeling better than ever.
“It’s night and day,” Barnes said. “I was trying to explain to a lot of people how it’s like for ten or twelve years, or maybe my whole career, I’ve learned how to not push in my legs, because I haven’t been able to use them. And now I have to remind myself to actually push with my legs. So I have to work with my technique to keep stepping on them.”
The fresh snow on Friday’s course tested her legs seriously for the first time this season – if they were ever going to feel painful, the heavy, slow conditions would have done it. But Barnes reported that there wasn’t pain, just a struggle to adjust her technique to the conditions and her new legs. That means she can focus all of her energy on racing well and making the Olympics.
“It’s always a struggle when you come back from surgery and you’re basically the bottom of the pond,” she said. “So it’s nice to finally be back here and having a chance to fight.”
Fight they will have to, if the pair want to compete in Sochi. Three athletes – Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey, and Susan Dunklee – are already qualified for the Games. Two more will be picked after this pre-Christmas World Cup period. Teela said he hopes to be that guy so he can avoid the post-Christmas selection trials process, the more painful route towards Olympic qualification.
Barnes is up against Annelies Cook, Sara Studebaker, and Dreissigacker, among others who may qualify for a January IBU Cup tour that serves as the last set of trials. Cook has the best result of the trio so far and is likely to snag the automatic qualification spot; Studebaker is also a 2010 Olympian, while Dreissigacker is a newcomer to the team who placed in the top 60 at last year’s World Championships.
For Teela, the main rival for qualifying off the World Cup is Leif Nordgren, a young but veteran World Cup and World Championships racer who is the habitual anchor for the U.S. relay team. The Americans also have Sean Doherty – last year’s World Youth Champion – on the tour, but his results so far don’t make him competitive for the Olympic spot. Racers like Russell Currier, Wynn Roberts, and Jay Hakkinen will vie for the spot available through IBU Cup qualification.
“He’s 18 years younger than I am,” Teela laughed of traveling with Doherty. “I mean, technically, I could be his father. But it’s great to have the young guys here pushing. Sean is going to be a great biathlete in the future, I just hope he doesn’t expect it to come too fast.”
Regardless of whether he makes the Olympics or not, Teela is hoping for big things from his team.
“Tim Burke is so strong and so focused,” he said. “He’s a real threat for the overall. He could medal in any race. Me, I still feel like I could get a medal, but I can’t be so good for the whole season like Tim. I’m focusing everything on being my best for three weeks, for the Olympics, and hopefully that is enough.”
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.