According to U.S. women’s biathlete Susan Dunklee, her teammate Lowell Bailey has “worked so hard for so long and it finally paid off.” She used his success as inspiration for her race that followed on Saturday in Kontiolahti, Finland.
Bailey shot clean and placed third, 19.4 seconds out back from Norwegian winner Johannes Thingnes Bø, in the men’s 10-kilometer biathlon sprint for his best-ever finish. After placing fifth in the Kontiolahti sprint three seasons ago, the American found success there again, this time unprecedented.
“And the word the comes to mind is… ‘FINALLY!!!!!’ ” Bailey tweeted on Saturday after the race.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he told the IBU in a post-race interview. “I’ve been working towards this for ten years, twenty years … definitely waited a long time. And I’ve been knocking at the door for the past three years.”
Bailey’s on quite a roll after being named to the International Biathlon Union (IBU) Athletes Committee a few days earlier.
“Honored to represent the athletes of the IBU World Cup and looking forward to helping our sport move forward!” tweeted Bailey, a three-time Olympian after being elected for the first time.
After winning on Thursday, Bø cleaned to win the second-straight sprint in Kontiolahti in 24:03.5 on Saturday. Russia’s Alexander Loginov also cleaned to take second, 18.5 seconds back. Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic finished fourth, just three-tenths of a second behind Bailey.
In an email, Bailey wrote that he’s had a World Cup podium as a goal for a long time, so this result meant a lot to him.
“I had a good first lap and I knew my ski speed was decent by the time I came in for the first shooting,” he wrote.
Bailey had been disappointed with his performance on the shooting range during Thursday’s sprint, after missing one shot on each stage to place 29th, so his game plan Saturday was to be “decisive and deliberate” while shooting.
“It may seem like a simple task, but sometimes you have to break complex things down to their simplest form,” the 32 year old from Lake Placid, N.Y., explained.
On Saturday, things worked out in Bailey’s favor. By the time he headed back out onto the course after the last shooting stage, he was in second place.
“I put everything I had into that last lap, with the help of every member of our staff screaming their lungs out throughout the 3.3km course!” Bailey wrote. “It came down to three tenths of a second between third and fourth. I ended up on the right side today!”
US Biathlon President/CEO Max Cobb wrote in an email that Bailey has worked especially hard to achieve this goal, not long after he logged the best-ever finish by an American at the Olympics in eighth.
“It’s great to see him join the Podium Club!” Cobb wrote. “It’s a great credit to the whole high performance staff too, they have worked so hard to help the athletes achieve their personal bests. And Susan Dunklee had another top 10 with her 8th place today and Tim [Burke] and Leif [Nordgren] are also well positioned for tomorrow’s pursuit.”
Burke placed 19th (1+1), 1:10 back from the winner, and Nordgren 27th (1+0), 1:23 behind, to soundly qualify for Sunday’s pursuit.
Canada’s Nathan Smith also notched his career-best sprint in eighth, 33.6 seconds back, to tie his career best after placing eighth in a pursuit earlier this season.
“I felt really good skiing today,” wrote Smith, who got sick the last few days of the Olympics and has been dealing with a cold and cough ever since. In his first season on the World Cup, he took three days off completely after the World Cup in Pokljuka, Slovenia, to try and rest up.
“Thankfully I felt my energy come back more and more this week,” he explained.
Even during the first sprint in Kontiolahti, Smith could tell that he was on the upswing, as evidenced by a respectable ski time and result in 21st.
“Then yesterday I felt even better in training and so today I was hoping and expecting to have a great ski day,” he wrote.
His strategy involved starting out “pretty aggressively” on the first lap and focusing on maintaining the pace for the other two.
“I knew shooting would be key as so many athletes shot clean in the last race,” Smith wrote. “With one miss in prone I was a little concerned, but knew my skiing was up a notch from two days prior.”
With a fast-and-clean standing, Smith figured he was in a good position for a top-16 and pushed hard on the last lap, saving enough for the last steep climb and flats before the finish.
“I ended up surprising myself with the 3rd fastest last lap and finishing 8th,” he wrote.
Another American produced a season-best: Nordgren in 27th. In an email, the 24 year old wrote that his race “went really well” with a single prone penalty.
“It was my best result of the year so far, and also my best skiing, so I’m pretty happy with this result!” he added.
On the first loop of the race, Nordgren “got a nice ride” with Canada’s Brenden Green, which he thinks enabled him to relax quite a bit and also save up some energy for the last two laps. He explained that his shooting was “nothing special … I’m not too happy with prone, I was a little quick and didn’t quite get settled, but I came back pretty calm in standing, so I can’t be too disappointed with one mistake.”
As for Sunday’s race, he is starting in the middle of a pretty big group, “so it should make for an exciting race right from the gun!”
For Canada, Green placed 28th (2+0), 1:23.3 back from Bø, and Scott Gow was 42nd (1+0), 1:48.8 back, to also make the top-60 pursuit cut.
— Alex Matthews contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.