Expectations were high for United States biathlon to have a best-ever year this season, with the Sochi Olympics presenting an opportunity for the team to showcase its improving depth and get its first medal in Games history. Tim Burke came into the season as a defending World Champs silver medalist, and the whole team knew that they had many talented racers capable of personal bests.
Things didn’t go as planned for Burke, who struggled with illness through much of the middle of the season and then watched it take a massive toll on his ski speed at the end. He left the race course in Oslo, Norway, saying that he was “really disappointed” after finishing ninth in the last mass start despite excellent shooting.
“Tim had so many expectations and really had the ability to be a medalist and for him to not feel well was such a huge disappointment,” teammate Annelies Cook wrote on her blog. “He carried himself unbelievably well, didn’t say a word of excuse about being sick, and kept racing though in any other circumstance he would not have even gone out to train. Listening to him cough at the end of the Olympics was heartbreaking and I was so proud of him for carrying himself so well.”
But even though the team felt Burke’s pain and frustration, they may have still hit their goal: the U.S. started the season with a podium by Burke in the opening World Cups in Östersund, Sweden, and finished it with podiums by Lowell Bailey in Kontiolahti, Finland, and by Susan Dunklee in Oslo – the first of either athlete’s career.
Between those two bookends, Bailey set a best-ever U.S. Olympic mark with eighth place in the 20 k individual and Dunklee set new marks for a U.S. woman almost every time she raced, with a top finish of 11th in the mass start.
It was exactly the breakout that U.S. biathlon has been waiting for.
“How people look at us internationally it’s tough to exactly know,” head coach Per Nilsson wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “We are for sure a ‘small’ team for them in regards to manpower, depth of athletes and so on. But at a same time we have earned the respect from other teams. They see that we have a really good work ethic and that we for sure have progressed. And it’s obvious that we have more athletes that are a threat for everybody now for the top results.”
As Nilsson pointed out, it’s not the first time the team has had the chance to put several different athletes on the podium. Jeremy Teela “led the way” for the U.S. in 2009, snagging a podium at the Olympic park. Burke has been an omnipresent threat since then as well.
And if you ask anyone on the team, they’ll say that seeing Bailey and Dunklee on the podium came as no surprise. They’ve known what they are capable of for a long time.
“It doesn’t really change anything because I think we knew that this was our level,” Bailey told FasterSkier in Oslo when asked about the end-of-season podiums. “We had a bunch of close calls early on in the season. I was a shot away at the Olympics. Susan was a shot away at the Olympics. If you were on the team, it didn’t really come as a surprise. I wasn’t surprised that she medaled. I figured that she would podium in the last three World Cups, honestly, and I said that.”
But knowing that the athletes can get on the podium is a lot different than watching them actually take that step, join Johannes Thingnes Bø or Darya Domracheva for a group photo, and wave their flower bouquets in the air.
The results come as a reward not only for the athletes, but for a team of support staff that has been building the squad up four more than the last Olympic cycle. Per Nilsson, a Swede, signed on in 2006?, while Jonne Kähkönen came onboard as the team’s first-ever women’s coach in 2010 (he also works with the men’s team). High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler, a German who began working with the team as a tech and took the director job in 2007, is also among the architects of the current staff, along with longtime U.S. Biathlon Association President Max Cobb.
“Before I took the job 2006 I saw an opportunity to try to create a training system and also develop as a coach,” Nilsson wrote of his decision to accept the position with the U.S. team. “I did not know so much about the athletes’ potential, more than to look how they stood out in the international field. So the main goal was not in the first years to get the results. It was to get a structure and a basic philosopy what and how to train.”
At that point, athletes like Burke, Bailey, Teela, and Jay Hakkinen had already been at it for a while. Nilsson recalled getting to know the team and trying to figure out how to work with them.
“Already after the first camp it was positive we had some really hard workers, that was clear!” Nilsson wrote. “I still remember Tim’s comment/question after the first kind of meeting after a really really hard camp. It was a about how tired you should be after the block of training. Just that how tired he should be – not a question about if the work could be adapted.”
Nilsson’s laughter is almost readable in his lines.
“It was an off week after 3 pretty heavy weeks: Monday and Tuesday off and then an easy training on Wednesday with short run and strength/flexibility,” Nilsson says he explained to Burke. “So if you are able to get back to it kind of ok on Wednesday then you are fine. Monday and Tuesday you should not be motivated and ready to train.
“Then he just said OK!”
Despite the departures of shooting coach Armin Auchentaller, who now has a contract with the Swiss team, and wax tech Mattias Hallquist, the U.S. staff will remain mostly the same moving forward. And of the athletes on the Olympics team, only Sara Studebaker has announced her retirement.
“Hopefully we can carry this momentum… into next year,” Bailey said in Oslo.
“We have some depth and maybe the whole team can take a step up together,” Dunklee agreed.
That certainly seems possible, as the close-knit American team showed synergy this winter and seemed to feed off each others’ success, particularly at the Olympics and afterwards.
“Having Lowell do so well last week too, it’s a lot of confidence for our training,” Dunklee said in Oslo after her third-place performance. “This is a big team effort too. Lowell’s podium and this are all a result of the positive vibe that we have, that the staff has set up for us. We have an awesome, amazing group of wax technicians who have given us some of the best skis almost every week of the year. And the coaching staff, we couldn’t ask for a better setup that way.”
Nilsson saw the payoff as evidence that reaching world-class results takes time and commitment from athletes, as well as consistency and structure from staff and trust from everybody involved.
“I think that you for sure have different ways to reach the top level concerning training methods and plans,” he wrote. “But clear for me is also that the teams that succeed have… built up a structure and they have followed that path for quite a long time now. And that’s the key. You see the results now, but the work to get there is done during a much longer time than you think. With 3 different athletes on the podium this year, it is so important for us to just justify that we are [doing the right thing] with our small talent pool.”
The world definitely took notice of that “justification”. In the biathlon community, there’s generally support and excitement when smaller teams break through and start making their presence felt at the top. Such was the attitude when the Slovenian team took silver in the World Championships mixed relay in 2011, or during the Czech breakout of the last two seasons.
“For the results, many have honestly congratulated us, and especially on the athletes side,” Nilsson wrote. “They know each other quite well on the circuit. [It’s] because they have seen that both Susan and Lowell have been up there many times, and that they deserved it.”
In the finish pen in Oslo, athletes from several countries approached Dunklee to congratulate her as she waited to see if she’d stay on the podium in the individual-start sprint.
“What is it, a top ten for you?” A Finnish athlete asked her. “A top three! Wow!”
Canada’s Rosanna Crawford told FasterSkier that hearing Dunklee’s performance had motivated her to turn in her own personal-best in the same race, where she took 11th (two days later, she upped her stats with a eighth-place result in the mass start).
“I wish all the best for you, and I hope you take it!” A French woman told Dunklee as they put their warmups back on.
The message from the U.S. athletes was clear: look out, there’s more than one American here to steal your World Cup points.
And the message from everyone else seemed to be fairly clear, too: welcome to the club.
“To have it happen on both the men’s side and the women’s side shows that we have an awesome team,” fellow U.S. athlete Hannah Dreissigacker said after Dunklee’s podium.
“It’s awesome for the sport and it’s great that we finally showed everyone else what we’re capable of,” Bailey concluded. “But we knew it. We knew it was there. It was just the matter of having the right day and that’s what biathlon is about.”
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.