A lot has changed since Sean Doherty won two golds and a silver at last year’s World Youth and Junior Championships for biathlon in Presque Isle, Maine.
The New Hampshire native went to Sochi, Russia, and competed in the Olympic Games – and at 18 years old was one of the youngest starters in the relay, helping the U.S. to a 16th-place finish.
He’s started in World Cup races at four different venues so far this season, contributing relay performances including an eighth-place team finish in Antholz, Italy. In individual racing, he made the 60-man pursuit cutoff in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, and finished 45th.
And, in regards to World Youth and Junior Championships, Doherty made the big step up to the junior age division. He competed in four different Championships as a youth, starting at age 14, and won three gold medals, making him the winningest Championship biathlete in U.S. history.
So in one sense, it wasn’t surprising at all that Doherty won bronze in Saturday’s junior 10 kilometers sprint at this year’s Championships, held outside of Minsk, Belarus.
In another sense, it was a different accomplishment entirely. Junior athletes, aged 19 to 20 years old, are bigger and stronger than youths, and the competition is at a different level. Instead of being the best young biathletes, winners at the junior level are often on their way to being the best biathletes, period.
With one penalty, Doherty was able to ski aggressively and notch a time just 10.2 seconds slower than clean-shooting Alexsandr Dediukhin of Russia, who took the first championship title of his career.
“That Sean was able to win the Junior World Championship bronze medal with one penalty as a first year junior in Minsk speaks volumes for his dedication to excellence and the great support of the coaches and team around him,” U.S. Biathlon Association CEO Max Cobb told FasterSkier in an email. “It’s a huge accomplishment to succeed like this as an American in Europe’s favorite winter sport.”
Even when Doherty left the shooting mats for the final time, it wasn’t at all certain that he would end up on the podium. He sat in second place, 6.4 seconds behind the time set by Fabien Claude of France, an earlier starter who was the Junior World Champion in the pursuit last season.
Quickly, two other racers posted times in between: Niklas Homberg, of Germany, and Dediukhin. With the top four racers separated by just under 7 seconds and 3.3 kilometers to go, it was going to be a test of grit and ski speed.
In the end it was Homberg who fell by the wayside. Dediukhin pushed the hardest, putting seconds into Claude and winning by 4.6 seconds. Doherty’s efforts on the trails couldn’t match their speed, but far outpaced Homberg and left him securely in third place.
“I am very happy with the race today,” Doherty said in a USBA press release. “I felt good on the skis and I was able to keep that momentum all the way through the race. On the range, the last shot got me, but I am very excited for tomorrow.”
Tomorrow: Sunday’s 12.5 k pursuit, where the top finishers will have another shot at medals. It’s the event where Doherty won his first gold in 2013, after having set it up with a silver in that year’s sprint.
And there’s history, too. In that race where Doherty first found out what winning felt like, Homberg was fifth, Deiukhin sixth, and Claude tenth. The four men have been competing against each other for years.
USBA High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler believes that there’s potential for another medal in the pursuit.
“[Doherty] went into the race today very aggressive and confident and was in the medal mix from the first meter on,” he wrote in an email. “The last shot [in standing, a miss] was close, but that’s biathlon. He went out 4th and did a great last loop and with 3rd running time overall and 9 out of 10 hits, really deserves this medal. The wax crew did a great job with his skis and we all are looking forward to tomorrow now!”
And after that? Doherty has earned a nod for senior World Championships, to be held in March in Kontiolahti, Finland.
Doherty’s U.S. teammates will not be joining him in the pursuit. Jake Ellingson finished 65th with five penalties, and Brian Halligan 67th with three penalties.
In the junior women’s 7.5 k sprint, Maddie Phaneuf placed 33rd with two missed shots, and will start the 10 k pursuit on Sunday two minutes and five seconds behind Lena Arnaud of France, who posted a 2.4 second win. Mikaela Paluszek finished 54th with four penalties.
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.