The U.S. National Championships/NorAm Championships series didn’t exactly start off badly for Annelies Cook, but it didn’t start off well in Fort Kent, Maine, either.
“Between colds and sleep deprivation, we were all in survival mode but trying to have fun with it,” she wrote of the national team at the first race, a sprint, on Thursday. “The sprint was better than I thought it would be skiing wise, but I missed 4 [targets, out of ten], so that didn’t help.”
Those misses put her back in fourth place, almost two minutes behind teammate Clare Egan. With Egan also shooting well in Friday’s pursuit, making it to the front of the field seemed more or less impossible.
But then Saturday rolled around: a 12.5 k mass start competition, and the very last race of Cook’s career as a professional biathlete. The Saranac Lake native is set to retire at the end of this season.
With the sun and snow and festive end-of-the-year atmosphere, Cook was able to enjoy herself while also racing her hardest.
“Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day with great skiing and we just wanted to have fun,” she wrote in an email on Sunday. “We dogged it the first loop so that everyone could come in shooting together, which was fun and then after that the race started.”
Cook missed only two shots, both in her first standing stage, for 90% shooting overall. That tied her for the best shooting of the day and allowed her to hold off a challenge from Joanne Reid of the Auburn Ski Club and Colorado Biathlon.
Reid had four penalties, two apiece in each of the standing stages.
“It was my best shooting of the year in a 4-stage race, ironically, and that was good because I knew that Joanne was skiing a lot faster than me so my only hope was in the range,” Cook explained. “I only beat her because we came into the last standing together and I cleaned and she missed two, so I was thankful for that! I didn’t have much fight in me other than to make it around the course.”
She made it, earning a 22-second victory to win the national title in her last start ever.
Sisters Emily and Hannah Dreissigacker took third and fourth, +1:16 and +2:25 with two and four penalties, respectively. Hannah Dreissigacker is also retiring. Egan took fifth, +3:07 with seven penalties.
“It felt good to win my last race!” Cook wrote.
FasterSkier talked with her about retirement after the relay at World Championships in Oslo, Norway, two weeks ago.
Cook said that she had been mulling retirement for over a year, but arriving in Oslo everything clicked into place: it was time.
“I don’t think it actually felt real until this week,” she said at the time. “I had been saying to people, ‘I think I’m going to retire, I might retire,’ for a long time. But when I got here it was like, yup, I’m going to retire. This is going to be it.”
Cook has been doing biathlon since she was 13 years old. Back in 2002 she made her first trip to World Junior Championships and finished in the top 20 in every race.
After a stint doing biathlon full-time at the Maine Winter Sports Center and racing on the junior and European Cup circuits, Cook enrolled at the University of Utah in 2006, where she raced for the cross-country ski team and earned NCAA All-American honors in 2009. One of several World Cup biathletes to have taken a detour through the college skiing system, and credited it with enabling her to stay in the sport long-term.
“It was a very much needed break,” she told FasterSkier in 2012. “[But] when I went into college, I told myself, I really want to go back into biathlon when I’m done here.”
After graduating, she was immediately invited onto the biathlon national team, but floundered during the transition back into being a full-time athlete. After a year of supporting herself, she raced her way onto the World Cup and has been a national team staple ever since; in 2012 she also renewed her partnership with the Maine Winter Sports Center.
“It has been a really amazing adventure,” Cook said in Oslo. “Biathlon is just such a crazy sport. There have been so many high points and so many really low points. I don’t think there’s a sport like it that makes you feel so much. Such a wide range of emotions.”
A 2014 Olympian, Cook had her best World Cup results in 2013, when she hit the top 20 on three different occasions.
“I’ve loved it so much,” she said. “I love training with my team, and I love racing, and I love my wax techs who always cheer me up if I’m sad. There’s so many good people. That’s why I’ve done it. I haven’t done it because I’m a World Champion athlete, or because I love living out of a suitcase. It’s because I love the people so much. It’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to everyone.”
The women’s team has been particularly close-knit during that time, which adds to the difficulty of those goodbyes.
“We’ve grown up together,” Cook said. I think about what we were like- I mean, I did this when I was 19 and just figuring out how to start being an adult… we’ve just all gotten more mature. We’ve turned into better people I think. We’ve all had our moments of being little shits, and we’ve all learned how to be nicer, better people together. I’m really proud of the people I’ve gotten to work with. That’s what’s really cool about our team: it’s a really genuine group of people.”
That includes not only her teammates, but the myriad others who work with the team.
“The wax techs are always there to take care of us and I am so lucky to have Jonne [Kahkonen] as a coach,” Cook wrote in a later email. “As such a small team, we are incredibly well organized thanks to the outstanding efforts of Bernd Eisenbichler and Max Cobb.”
Cook is not sure exactly what she’ll do next – “life!” she exclaimed – but her biathlon friends will never be far. That’s particularly true of Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey, who are also from the Lake Placid area and have been longtime teammates of Cook’s through many career stages.
Bailey told FasterSkier in Oslo that he hadn’t yet decided whether to retire or not, but that a decision would be made this spring. Burke will stay in the game.
“I’m going to have fun watching them on TV,” Cook laughed. “We’re close, and we have family history. We’re from the same place. My relationship with them will always be there, with or without biathlon. We’ll probably see each other more when we’re not doing biathlon together. Like, ‘hey, come over for dinner!’ And I can babysit their kids for them.
The women’s team, too, she says will be just fine without her – evidenced in part by strong performances by newcomers Reid and Emily Dreissigacker at the NorAm Championships.
As she cheers for more American success from the comfort of her home, Cook also says that biathlon will never be far.
“I don’t think I could ever really leave biathlon 100 percent,” she said. “It’s just too much a part of me. I did my first biathlon camp when I was 13 ½ years old. It’s more than half of my life that I’ve been involved in biathlon. So I just want to say thank you to everybody, and see you around.”
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In the men’s 15 k mass start, it was Burke who took top honors. With just a single missed shot over the four shooting stages, he claimed a huge win: a minute and 28 seconds over the closest competitor, national team teammate Sean Doherty.
Leif Nordgren was third, +1:41, and Bailey – who had won both the sprint and pursuit – finished fourth, +1:54. Hometown favorite Russell Currier rounded out the top five, +2:54.
In the junior men’s field, Brian Halligan of the Maine Winter Sports Center won with four penalties, one in each stage; in the junior women’s field, MWSC athlete Hannah Streinz beat Caitlin Campbell of Prince Edward Island, Canada, by 52 seconds.
Lucas Boudreau of Prince Edward Island took the youth men’s race by 18 seconds over Matthew Forshey of the Hudson United Race Team.
In the youth women’s race, Chloe Levins of Mountain Top Nordic bested Eliza Thomas of Mansfield Nordic by 2:57.
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.