Casey Smith has endured a few things that would cause any athlete to question whether to continue with their professional career.
In February 2015, the Washington biathlete crashed hard while training in Canmore, Alberta, before the International Biathlon Union (IBU) Cup races to be held a few days later. He was knocked unconscious, broke ribs, a shoulder blade, and bones surrounding his vertebrae, and punctured a lung.
While recovering from those devastating injuries, he learned in April 2015 that he had been cut from U.S. Biathlon’s B-team, and also that Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC), where he had been based, was no longer funding senior elite athletes.
But Smith – using the physical and mental endurance he had cultivated in biathlon – persevered, joining the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) in Vermont and returning to international competition in the 2015/2016 season.
“It definitely [felt sweet],” he said of a few good races last season. “It was really cool to be able to – I got back to the same level I was at before. In Europe this year I didn’t have quite as good results as the year before, but also the first week I got food poisoning really bad. That took a pretty big toll on me, and didn’t have anything to do with the crash.”
Come spring, the 24 year old decided to call it quits with his biathlon career and return to Bozeman, Mont., to finish a degree at Montana State University. He had enrolled after high school before transitioning to being a full-time athlete.
His decision was unrelated to the ordeals of the year before. It came down to something much simpler: joy.
“The whole year of the training season and racing season, I wasn’t feeling as motivated,” he explained on the phone from his home in Washington’s Methow Valley. “I said that I wanted to do this as long as I was having fun, but it was turning into more of a job kind of thing. It was getting to the point where it wasn’t as much fun anymore. So I thought it was time to move on.”
Smith was a top junior for the U.S. before and during his first stint in Bozeman. He had top-30 finishes at World Youth and Junior Championships in 2011 and 2013, as well as two apiece at Open European Championships in the junior races in 2012 and the senior races in 2014.
He then spent two years with the MWSC – including the successful 2014 season, which launched him onto the national B-team – and one in Craftsbury.
“It was great having other guys to train with,” he said of his time in Vermont. “I really hadn’t had too much of that, at least when I was in Maine. So that was really nice, and I really enjoyed working with Pepa [Miloucheva]. It helped me with my ski technique a lot, for sure.”
Looking back, he said having the chance to travel the world was one of the best things the sport had offered him.
“The last several years we would always go to Canmore over Thanksgiving, and so I could build relationships with people there,” he said. “Then when you land in Europe at competitions you run into them again, and I was able to make friends from all around. That was pretty cool.”
There were results highlights from this season, too.
“At [U.S. National Championships], it was really cool that all the national team was there [after the World Cup finished],” he reminisced. “It made it real races. In the sprint I had a pretty good race, and right in the mix. Also in Canmore at the trials it was a little bumpy the first few, but the last race I was finally able to pull it together and have a really good race.”
After the injuries sustained the year before, Smith had attacked training and racing with a new direction, and it worked.
“It was a traumatic experience, but I felt like I was able to bounce back from it miraculously quickly,” he said. “It almost helped me a little bit because I was so much more focused on being perfect on my physical therapy and being super diligent every single day. So I had to be really focused in general.”
And yet, he became aware that he wasn’t as fired up to keep it up for years. He decided that he would return to Bozeman for the fall semester. Smith initially told himself that he would return home to Washington and mull over whether to continue to compete while he finished his degree, or to call it quits on biathlon altogether.
The latter won out, and now he’s fully invested in school and his future outside of sport.
“I’m going to be in the animal science program,” he explained. “My plan is that my family has a small sheep farm here in Washington, and I’d like to come back and grow that bigger… and live in the Methow and have that lifestyle.”
Most of the friends he started school with at Montana State years ago have graduated, but that didn’t concern Smith.
“I feel like now I’m going to school because I want to learn, and before I was there because I wanted to do biathlon and train and there was other people doing that there, and by the way I was going to school on the side,” he said. “Now I’m going there because I really want to go to school.”
Until the fall semester begins, he’s helping his family and uncle out on their farms and doing odd jobs in the Methow Valley.
He may help with biathlon in the Bozeman region, and will definitely help his mother, Betsy Devin-Smith, who is the head coach of the Methow Valley Nordic Ski Education Foundation’s biathlon team.
“I’m sort of stuck helping her with that, like it or not,” he joked.
Of the life transition, Smith said that everything was feeling good so far.
“I don’t really miss it now,” he said of biathlon. “The opportunity to ski as often, maybe I’ll miss. I’m sure I’ll still ski a lot, but not every day for hours.”
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.