HOCHFILZEN, Austria—Four days ago, Lowell Bailey left the shooting range after cleaning his fourth stage in the pursuit, and was in second place.
Things didn’t go his way and he saw first World Championships silver, then bronze, slip from his grasp as other men were stronger on the Hochfilzen race course’s big hills. He ultimately finished sixth, after placing fourth in the sprint.
Today, the American biathlete again left the range after cleaning his fourth stage. Two key differences: this time he had hit 20 out of 20 targets, rather than missing once. And this time, he was in first place, although he didn’t know it right away.
“I was really happy about it, obviously,’ Bailey said. “There was a surge of adrenaline immediately when I left the mat. Obviously most of the race is finished by that point, but in my mind, that was where the race began, the second I left the mat.”
Bailey was the second-to-last starter out of the 102-man field, and there was no chance of anyone behind him besting his time. When he hit the course, he had a 6.4-second lead on Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic.
If he could protect that lead, Bailey would become the first American ever to win a gold medal at biathlon World Championships. The U.S. has also famously never won an Olympic medal in biathlon, the last such winter sport, and Bailey had never won a World Cup before, either.
After watching a medal slip away in the pursuit, he wasn’t going to let it happen again.
“I know that my weakness on the course is the long extended climbs,” Bailey said. “If I look back to the pursuit that’s where things fell apart for me. I was okay on the fast gradual stuff, but at the long extended climbs I lost tons of time there. So today I tried to maximize my strengths… And then just mentally knowing that the last two kilometers are a lot of V1 extended climbing, I was telling myself ‘Don’t lose it on these climbs, you just gotta dig deep and find something there, because I’m not gonna lose it on these climbs’.”
He almost did. With 1,100 meters left to go, Bailey’s lead was down to 0.1 seconds. The crowd held its breath. Moravec, watching on the big screen from the finish area, shook his head, like, can you believe this?
It was a race for the ages. But some on the U.S. team were sure that with the long swooping downhill to the finishing stretch, Bailey could eke out a win.
“It was closer and closer, and it was a tenth of a second at the last split at the very top,” U.S. teammate Tim Burke said. “But we had phenomenal skis and I knew if he was close there, he would make it. There was no way anyone had better skis than us… He owes a serious tip to the service guys.”
Bailey wasn’t as sure, but he also didn’t have any time or energy to think about it. He just stayed confident and kept fighting.
“I was in such a pain state that you are thinking like a five-year-old at that point,” he said. “But I would say that I was extremely confident in my skis today, and I think having those long downhill stretches before the finish definitely helped.”
Bailey ended up getting passed by Alexey Volkov of Russia, who had started a bib earlier but who Bailey had passed before. At first it seemed like Volkov might be an obstruction, but the Russian kept a high speed. As a result Bailey got a bit of a draft, and had someone to fight with to the finish.
“He was feeling pretty good on the last loop, and I tried to stay with him,” Bailey said of Volkov. “I mean, it’s always an advantage to see someone in front and try to stay with them. I think the battle was mostly going on in my own head. But we were skiing together, and I think that has to help in some way.”
By the time he hit the finish, he had gained a few seconds back from Moravec and crossed the line with 3.3. seconds to spare. Bailey fell to his knees and U.S. Biathlon Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler rushed over to embrace him.
After nearly two decades of working together – back in the day, Bailey was a junior and Eisenbichler a wax tech – the pair had done it: a World Championships medal for Bailey.
And it was gold.
“When I think about when I first met Lowell, he was probably 13 years old, in Lake Placid, and just this good young skier who put his heart into this and worked for this every day, for almost 20 years now,” U.S. Biathlon Association President and CEO Max Cobb said. “I think it is a total validation of Lowell’s career… and how we were able to engineer things. We stripped out everything that we didn’t need to do and made it really focused on developing the athletes and bring them to this level. And now we are one year out from the Olympics.”
Perfection on the Range
Four-stage races have not always been Bailey’s best friend.
“That fourth stage in a pressure situation is definitely, in my opinion, the hardest part of biathlon,” Bailey said. “And it hasn’t always been my strong point. I have lost a lot of medal opportunities in the last stage.”
But in the Olympics three years ago, Bailey came back from a disappointing start to the Games by focusing and turning in an eighth-place finish in the 20 k individual, his best Olympic or championship performance ever up to that point. He was one miss away from a medal, and set a new best mark for a U.S. biathlete at the Olympics.
Thinking about this World Championships, Bailey decided months ago that the 20 k would be his best shot.
“I focused on this race starting in May,” Bailey said in the press conference. “What do I need to do in my training to really prepare for this race? And so starting in May with the shooting workouts, I started going through this race in my head, and sort of doing a dress rehearsal during the training. Who is to say that helped or didn’t help, but I felt really composed today on the shooting range. I wouldn’t say I felt anymore nervous than any other day, any other race. That was good.”
Bailey knew that he would have to shoot a perfect 20 for 20. While the wind is tricky in Hochfilzen, it’s not always strong. There are always a few clean sheets and Bailey doubted he could win without one.
So he had to overcome the threat of a last-stage collapse, that pattern that had haunted him so many times in the past.
In Sunday’s pursuit, he had done it. His one missed shot came in the third stage, and then cleaning the final standing put him in that second-place position. So while the last loop of the pursuit didn’t go well, Bailey knew that he could do it on the range.
“One thing that I have learned over the years working with sports psychologists is that you are going to get distracted,” he said, gesturing as his daughter Ophelia cried in the background. “Especially at a World Championships, there are going to be distractions both externally and internally. For me actually the internal distractions are the most detrimental. You are talking to yourself in your head ‘if I do this, if I do that, if I clean then this, if I just hold it together…’ And all that is doing is taking you away from what you have trained for decades to do. The muscle memory is there, hundreds of thousands of rounds fired. So you just have to trust in your training, and also know that those are just distractions.”
In the final stage of the individual, Bailey was focusing on just two things. The crowd and the potential medal didn’t factor in.
“As you get to the competition season, you boil your shooting cues down to a few key principles,” he explained. “For me those are having a good trigger squeeze and follow-through. So it’s like two things. Trigger squeeze. Follow-through. And by the way, when you got to your first biathlon camp, those are two of the three things they teach you. But when you are in that situation, you are fighting for a World Championship medal, you have to keep things simple because that is all your brain is capable of.”
Sprint, pursuit, and individual: 50 targets, and Bailey has hit 49 of them. Fast, too. His shooting time today tied for the fourth-quickest among all the men in the field.
His focus is working, and that accomplishment was something the U.S. staff was particularly proud of. As Bailey started taking his first shots of that last stage, U.S. men’s coach Jonas Johansson breathed a sigh of relief. While watching it was “horrible”, he said, he was also sure Bailey could come through.
“I knew when he started to execute the shooting like planned, that this can go,” Johansson said. “Normally before, he has been a little too cautious in those situations, and stepped back a little bit. But now he went for it. I’m so happy for him that he really pulled it off and he came through clean.”
Four k or 40 k?
While cleaning all 20 targets was a big part of the work, Bailey still had to ski four more kilometers to seal the deal after he finished shooting.
“I didn’t know that I would come out in first place, but I knew that if there was ever a point where every second mattered, it’s directly after you have gone 20 for 20 in an individual,” Bailey said. “So I knew that those four kilometers were going be the deciding factor, and I knew it was going to be a matter of seconds. It was just that rush of adrenaline: ‘I worked so hard to get to this point, I need to do this’.”
He described the four kilometers as agonizing, especially those big climbs that he knew were his weakness. In the press conference, Bailey joked that it felt more like 40 kilometers than just four.
“Fortunately I had great skis, and I had a U.S. staff member seemingly every hundred meters along that track,” he said later. “But every hundred meters it was a sprint. Every hundred meters was ‘go as hard as you can for this hundred meters, and then when you get to the end of that hundred meters, go as hard as you can and just keep doing that.’ I thought the finish line was never going to come. I was just like, I don’t know how much longer I can do this, because the finish line is just not showing up.”
That final loop ended up being one of Bailey’s fastest of the day. And that earned him gold.
As he climbed up onto the top step of the podium after his race, he was joined by his wife, Erika, and their daughter. Martin Fourcade of France, the superstar who took bronze, handed the girl a plush toy he had received as a prize. Everyone seemed happy.
“I think Lowell has a really good mix of biathlon and life with his daughter and his wife,” Johansson said. “I think that’s something really good for him, to have them around to be able to relax. And to also be able to have pure biathlon focus when he’s racing and he’s training. That’s a skill he had today, he did it one-hundred percent.”
Johansson, a Swede, has been working with the U.S. men’s team for three years. Watching the whole men’s team succeed, including this medal for Bailey, has been rewarding, he said.
“It’s a fantastic team in every way and it’s hard workers,” Johansson said. “Most of these athletes are maybe not the most talented on day one, but they are hard workers, and Lowell is one of them. He’s worked hard for many years and now he’s on the top… Lowell and also the other athletes on the team, they have this potential. I mean, they’ve shown before that they can be up on the podium and fighting for the podium, so it’s an unbelievable day.”
Teammate Burke, the last U.S. man to stand on the World Championships podium when he won silver in the 20 k individual in 2013, was thrilled for Bailey.
“He deserves it, especially this week,” Burke said. “He’s been so on, with the fourth place, sixth place, and today he needed the perfect race and he absolutely had, that’s the perfect race. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Other North American Results
23. Leif Nordgren, USA, 1-0-0-1 (+2:53.6)
36. Tim Burke, USA, 1-1-0-2 (+4:14.4)
42. Macx Davies, Canada, 0-0-0-1 (+4:25.2)
43. Scott Gow, Canada, 0-1-0-1 (+4:29.1)
58. Sean Doherty, USA, 1-1-2-0 (+6:04.4)
86. Brendan Green, Canada, 2-1-0-2 (+9:33.9)
Christian Gow of Canada did not finish.
-Alex Kochon, Jason Albert, and Harald Zimmer contributed
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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.