Two and a half years ago, Kelsey Dickinson was wondering how she could keep doing biathlon.
The Washington native had been training at the Maine Winter Sports Center (now the Outdoor Sports Institute), and had been a member of the U.S. Biathlon Association’s development team. But when team nominations came out in the spring of 2015, she wasn’t on them. At the same time, the Maine Winter Sports Center cut most funding to its senior teams.
With few options, Dickinson headed back to the College of Saint Scholastica, where she had done one year of college already.
“When I left biathlon, part of it was because I just wasn’t skiing fast enough,” Dickinson said in an interview this month. “So I asked how I could keep skiing, one, but also how could I get faster. I realized that going back to college was going to be the best way to do that, but I wasn’t going to be able to go back to college, and do biathlon, and get better at skiing. I decided that I would just ski in college and finish out my eligibility.”
Dickinson still has one year of that eligibility left, but her biathlon career has come back sooner than expected. After strong college results last season, she was accepted into a summer training program at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont. This summer, she spent time training with some of the country’s best cross-country skiers as well as having dedicated biathlon training and easy access to a shooting range.
The result: she performed so well in rollerski trials in August and October that she automatically landed a spot on the U.S. World Cup squad for December.
“Our goal for her this year is to make that Olympic team, for sure, but she’s really four years ahead of schedule with it,” Dickinson’s ski coach at Saint Scholastica, Maria Stuber, said.
“Nothing about what’s going on right now is what I expected to happen,” Dickinson, a double-major in philosophy and natural science, said. “I thought that I would make it through this semester and not have to be traveling that much. I’m just going by communicating with my professors on a day-by-day basis and playing it by ear.”
Stuber had only positive things to say about Dickinson’s work ethic and professionalism.
“She was really clear about her goal to be a biathlete, and she has not wavered on that at all,” Stuber explained. “We said, okay, if you want to be a biathlete at the end of college, what needs to happen for you to be in the top few women, not a bubble skier but someone who is going to be on the World Cup? The bottom line was that she needed to ski a lot faster.”
The work Dickinson put in paid off, and last season she ended up ranked sixth in the Central Collegiate Ski Association rankings, the top woman not from perennial powerhouse Northern Michigan University. She has now represented her team at NCAA Championships twice.
“She made some big technical improvements last winter,” Stuber said. “But she was sick from early January, for over a month. She had some really good races but I don’t know if either of us felt like she really got to show her stuff last winter like we thought she could… I think mainly we just made it apparent that she had it in her to go even faster.”
That was enough to get her to Craftsbury. Dickinson had applied to the summer training program the previous year but not gotten in.
“I had a really good summer of training,” Dickinson said. “I’m really grateful to be able to have gone to Craftsbury and trained with the team there. That made all the difference for me, just to be around a lot of high-level athletes.”
At Saint Scholastica, she is the one leading the team. One of the big focuses of going to Vermont was to get Dickinson used to seeing how more efficient technical skiers moved.
“She could sit behind someone and try to figure out how to make skiing easy, instead of always trying to think in intervals of how to make it hard, and how to go harder,” Stuber said. “There’s this awesome mindshift when you’re going hard but trying to make it easy, which you don’t get to do when you are leading so much.”
Stuber herself was a senior athlete at Craftsbury at one point, so she knew head coach Pepa Miloucheva well and was not worried that there would be any problems with Dickinson adjusting to the training approach. (“She was my coach before and I have a ton of respect for what she is doing there — so to be able to work with Pepa as a peer was really cool for me,” Stuber said.)
In addition, Dickinson knew Sam Dougherty, the biathlon coach at Craftsbury.
“Sam and Pepa work together to build the plan depending on what the biathlon schedule requires and what the cross-country athletes are doing,” Dickinson explained. “They try to make it comprehensive so people can train together… I have known Sam for a while because of we overlapped racing a little bit back when I was a junior. And Pepa, her philosophy is very similar to Maria’s. I get along great with Pepa and she has been an amazing coach. I’m lucky that the transition was really easy.”
Dickinson turned in two third-place finishes at rollerski biathlon races in August.
“I knew I was feeling good and that if I put all the pieces together then things could go well, but I wasn’t quite expecting that for sure,” she said.
That put her in a good position to fight for a World Cup spot. Susan Dunklee, who was pre-qualified for the World Cup, had won both races. Dickinson could even afford one less-stellar race when the qualification series wrapped up with two more competitions in October.
Because she was still in school and had options for how to spend her race season – including competing domestically in December, in an attempt to qualify for the IBU Cup in January and from there trying to make the Olympics – she didn’t feel pressure.
“I think actually having school was a little bit helpful in that way,” she said. “I just was looking at the weekend as an opportunity. If things went well then that would be great, but if things hadn’t gone well then I still had a lot of great things going on back at school with the team there… I was in a good place emotionally, just happy to be there.”
At those last two trials races, Dickinson finished second and fifth, and locked up the World Cup spot.
Her goal is still the Olympics. As such, when she gets to the World Cup later this month – she has to first go to the second-tier IBU Cup in Sjusjøen, Norway, and score qualification points – she will focus mainly on process.
While at least one more woman will be added to the Olympic roster based on December World Cup results, the team won’t be filled until January, when several athletes will be sent to the IBU Cup to fight for the last spots. That means that Dickinson can focus on performing well in January, when the season is in full swing and she has some races under her belt, and fight for an Olympic berth there.
“Her process is going to be the most important thing,” Stuber said. “I don’t think she needs to be concerned with what her results are at those first World Cups… if she can use these World Cups to get a really good process dialed in, then when she goes to the IBU Cup she will be really ready to do what she needs to do there to secure an Olympic spot.”
“It was such a huge goal just to get to this point,” Dickinson agreed. “Looking forward I’m just going to approach things as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for learning, it’s an opportunity to race, to do what I love to do. So I think that in that sense, I obviously want to do well and I want to hold myself to a high standard. But I am just very grateful that I can have this opportunity and I’m very open to what it will bring.”
In the past two seasons, Dickinson bought into college racing completely.
“She tries really hard to be a good captain and sometimes I think that adds to her stress level,” Stuber said. “She just tries to do everything that she commits to, to do it really well.”
But now, she’s back to biathlon.
“If I could come across saying anything, I just want to express how grateful I am to all the people who have supported me,” Dickinson said. “Like Maria and Chad [Salmela], and Pepa, and everyone thoughout the years who have allowed me to get to this point. Because it has been a really long journey.”
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.