This article is part of a series based on an interview with Lowell Bailey. Mr. Bailey represented the United States in biathlon in four Olympic games, 11 World Championships, and 15 World Cup seasons. He is currently Director of High Performance for U.S. Biathlon. His World Championship gold medal race is one of the most thrilling races ever. If you haven’t seen it, the race is available on YouTube and is a great watch. His continued enthusiasm for biathlon continues, and is contagious.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Part II: Perspective on U.S. and International Biathlon.
How does the U.S. training, support, and logistics compare to other national teams?
In some ways it’s a David versus Goliath situation, with the Goliaths being the Germanys and Norways of the world, which are government supported, and budgets are not a challenge. I want to make very clear that we receive tremendous support from the USOPC (United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee). We are aligned in our pursuit of excellence. It does a huge amount of the lift. We definitely have the support of our Olympic committee. The USOPC has increased focus on sports that we [the United States] haven’t traditionally excelled in. The conversation has shifted to include focus on sports where there are opportunities in terms of increasing medal count. Biathlon has twenty-seven possible medals in an Olympics. So, it’s a huge opportunity. It’s also one of the most competitive sports. In particular the USOPC’s support for our Lake Placid facility is critical. There are dorms, food, and medical support under one roof for biathletes at every development level. This is critical. Every day we spend there is time we don’t have to spend elsewhere and spend money elsewhere.
That being said, there are teams out there who really don’t have to worry about budget. Some of the European teams which are government supported have close to a blank check. They have higher staffing levels than we do. They have more coaches and wax technicians, physical therapists, and doctors. So we have to be creative and find ways to highlight our strengths. The Goliaths are more concerned about what’s the winning strategy and don’t really worry about how much the strategy costs. Still, we have better support than many other nations, but if the goal is podiums, the competition is the big programs. We have to find creative ways to be better every year. But, it’s not all about money.
What are the expectations long and short term?
One of the biggest changes has been reassessing goals, not for next year only, but for the next eight years. What is it going to take for a U.S. biathlete to step onto the Olympic podium? This has been part of a targeted plan to focus on areas for sustained excellence. But, we also definitely focus on the present and maximizing the opportunities of success for our current athletes.
Individual goals are determined by each athlete and the coaches. Athletes are individuals. A good coach understands that some athletes are very goal oriented and want to focus on those goals. Others just want to think about their training plan and be removed from nuts and bolts of goal setting and training plan design. They just want to trust their coach, be given a plan, and execute the plan. Others want to set their own goals.
The season is long and grueling. How do the athletes manage?
It’s very individual. For instance, Scandinavia in November is dark (sunlight wise) and challenging for some. For many athletes that’s really challenging. It’s critical for athletes to find joy in the effort. Athletes have to maintain the identity of “why I’m doing this.” If you want to get to the top of the world you have to put yourselves in tough places. You have to maintain the identity that “this is why I’m doing this.” Everyone has a choice to stay excited … finding the excitement against the World’s best. It’s exciting and you have to remind yourself that you’re on that exciting path, competing against the world’s best.
Is it really possible to race at full intensity every weekend? Do racers intentionally hold back some weekends to save energy or taper for “bigger races?”
Not really. I can’t speak for everyone, this is my personal thinking, but from my experience, that’s a bad idea. You might be slower some weekends than others. But, that’s more likely a function of fatigue from training or racing, not purposely taking it easy during a race. It’s not physically possible to go at the absolute top of your ability every weekend, but from my perspective, that’s not intentional. To cope with a long season, it’s better to set up a strategy of adjusting workouts instead of adjusting race pace. You can’t have the pedal to the metal every day. You get into a tricky spot when you say to an athlete that you only want them to give 90 percent or 95 percent. There may be athletes that go out and say I’m only going to race at 95 percent today. But, it’s a slippery slope to give less than 100 percent. I don’t think you want to give yourself the option of dialing it back. My way of thinking is you don’t want to have the programing to turn the dial back during racing. There’s more to lose from that than to gain. You adjust to stress and fatigue in ways other than on race day. But, at the end of the day, every athlete’s path to success is individual and specific to that athlete.
Cross-Country recently adopted equal distances for men and women. Thoughts on biathlon adopting that?
I haven’t heard anything from the IBU (International Biathlon Union) about it. I’ll be interested to see how it plays out. The athletes should have a very very big voice in that decision about race length. From the Federation’s viewpoint, there’s merit to consider what’s popular, is our sport competitive, are we appealing to fans? On the other hand, the athletes are the ones out there competing. IBU’s decision- making does consider the athletes’ voice as very important.
How about fluoro bans?
Athletes’ right now are concerned about the non fluorinated wax situation and how biathlon would deal with fluoro detection. There’s a lot of attention on that issue. There’s enthusiasm for being fluoro free. From the federation’s perspective, the IBU wants to reach a fluoro free race environment, but in a way so that the competition is fair.
I recently watched your World Championship gold medal race on YouTube. Do you ever bring that up as inspiration or motivation for current athletes?
I don’t try to highlight that. I trust the athletes with the knowledge that they’re prepared. We create an environment for every athlete to have had the best preparation that they can. Specifically pointing to certain events, I’m open to discussing what went right. But, it’s more important to let an athlete experience for themselves what their journey looks like. If that means using U.S. biathlon history as something positive, then there’s a long list of success that provides positive thoughts. I lean away from saying, “Here’s what I know or here’s what I did.”
That’s one of the most exciting biathlon races ever. By the end of the race even the commentators were cheering for you. Is that an event that you look back on a lot?
I don’t make a point of highlighting that in my present day life. It was one of the most impactful things that I was a part of. I say “a part of” because the drivers of success had to do with all the pieces of the puzzle coming together … logistics, training plan, ski prep. So, what I take away is how critical team support is for an athlete’s individual success. No athlete succeeds on the World Cup without team support. The margin in that race was 3.3 seconds over a 20 kilometer race. Success then depends on so many different variables on that day and literally over the course of the preceding year. It shows the importance of being prepared on all platforms. When I look back, I feel our team worked together really well on all levels. I use it as an example of what can happen when you get everything right as a team.
A healthy dose of perspective is important. Everyone we compete against is talented. How do you get that final fraction of a percent to get on the podium? How do you keep on moving things up a notch until there is a U.S. Olympic athlete standing on the podium? That’s what’s so motivating. The better you get, the harder it is to improve.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
Just our focus on our eight-year strategic plan of how we sustain competitive excellence. We are making very real and very big changes at all levels of our community. We have one of the most talented World Cup teams. We have a lot of forward momentum. We focus on our current team, and we are also playing the long game for sustained competitive excellence. World Cup careers are relatively short. We need to look at sustainability on the long term. We can be up there with the Germanys and Norways!