It’s been a while since the U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) team nominated a new member to the national team. Last year, with the focus on an upcoming Olympics, the squad was focused solely on veterans; the previous time around, the only new naming was Hannah Dreissigacker, who already had an elite career as a cross-country skier behind her.
So when Casey Smith’s name showed up on the national team roster which was announced earlier this month, it represented a significant move toward development for the USBA. Smith raced for the Maine Winter Sports Center last season, and as a first-year senior placed 22nd in the sprint at Open European Championships.
“The fact that Casey made really good progress last year in a short amount of time as a first-year senior, we are excited,” USBA High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler told FasterSkier. “For Casey it was really a good result at the European Championships, and he qualified for the Olympic trials and the IBU Cup. He had the exposure to international racing. For sure he still needs improvement to be on the World Cup level, but it’s positive signs.”
Smith received a “B” team nomination based on USBA criteria. He is the youngest addition to the senior national team in years, and will be tapped to fill roles vacated by retiring veterans Jeremy Teela and Jay Hakkinen in the future. Eisenbichler admitted that with a successful Olympic Games behind them, it was time for the team to start looking forward – starting with athletes like Smith, who has been in the USBA pipeline for years.
“If you look at our team structure, that’s what we have to do because for sure there’s a little bit of a break behind Tim [Burke] and Lowell [Bailey] on the age side, so for sure we have to work hard to fill that,” Eisenbichler said. “We’re doing all possible efforts to do that, with recruiting and with developing our own athletes.”
Smith is a four-time World Youth and Junior Championships competitor who notched finishes in the low 30’s in each of those appearances. After finishing high school in the Methow Valley region of Washington, he attended Montana State University and trained as a biathlete. After finishing his junior career, Smith decided to focus even more on biathlon and moved to the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC).
“Last year when I joined MWSC my goal was to make the Olympic team,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. “I knew that the first three spots were pretty much set, but I thought that the last two spots were pretty wide open. I know from where I was to making the Olympic team would be a huge step but if you want to make big gains you need to set even bigger goals.”
Smith certainly made a splash as he set out on his Olympic hunt: he won a series of trials races at Mount Itasca in Minnesota, earning selection to an IBU Cup tour where the international competitions would also serve as the final selection trials for the Olympic team.
They were Smith’s first appearances on the competitive international circuit, which is like a second-tier World Cup. He collected two finishes in the mid-40’s and was ultimately not picked for the Games. But Smith doesn’t consider it a failure – he stayed in Europe for Open European Championships and some other small races as well.
“The IBU Cups were cool because there were so many competitive athletes and several of the people I was racing there went on to place in the top of World Cup events,” Smith wrote. “Even though I did not accomplish my main goal of making the Olympics, I was still very happy with what I was able to accomplish. Not only did I race in my first IBU cups and qualify for the national B-team from my results at the European Champs, but I had an excellent early season as well, I was the overall Noram leader until I left for Europe, and I won the US IBU Cup trials.”
He got used to a higher level of competition as well as the craziness of life on the road in Europe: for instance, competitions he was slated to race with a teammate in Slovenia were canceled because there was so much snow that the shooting range was buried. Among Smith’s other accomplishments were two third-place finishes in Czech Cup races in Nove Mesto.
Seth Hubbard, the biathlon coach at MWSC, said that Smith was an apt pupil in his first season of full-time training.
“He is a very enthusiastic biathlete and is really wanting to be doing the work to get to the next levels in the sport,” Hubbard told FasterSkier. “For Casey, having a season where he was focused on his development as a biathlete was great. A few important pieces for athletes transitioning from school into full time sport are to be focused on why you are taking the time to be an athlete, and to also leave a little time for life outside of sport. Casey did a great job of balancing these two items.”
And Smith found MWSC a rewarding place to train. He was challenged by Russell Currier, a World Cup veteran who ultimately earned the Olympic nomination.
“Compared to years past while I was in school I did not make a super large jump in hours, but I think that the quality of my training improved dramatically,” Smith wrote. “One, I was able to do specific combo training at the 10th Mountain Ski Center in Fort Kent and two, I had individual coaching for most workout sessions. I think both of these factors contributed to my success this season.”
Smith will be joined on the “B” team by Currier, as the only two men to receive that nomination. No women will be on the “B” team. What that means is that the pair will stay largely in Maine, and attend a few camps with “A” team athletes Burke, Bailey, and Leif Nordgren throughout the season.
“It’s a couple of camps, time in June in Lake Placid, and then again in August in Lake Placid, and they have the nationals where they meet up and see where their performance level is against the big guns,” Eisenbichler explained. “Then they have the Utah camp and the testing week. That was the idea behind it, that we need them to get ready for the next level, expose them to the big guns when it’s right, and they can still work on their own development and progress in a calm environment.”
To some extent, the theory seemed to be: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Smith improved steadily last season, and Eisenbichler thought Maine was likely a big part of that change.
“The idea is that they are up in Maine and can profit from each other in training,” Eisenbichler said. “Casey is a really good shooter and Russell is for sure a really good [skier], so they can profit from the other’s strengths and weaknesses and work together on this. It’s really good to be up in Maine with Seth Hubbard because he’s really with our philosophy of training.”
Hubbard agreed, and was happy to keep the two men around on his team.
“This made the most sense as far as being able to provide as much support from a financial, coaching and training group perspective,” he wrote in an e-mail. “With these two athletes as well as some of the older junior biathletes and nordic athletes we are fortunate to have a strong and diverse training group in Maine. In the past year it had worked well through different portions of the season when Russell was able to spend more time with the team.”
Smith and Currier’s training will be overseen jointly by Hubbard and the national team staff, an additional piece that Smith welcomed (other than a conference call at the beginning of the season, he said he had little oversight from USBA last year).
“Besides attending these camps I will be able to consult with the national team coaches,” he wrote.” I am excited about being invited to these camps because it will be more national team coaching support then I have ever received.”
MWSC recently lost its title sponsor, but through fundraising has made significant steps towards recovering its budget. As of May 1, MWSC had raised over $350,000 and had received about $450,000 from Mary Barton Smith, primarily through an ongoing matching challenge.
Smith said that there was still a bit of uncertainty, but that he hadn’t heard any way that the funding situation would directly affect him.
“I know that I will be primarily based in Fort Kent, and will have housing thanks to the Phyllis Jalbert biathlete house,” he explained.
Eisenbichler was also unconcerned about the potential changes to MWSC.
“I’m not worried about Maine Winter Sports Center,” he said. “They have a strong leader there and he is doing everything in his power to keep that program going. We’re really happy to have this program in place and I think it’s a great program.”