Note: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Annelies Cook was sick in the opening sprint of the 2015 USBA trials and did not start.
Annelies Cook wasn’t feeling the heat the first time around in Jericho, Vt., at the first set of US Biathlon Association (USBA) trials in August. She was sick and didn’t compete in the opening sprint, but came back to place third in the mass start the next day.
“I was coming off a small cold [during] the first trials and also didn’t feel great with the heat that we had at the time,” the USBA A-team member explained in an email on Monday.
Last weekend was different. Again in Jericho, Cook, 31, won back-to-back sprints at the second set of trials, which determine who goes to the USBA Utah training camp near Park City from Oct. 18-Nov. 1, and from there, who is selected for the early season International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cups 1, 2 & 3.
“These trials races were a lot more positive feeling,” she wrote after winning last Saturday’s sprint by 12.5 seconds over teammate Clare Egan and Sunday’s sprint by 1:26.8 over Maddie Phaneuf of the USBA X-team. Cook hit 70 percent of her targets on Saturday and 80 percent on Sunday.
“The shooting isn’t good enough for a World Cup standard,” Cook wrote. “You really have to hit a minimum of 80% to do even okay now. It’s just so competitive.”
According to women’s coach Jonne Kähkönen, conditions made for a fair playing field, with light winds and crisp, clear fall weather.
“The level of shooting was average, both for the qualified athletes and the non-qualified,” he wrote in an email.
Leif Nordgren, of the USBA A-team, who prequalified for the World Cup with a top 20 on the international circuit last season, won the men’s sprint with 70-percent shooting, finishing 16.3 seconds ahead of 20-year-old teammate Sean Doherty. One of several men in the mix for the lone remaining World Cup spot available on the men’s side, Doherty also missed three targets on Saturday, but finished 5 seconds ahead of team veteran Lowell Bailey, who had two misses. (Bailey is also prequalified for the World Cup.)
“As always, some showed better shape of the day than the others, e.g. Sean and Clare (the first sprint on Saturday),” Kähkönen explained. “Overall, I can see that the tough block of training has taken its toll and the performance is not yet at the level we want to see at the World Cups, but I am also confident that through a good periodization and working on the shooting execution especially during this next block of training we will get to where we want to be.”
Based on last weekend’s results and the previous August trials, the USBA coaches invited Cook (the women’s overall trials winner), Egan (the second woman) and Doherty (men’s trials winner) to join them in Utah. The team has two World Cup openings for the women and one for the men.
“My biggest focus for these trials was to keep on doing the work that we have been doing,” Cook explained. “The pressure I feel is mostly internal, wanting to prove to myself that I am more fit than the previous year and better able to handle the shooting pressure.”
She has focused on more intensity this year — hard intensity — balanced with distance training to avoid peaking in September, Cook wrote.
“I think that I was slow to start on the World Cup last year and that is really hard to catch up. It’s hard to get fast while you are trying to race too,” she wrote. “So our approach is to get there a little bit sooner this year.”
She felt some fatigue on Saturday and “had to fight really hard to ski fast,” she explained.
Cook finished just ahead of Egan, who missed two targets to place second on Saturday, and Phaneuf placed third, 37.2 seconds back with two penalties as well. The two prequalified World-Cup women on the A-team, Susan Dunklee was fourth and Hannah Dreissigacker finished fifth. Mikaela Paluszek of the Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) was sixth, Emily Dreissigacker (Craftsbury) seventh, Chloe Levins (National Development Group) eighth, and Lisa Ratschiller (LRB) ninth to round out the senior women’s field.
“I saw these races as an opportunity to compete well under pressure,” Egan, 27, wrote in an email. “On skis, a good performance comes from extraordinary effort, but on the shooting range a good performance comes from repeating your normal process in a totally average manner. Switching between those mindsets is one of the great challenges in biathlon, and being under pressure adds to that challenge.”
On Sunday, Cook explained she felt notably better and ended up winning by nearly 1 1/2 minutes. Phaneuf missed three to place second, Egan was third with four misses, Hannah Dreissigacker placed fourth, Emily Dreissigacker fifth, Ratschiller sixth, Paluszek seventh, and Jordyn Leighton (Chelsea) eighth. Levins and Dunklee did not start.
“Shooting … seems to always be tricky in Jericho,” Cook wrote. “I think it probably has a lot to do with the approach because it is just this long gradual uphill that is hard to bring your [heart rate] to a good place that feels in control for shooting. I didn’t do a good job on the first day for sure, but that gave me something work on the second day. I am working on being mindful in the shooting range.”
Egan was satisfied with Saturday after meeting her goal of 80-percent shooting, but not so much with Sunday after two prone and two standing misses.
“Over the course of the weekend, only two people shot 90% and nobody shot clean (men or women), which is definitely below average for this field of competitors,” she wrote. “It could be because of the pressure scenario, but I also think that the Jericho range has its own set of difficulties including the uphill approach and wind.”
In the Saturday’s men’s race, Russell Currier (MWSC) placed fourth, Wynn Roberts (National Guard) was fifth, Max Durtschi (X-team) sixth, Jakob Ellingson (Loppet Nordic Racing/Mt. Itasca Biathlon) seventh, Craftsbury’s Alexander Howe and Casey Smith eighth and ninth, respectively, and Brendan Cyr (MWSC) 10th.
On Sunday, Bailey won the second sprint by 15.3 seconds with a single penalty. Doherty was second again, this time with two misses, and Nordgren was third with two misses as well.
Ellingson placed fourth, Durtschi was fifth, Currier sixth, Roberts seventh, Smith eighth, Patrick Johnson (X-team) ninth, and Howe 10th.
According to USBA Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler, who also observed the athletes in Jericho, the A-team controlled the field during the trials, but non-national team standouts Ellingson and Currier made a case for themselves. Currier placed second in the trials and Ellingson was third, and both earned an invite to the team’s November camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. The didn’t make the Utah cut “as the distance to [the] A-team is still too big,” Eisenbichler wrote.
“[We are] very happy with Max Durtschi’s improvement and development in a short time doing Biathlon — he is on the right track,” he added.
Kähkönen noted Cook’s overall consistency last weekend “and the fact that she did nothing spectacular,” as good indicators for her potential this season.
“Clare had a good sprint on Saturday especially, [we’re] happy to see the progression and the clean prone stage in a race which has been a bit of a challenge this summer,” he added. “Maddie also has taken a good step towards the senior women, which I’m happy to see as we definitely need to have all of these women in top of their game during the winter — also to have competition on who gets to race the relay.”
In Utah, the focus will be high-quality biathlon training and an emphasis on race execution, especially from a mental standpoint.
“The camp in Utah is a tough one and if the performance of an athlete is not at the level where they can handle the altitude it can be a push back in their performance,” Kähkönen explained. “So looking at the bigger picture and seeing the progression over a longer period of time [throughout the trials period], this is the way to go.
“For the athletes that did not make the cut at this time, we are offering a camp and coaching support here in Lake Placid with [development coach] Jean [Paquet], so all of the potential athletes are getting a good block of training leading up to the start of the season and we have our coaching staff eyes on them,” he added.
“We still have 7 weeks ’til the World Cup starts and I am very confident, that this is on the right track,” Eisenbichler added.
Photos (courtesy of Erika Bailey)