For some American biathletes, there was a lot on the line in Jericho, Vermont this past weekend.
Saturday and Sunday were rollerski biathlon competitions that served as the third and fourth of a four-race team selection series. Six athletes – Susan Dunklee, Clare Egan, Lowell Bailey, Leif Nordgren, Sean Doherty, and Tim Burke – had already booked their places for the first period of World Cup racing thanks to results from last season.
But between one and three places still needed to be filled on the U.S. team, and the Jericho races – the first two were held at the Vermont biathlon complex in August – would be used to select a team for a pre-season camp in Canmore, Alberta. From there, the squad would be winnowed down for the December World Cup.
One College of Saint Scholastica student, Kelsey Dickinson, booked her place on the World Cup. A St. Scholastica alumnus, Paul Schommer, all but did the same – he was selected to the camp, and is highly likely to also go on to the World Cup.
Two more women, Joanne Reid of Colorado Biathlon and Emily Dreissigacker, of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, were selected for the camp and will have to compete for the last World Cup spot.
Even for the pre-qualified athletes, it was a weekend of important competitions, a chance to hone stills practiced over the summer and start visualizing the international competitions that will start in just six weeks.
“It’s an important marker – it’s not nothing,” U.S. Biathlon Association Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler said in an interview this morning. “We try to really run the trials like a national-level race. The Jericho crew led by John Madigan did an awesome job to put a real race on, not just a time trial. You have a bib number on, you want to perform and you want to execute the things you’ve worked on throughout the summer.”
The Women: Three Trials Race Winners Heading to Canmore
With the pre-qualified duo of Dunklee and Egan excluded from ranking results, Dickinson won the trials series in best-three-of-four scoring. Even with Dunklee and Egan in the results, she was only off the podium once in the four-race series.
“I’m really pleasantly surprised and impressed also with how she did that, with being outside the team environment,” Eisenbichler said.
Dickinson was formerly an athlete at the Maine Winter Sport Center (now the Outdoor Sports Institute), but when that program shuttered its senior funding scheme in the spring of 2015 she felt she had no choice but to go back to school. Since then she has worked with coaches Chad Salmela and then Maria Stuber, and become an NCAA qualifier for Saint Scholastica in cross-country skiing.
Dickinson spent this summer at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center training for biathlon, along with Dreissigacker and other development athletes.
“I know that she worked quite a bit with the Craftsbury team, which was a smart move, but overall we have to give her a lot of compliments for really doing this development,” Eisenbichler said of the student-athlete. “I just talked very briefly with her on Sunday, to let her know that she won the trials… she told me pretty straightforward that biathlon is first, and she will make it work. So I have no doubt that she will make it work with her school.”
Dreissigacker and Reid have shorter histories with biathlon, something that Eisenbichler highlighted. Dreissigacker ended up second on the ranking list, after winning Saturday’s 7.5 k sprint outright.
“She hasn’t been in this sport not such a long time, and her biggest accomplishment right now is that she is so stable with the shooting part now already,” Eisenbichler said. “On the weekend, we had a pretty windy day on Sunday, and she was still able to shoot [just one penalty]. And the same thing on Saturday plus winning that race. I think that she really made the next step towards being a complete biathlete, although there is still some work to do from the physical side and on the skiing side.”
Dreissigacker has spent the last two seasons racing on the second-tier IBU Cup, where she scored her first top-20 finish in March.
Then, there’s Reid, who made a fast jump to the World Cup when she started the sport. Last season, Reid hit the top-30 in the first World Cup competition of the year, and was also a World Championships team member.
After the Jericho trials, U.S. Biathlon was only supposed to nominate up to two women: the trials winner (which turned out to be Dickinson) would receive an automatic World Cup spot, and one other athlete could be selected by discretion to go to the Canmore camp.
But the International Competition Committee also selected Reid, who had beaten both Dickinson and Dreissigacker in one of the trials races.
“It was an extraordinary discretionary choice,” Eisenbichler said. “She had, two times, health issues in the summer. I don’t want to get into details of that, but it was significant health issues that justify a discretionary choice in our eyes. And she was on the whole weekend the fastest skier last weekend.”
So, five women are headed to Canmore, and either Reid or Dreissigacker will go on from there to the World Cup.
“We are taking all the ladies who were able to win one of the trials races,” Eisenbichler said of the rankings system that excluded pre-qualified Dunklee and Egan. “The decision for the fourth World Cup starting spot… will be made after looking at the training in Canmore and also at the races we will do together with Biathlon Canada at the end of the camp. It’s not trials races. [The decision] is a combination of looking at the training, the performance level, and the racing at the end of the camp.”
Athletes who didn’t make the cut, like 2017 World Championships team member Maddie Phaneuf, will have another chance to make the World Cup or Olympic team after Christmas based on a separate set of trials races.
Dunklee qualified for the Olympic team after winning a silver medal in the World Championships mass start. At least one more woman will be picked for the Olympic team based on December World Cup results, but not more than two; that means at least one spot will be up for grabs come January.
Men: Schommer Shines
With four men already pre-qualified for the World Cup, there is only one quota spot up for grabs. The trials winner would be sent to Canmore and possibly one more athlete based on discretion.
After the first two races, in August, both Schommer and National Guard Biathlon’s Travis Cooper had one “win” (excluding the pre-qualified athletes) to their name.
But in the October races, Cooper didn’t continue the streak. Schommer did, placing second on Saturday just four seconds behind Bailey, and fourth on Sunday.
“Paul is the clear winner of the trials by 5%,” Eisenbichler said. “If we look at the second place in the trial points, this is Russell Currier, and Paul beat him in every race of the four races. So Paul really made a big step forward this summer. He got himself mixed in with the World Cup athletes, the pre-qualified ones. He has a really high performance level right now and I’m really happy to see that… if everything goes normal he will also get the call for the World Cup team in December.”
Currier was not chosen for the camp on a discretionary basis, so Schommer – who turned in a 33rd-place finish in his World Cup debut last season – is nearly a lock for the December competitions.
He was new to biathlon after his time at Saint Scholastica, but has quickly made strides in the sport.
“The goal of bringing this Talent ID project forward in 2014 was to have someone in contention for a relay spot, pushing the other four athletes on the men’s side, and having also a good shot at being very competitive at the Games,” Eisenbichler said. “And I’m again very pleased to see that this project worked.
“Compliments to Paul with how he approached it,” he continued. “He has done it professionally now for just 2 ½ years. I think he learned a lot last season, being at the World Championships as a reserve athlete, doing some World Cups, and a lot of international races like European Championships and IBU Cups. He learned a lot, absorbed a lot. But he was also able also to put the work in during the spring, summer, and beginning of the fall to get to a higher level. I’m really pleased where he is right now – he will be a very strong contender for the Games.”
As with the women, Currier and others will have another chance to qualify for World Cup and Olympic racing in January.
World Cup Athletes On Track
For these athletes, qualification woes are now mostly behind them. Up next is the camp in Canmore, which will start on October 23.
“It’s most important to have snow kilometers and work on technique,” Eisenbichler said of the camp. “Per Nilsson, our technique guru, will be there for the entire camp so the focus for sure for most of the athletes is to work on technique on skis. Following up from the May work in Bend and the summer work in the Oberhof ski hall. For us it’s really important to have this frequent snow contact in summer and fall.”
After that, athletes will have about ten days at home before heading over to the World Cup. There, a different kind of qualification may be on their minds. Dunklee and 2017 World Champion Lowell Bailey are qualified for the Olympics already, but one or two more athletes of each gender can make that team through strong performances at the December World Cup.
And ultimately, they are looking to perform well once they get to the Olympics.
For the athletes who didn’t have to worry about World Cup qualification last weekend, Eisenbichler said that the races were still an important marker, but also didn’t serve the same function as for those who still needed to snag their spots.
“These races are kind of markers on the way for these pre-qualified ones, but it’s not really trials races for them,” he explained. “It’s a little bit different to come into the races with full training, compared to preparing at least a little bit for them as you have to if you need to qualify.”
As a result, some of the World Cup regulars didn’t turn in their best days, but on the whole, that didn’t bother team staff.
“He came out of a really good and hard block of training,” Eisenbichler said of Tim Burke, who finished fifth and seventh this weekend. “He had super time trials the week before in Lake Placid, so we feel very confident that he is on the right track. This week he was very tired from training, and then racing is not that easy on a high level. For sure he wanted and expected to be on a higher level, especially on the shooting part. But I’m not worried about him.”
Likewise, Leif Nordgren placed 13th on Saturday with six penalties, but turned things around on Sunday to finish third overall.
“It was a really bad race on Saturday,” Eisenbichler said. “He really had to put his head down on Sunday. Even if you are pre-qualified, you have a responsibility to be competitive at these races. That’s clear. So he did that on Sunday, and that was good to see, it was really important for us.”
Bailey won both races over the weekend and shot perfectly on both days. Dunklee didn’t race, as she was getting over a cold. Doherty placed third on Saturday and second on Sunday, and Eisenbichler was pleased with that.
“Sean showed some really big improvement on the skiing, which was expected after he went through the mono stuff last year,” he said. “So that’s back on track. Still the prone shooting for Sean needs work and improvement for the World Cup. It’s not good enough right now.”
And Egan won Sunday’s race.
“We are pretty pleased with what we saw throughout the summer,” Eisenbichler said of her training. “With skiing especially, technique-wise she is getting on a higher level. She didn’t have a super race on Saturday, but had a better day on Sunday. And it’s still for her getting the momentum for a good complex biathlon performance. And that’s pretty normal for mid-October. I think she’s on the right way.”