Note: This is part of an ongoing series on junior and collegiate racers in the U.S. and beyond. The nordic sports are certainly not the largest, but there are still thousands of great stories. We will be picking athletes out of this pack to feature – nominations for outstanding or interesting nordic skiers can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. We are looking for unique stories, not necessarily the fastest skiers. Nominations should include a brief explanation of why we should profile the athlete.
GLENS FALLS, N.Y. — Sitting inside a coffee shop with an iced drink to divert her attention, Carly Wynn looked down to collect her thoughts.
As she toyed with a straw, the 18-year-old from Queensbury, N.Y., smiled. In fewer than three years, the three-time New York State nordic ski champion had learned a lot about herself.
For one, she wasn’t sure she wanted to stick with nordic — or maybe not in the long run.
With three straight state titles under her belt by her junior year, Wynn decided to switch to biathlon. She had dabbled in the two-pronged sport, but wanted to devote all of her training and resources to it. That meant leaving her high school team for her senior season.
At the time, she dreamt of becoming an Olympian or World Cup competitor. A few weeks ago in August, Wynn as a member of the U.S. Biathlon Junior National Team held similar aspirations, but ultimately wanted to ski in college.
Upon sorting through schools and speaking with several coaches, Wynn discovered biathlon at the collegiate level wasn’t exactly an option. College ski teams wanted cross-country to be the focus and understandably so, she said.
A conversation with the Dartmouth College head women’s coach, Cami Thomson, changed her outlook. Several of Thomson’s skiers practiced biathlon and competed on their own in the past, Wynn said. If she wanted to, she could as well.
“Dartmouth was absolutely the best option because there’s a (shooting) range right there in Hanover, (New Hampshire),” said Wynn, the top U.S. female qualifier at the Youth World Biathlon Championships last year. “It’s an ideal support system.”
With all those options, Wynn emphasized the importance of narrowing her scope. She wanted to make the college’s six-person carnival team and with nearly 20 others vying for spots, she knew it wouldn’t be easy.
After two seasons of biathlon, in which she earned a fully funded trip to the Czech Republic for worlds and won two races at the 2011 Junior Nationals, Wynn resolved to commit to cross-country skiing and she where it takes her over the next year — or four years.
“Every biathlete wants to be a fast skier, so I kind of see that as an added bonus,” Wynn said. “It’s not like gymnastics where you have one shot at making the Olympics and it’s got to be when you’re 17. I’m thinking 2018 right now.”
Her coach, former U.S. Biathlon head coach and five-time Olympian Algis Shalna, hadn’t exactly agreed with her decision to put her Olympic goals on hold, she said. He believed she could continue her biathlon training uninterrupted and shoot for the world trials or 2014 Olympics.
“I just think that if I put the time into that that would be required, I would miss out on the college racing experience,” Wynn said.
So she’s settled, at least for now. The opportunity to practice biathlon is always there, she said, and she planned to keep working with Shalna, a collegiate and regional development coach based out of Vermont.
If the carnival scene doesn’t pan out, she might go back to biathlon entirely. Either way, Shalna said he would support her.
Almost four years after he discovered her at an Eastern Cup race in Lake Placid, N.Y., the 52-year-old former Lithuanian skier said Wynn had the potential to be among the one of the nation’s best biathletes. He remembered the 5-foot-3 sophomore whiz by as he watched a 10 k nordic race. He followed to observe.
“I was really impressed with her ability for endurance and how she was able to … stay in the group and stay with those good skiers,” Shalna said. “I thought she (had) good pain tolerance and I thought, ‘I really want to talk to this girl and see if she wants to do biathlon.’ ”
Once she started training with him and shooting at targets, he saw Wynn was good enough to require more attention. He reached out to the U.S. Biathlon Association and insisted she was worth the time and gas money, and he drove nearly 300 miles round trip from Williston, Vt., to meet her regularly at the Saratoga Biathlon Club in northeastern New York.
“I knew it was going to work,” Shalna said of his intention to turn the fast, athletic skier into a biathlete. “My worry was: is she going to commit to biathlon?”
He learned that her mentality suited the sport. Not only was she calm and confident, but Wynn acted like a professional and took her training seriously, Shalna said. Over time, her shooting improved as did her already-good skating technique.
In the end, Shalna was pleased she chose Dartmouth, but said she needed to keep working on biathlon. Of the seven athletes on the Junior National Team and others he trained in the northeast, he said several joined collegiate nordic teams.
“It’s all a matter of how much training and time she can commit,” he said. “She is going to be a top racer in the country.”
For Wynn, it’s all about the process – a concept that she didn’t readily accept. It wasn’t until she understood the discipline of biathlon that she was able to step back and relax.
“I’m learning a lot about how to think in order to get the best out of myself,” she said. “Biathlon’s really taught me how to do that, how to focus on exactly what you’re doing right then and not have expectations.”
Shalna’s advice and Wynn’s willingness to listen helped her in life beyond skiing and biathlon, she said. A few weeks ago, Wynn said she nearly had a panic attack when she considered the high number of valedictorians at Dartmouth. Despite ranking third in her graduating class, she worried she would be overly challenged.
She talked herself down, rationalizing that she didn’t have to decide her major until the spring of her sophomore year. She anticipated studying exercise physiology, but was mostly excited about skiing, first in college and then beyond the NCAA scene.
“It’s worked really well integrating biathlon into my program,” Wynn said. “At this point for my future, I’m thinking that if I take any sport to the Olympic or World Cup level it will definitely be biathlon.”