At just twenty-one years of age, Leif Nordgren is the youngest member of the U.S. Biathlon Team. In the past few seasons, he has racked up some of the best American results ever at the World Junior Championships, snagging a bronze in the pursuit in 2008 in Rupholding – the first U.S. medal at the event since 2002. This year, he’s no longer in the junior ranks, so he’ll be fully exposed to the senior racing scene for the first time.
With two World Cup starts under his belt already, Nordgren might be considered a “Pro of Today.” But compared to the older big guns of U.S. biathlon like Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey, and Jeremy Teela, Nordgren definitely represents the future of the sport. FasterSkier called him up in Canmore, Alberta, for an interview.
FasterSkier: When did you start doing biathlon and how did you get into that?
Leif Nordgren: I’ve kind of had two different stints in biathlon. The first one was back when I was 11 or 12, when I started up with the Minnesota Biathlon Club. My sister had been part of the Minnesota biathlon thing, and she was actually on the U.S. junior team, too, for a few years. So that’s how I got introduced to it, but I didn’t really like it at first so I stopped for a few years when I was 13 or 14. And then my senior year of high school, I got back into it, and that’s the first year I made the junior team. So it kind of took off from there.
FS: What made you start liking biathlon again after that initial stint?
LN: Well, I was a lot better at it, for some reason. Shooting has a little element of strength, and I think I just wasn’t strong enough to keep my gun steady when I was little. When I was older, shooting came a little more naturally to me, and I’d already been through all the basics back when I was younger, so I didn’t have to do that again. I think I was just older, and bigger and stronger and a little bit smarter, too.
FS: Would you say that shooting is your strong point as a biathlete? Obviously you have to both ski and shoot, but would you say you’re better at one or the other?
LN: I would say that for the last few years I’ve been a lot better at skiing. I have good shooting days and bad shooting days, and so right now, I work on being consistent and putting good days back-to-back, again and again and again. I can be a really good shooter, and I can be a really strong skier too, so it’s just getting that consistency down. I think that’s what makes the best biathletes in the world.
FS: This is your first year as a senior racer. What are your goals?
LN: I’m starting in the first three World Cups in Sweden, Austria, and Slovenia, so my goal – I guess I have a lot of goals. One of them is just to be at a consistent-enough place on the World Cup where they won’t kick me off it. But I have some pretty individual goals. You have to be in the top 60 to make the pursuit, and at last year’s World Cups, I finished 62nd in one race, three seconds away, and 65th in the other one, nine seconds away. So, definitely a goal this year is to make the pursuits, and even better, hopefully get up and score some World Cup points. [Note: in biathlon, World Cup points go to the top 40 finishers.]
It was good for me last year because I kind of saw – I was really close last year. I was only 20 seconds away from scoring World Cup points in the two World Cups that I did. So I think that was really good for me, to see that these guys aren’t so big, aren’t so fast, and maybe not now, but someday I can compete with them and beat them. I think it’s coming.
FS: How many other racers are there on the World Cup who are your age?
LN: There’s probably four or five. There’s a German and a Swede and a Norwegian, and probably a few more that I can’t think of, but I would say four or five. So not many.
FS: You’re on the national team. What’s it like trying to keep up with the older guys day in and day out?
LN: Well, there’s one guy that’s a year older than me and one guy that’s two years older than me – Wynn Roberts and Russell Currier. And then, all the other guys are older. So, it’s definitely a challenge sometimes, when we’re doing intensity workouts and stuff like that, because they have seven or eight more years of athletic training in them. But if we’re just out on an overdistance workout, it’s not too bad. And shooting-wise, I can keep up with them just fine, I think. So it’s mostly just the hard workouts and race-pace workouts that they’re a little bit more experienced than me.
FS: During the non-racing part of the year, where are you based out of?
LN: I kind of live out of a suitcase, I don’t really have a home.
FS: Aw! That’s kind of sad.
LN: Yeah, I’m here and there for about two weeks at a time, in Lake Placid, or this year I was in Fort Kent a lot. We had a big training camp over in Europe for five weeks. I would say that I never spent more than three weeks in the same place this summer. So, I travel out of my duffel bag a lot – although this past month, I’ve been home in Minnesota for almost a week and a half, so that was nice.
FS: Do you think you’ll ever end up going to school after you’re done with biathlon?
LN: Yeah. I’d like to go back to school someday. I don’t really know when – that depends on where my biathlon career takes me. But someday, I definitely want to go back to school. I don’t know what for, or where, yet.
FS: In skiing it’s sort of a big political thing, whether the best skiers should go to college or not. In biathlon it seems like it doesn’t work as well – there’s a few people who have made it work, like Laura Spector and Lowell Bailey, but mostly people don’t do it.
LN: I definitely think you could make it work. I chose not to because I’d much rather focus 100 percent of my energy on one thing. Doing two things half-assedly I don’t really think would work for me, personally.
FS: Most skiers your age, when it’s April and the race season is over, they have to go to school. Since you don’t, do you do anything cool instead?
LN: It depends. This last spring I did a little winter mountaineering with my brother out in Colorado. Then I went and hung out in Bozeman, Montana, and then I hung out a lot in Minnesota too. I think this year we only had about three weeks off before we started getting back into training. So it’s just whatever sounds fun. I don’t really have enough money to go hang out on the beach or anything like that.
FS: Do you have any major funding other than the national team?
LN: No, but that’s enough for me. Other than that, I don’t have any financial sponsors. I’m in the market, I guess.
FS: As a young biathlete, how do you think biathlon can become more popular in the U.S.?
LN: Wow, that’s a tough question. I’m not really sure. I think maybe starting off younger kids with biathlon, getting involved more at a club level. You know, there’s a lot of little clubs around the country that maybe have three or four biathletes each, but there’s not really any huge major biathlon clubs around like you see in cross-country. I think, you know, kids like to shoot guns, and the ones who like to ski like to ski, and so as long as you can find the kids who like to shoot guns, and keep them interested in the sport, then you just naturally draw more people that way.
FS: So if you get the kids who like to shoot guns, can you teach them to ski well enough?
LN: Yeah, if you start at a young-enough age, for sure. At least in Minnesota, skiing is a school sport, so most of those kids don’t start skiing until they’re in seventh grade. There are obviously a few people in every generation who will go on to be high-level skiers, and the majority won’t. But there’s always the chance that some kids will like biathlon, and will choose to try to excel at it after high school.
FS: How easy do you think it is for skiers to pick up biathlon? There has been some success with this, like Zach Hall and Susan Dunklee, but do you think this is a legitimate strategy to grow the sport?
LN: I think it is. In my opinion – and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad opinion – it takes almost three years to learn how to be a good enough shooter to be competitive internationally. So as long as you give yourself that amount of time, I think any skier can make the switch over to biathlon. But it’s not something that happens in just one summer, or something like that.
FS: Do you have any favorite experiences racing internationally?
LN: I mean, I could probably think of something…
FS: Perhaps that’s too open-ended of a question?
LN: I think just the whole atmosphere of racing internationally is something that a lot of domestic skiers don’t really get to see. Just to be around all the Europeans who are so, so into their sport – it really shows what kind of motivation you have to bring back to the U.S., and bring back to your training and your club if you can. I think the more international racing experience you get, the more it’s going to help you, and help anyone you can share that energy with.
To learn more about Nordgren, check out his website: http://leifnordgren.com.