After a year of uncertainty and six weeks of stressful internal debate, I finally made a decision about my athletic future. Here’s a look at the somewhat convoluted thought process that led to my decision.
Biathlon is really hard work. And over the past two years, I haven’t felt like my hard work paid off. That may come as a surprise to those of you who are thinking, “You made the Olympic team!” But zoom in and you’ll see that my results have plateaued and my shooting accuracy has trended downward since 2016. The macro-level success of qualifying for the Olympics was couched in a bed of micro-level failures that have predominantly shaped my day-to-day attitude and emotions.
Qualifying for the team is but a brief moment in the timeline of the Olympic experience. The true goal of every self-respecting athlete is not just to qualify but to perform well once you are there. My one perfect, glorious performance in the women’s relay was not enough to outshine my mediocre individual results. The Olympics were arguably US Biathlon’s worst showing at any international event in the last four years. To say morale was low would be an understatement. This agony of defeat is real.
I never thought I would want to continue after this season. But there was one fundamental thing I didn’t predict: with the Olympics behind me, I feel liberated! I feel like I can go and do my sport because I want to. I can have fun with it. I don’t have to worry about meeting this or that minimum qualification standard. I can instead focus on learning and improving and enjoying the remaining moments of my life as a professional athlete. In sports psychology lingo, I can shift back into a “growth mindset.”
There are also a number of major changes on my team that make me feel optimistic about the future. First of all, I will have a new coach, Armin Auchentaller. I know it’s the right time for this change and I think he’s the right person for the job. Second, our team is shifting away from a full-time, Lake Placid-based training model to a camp system: two weeks of focussed and supervised training camp, then two weeks of self-directed training at home. With one week of solo training under my belt, I can report that I never realized how oppressed I was under the old system until now. It’s a challenge to train alone, but on the other hand I have freedom, space to learn, and flexibility for (some semblance of) a personal life. Third, we have an opportunity to create a new team dynamic that is more inclusive, positive and supportive. The retirement of two World Championship medalists certainly leaves a hole in our team’s depth chart, but that hole is also a space for new leaders.
One deciding factor unrelated to team structure or my internal psyche is that I simply don’t have anything else lined up. Most people can probably relate to not wanting to quit one job until they find the next one. I am giving myself one more year to figure out what’s next, and to plan a great retirement party!
I am also giving myself one more year to really solidify the tradition we debuted this year in Pyeongchang of a Biathlon World Cup Valentine’s Day card exchange. And one more year of European hotel saunas; one more year of massage; one more year of ski-testing (or is it just socializing?) with my personal wax tech; one more year of being a fine-tuned athletic machine; one more year of racing for Team USA; one more year of agony; one more year of thrill; one more year because my brother says, “real life is the pits– you gotta keep the dream alive!”; one more year because I still have something to give; one more year because it’s fun and it’s cool and once it’s over there’s no going back.
This year’s travels took me to 11 US states, 2 Canadian Provinces, 12 countries and 3 continents. I was on the road for around 200 days. Here are some of the beds I slept in along the way:
Other beds not shown:
Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Lazy River Camping Area, Epsom, NH
Underhill Campground, Underhill, VT
Saratoga Springs, NY
Boothbay Harbor, Maine
Canmore, Alberta, CA
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
New York City, NY
Washington, DC (hotel)
Washington, DC (home)
The three weeks I spent in Korea were like a microcosm of my whole biathlon career: exhausting both physically and psychologically, with emotions alternating between extreme disappointment and overwhelming reward.
After a disappointing start to my second trimester of World Cup racing (there are few biathlon scenarios more painful than shooting 0,4), it was time once again, for me to do the ol’ biathlon rebound! You would think this would get easier, but so far in my experience it does not. I think nowadays it takes more to knock me down, but once I’m down, it’s still just as hard to get back up. In these moments, I usually reach out to my shooting coaches for a suggestion of something to actively work on. Having an explicit mission on the range helps me focus on the shooting process rather than the outcome. It’s the difference between “follow through on the trigger squeeze” and “really try to hit.” The former is much more effective in producing good shots, but the latter is as pervasive as it is illusive!
With renewed confidence in my race plan I set out on the women’s 15k Individual at World Cup 5 in Ruhpolding. In this race format, athletes shoot four times (prone, standing, prone, standing) and each miss results in a 1-minute time penalty. I shot 0,1,0,2 and was very happy with my performance. The result– 57th place– is definitely not what I’m looking for but I had zero complaints about putting together my best shooting and skiing of the season. A few days later in my team’s first women’s relay of the year, I cleaned standing! It was my first time so far this year, and coming on the heels of my 4-miss blunder in Oberhof, I was pretty happy with this edition of the biathlon rebound!
Next up we headed to World Cup 6 in Antholz, my favorite stop on the tour. And this time we arrived on scene with our newly-named 2018 Olympic Team. Susan and I were joined by Joanne Reid, Emily Dreissigacker, and Maddie Phaneuf. A precocious junior athlete, Chloe Levins, just missed this year’s Olympic team but I have no doubt you’ll see her in future editions, should she choose to continue on her star-studded path!
In the sprint race in Antholz, I got kind of foiled by the wind (or maybe just shot badly?) in prone and missed 2. That’s a rough start in the sprint– a race format in which I know I can only afford a couple of misses if I want to finish in the top 60 and qualify for the pursuit. In standing, everything went great until I missed my last shot. With three misses, I wasn’t sure I had a chance but I really pushed on the last lap, and when all was said and done I was in 56th. I would live another day! My pursuit race started off great– I shot clean in prone (0,0) and moved into the top 40, then missed only 1 (my last shot again!!!) in the first standing stage, and then in the final stage, something crazy happened! My legs started shaking like I was standing on some kind of vibrating platform. I took forever and really fought for my shots but still ended up missing 2. I left the range behind a young French athlete, Justine Braisaz, who is one of the fastest skiers on the biathlon World Cup. I have never been able to stay with her before, but on that day, I could and I did, all the way to the finish!
My friends Maura and Kenny flew all the way from the US to watch the races in Antholz, which was AWESOME!!! My boyfriend was also in town, coaching our IBU Cup team, so the four of us were able to spend some time together.
After the races in Antholz, I took the train to the Italian city of Trento where I spent a few days off touring the city by myself. I really needed the break after three straight weeks of on time.
I headed back to the mountains on Wednesday to meet up with our IBU Cup team for European Championships. Since my season hasn’t been going that well and I haven’t qualified for many races, I decided I wanted to get a few more competitions in before the Olympics.
Ridnaun is really beautiful, and the site of my first clean biathlon race back in 2015. I was really looking forward to another opportunity for a good race! But that all went down the drain when I came into shoot prone and the buckle on my sling broke! The sling (pictured below) is a vital piece of equipment for prone shooting. Biathletes wear a cuff around their upper arm, to which this sling hooks, in order to stabilize the rifle. It’s so taught that it effectively eliminates the need for you to use your bicep to hold up the rifle. So without the sling, it is extremely wobbly. When my sling fell apart, I didn’t think I had any chance to hit any of the targets but I actually hit 2! With 3 penalty loops right away in prone I wasn’t sure if I would make the pursuit but I just tried to have a good time and I even waved to my boyfriend from the penalty loop! I missed 1 more in standing and finished in the 70’s so not my best shooting or skiing either.
One really fun part of the weekend was reconnecting with my friend Joris. He used to be responsible for all the biathlon Eurovision broadcasts so I would see him weekly all winter long, but since he got a promotion he now manages other sports as well and I hadn’t bumped into him at all this season. It was a pleasant surprise to see a familiar face on the trail! He showed me around the Eurovision broadcasting station live on-scene in Ridnaun!
Here’s a sign that made me laugh:
And a photo of some of my favorite people whom I don’t get to see all that often because we are on different racing circuits:
After the races in Ridnaun, I went back to Germany for our pre-Olympic training camp. Right away, I started to get sick and ended up spending the entire week quarantined in a little cabin with meals being delivered to me three times per day. I left only for an occasional 15-minute walk. It was awful and sad. So much for preparing for the Olympics. I still may do okay, but I don’t think there’s any chance I’ll be skiing my best. With the broken sling and illness behind me, I’m eager to focus on better things like:
I am in Korea now, still quarantined in a different hotel from my team. It’s been 10 days. I am feeling totally fine now, only in my voice you can hear some residual congestion. Tomorrow I have permission to finally rejoin my team and start training again. My first race is in 5 days.
My next blogpost will include pictures from the Olympics!
In the meantime, stay informed about what’s going on the anti-doping world. it’s been a tragic week for clean sport. This article sums up how I feel.
I spent two weeks in the US over Christmas. After spending seven of the previous eight weeks on the road, I was so happy to be back in my own apartment and my own bed. Believe it or not, our pre-Christmas travel is just the beginning. I flew back to Europe on New Year’s Eve and I will return to Lake Placid the first week of April.
When I first got home, I had a few days off to recover from a cold, get on the right time zone, and do a lot of phone interviews about the Olympics! Talking with people who are really excited for me helped me feel more excited too. I am still disappointed with how my season is going relative to previous years, but I am so happy and relieved that I met my goal of qualifying for the Olympics before Christmas. Once I felt healthy enough to venture outside, I was back at the shooting range!
Soon after I arrived in Lake Placid we got a blizzard, and then the sun came out and the temperatures dropped, and dropped… and dropped. On the coldest day the high was -7 degrees Fahrenheit. It made it really difficult to train! I had to work out indoors on the roller-ski treadmill because I didn’t want to hurt my lungs. When I did brave the outdoors, I had to wear so many layers that shooting was a challenge.
Erik and I went to his parents’ house in Rochester, NY, again this year for a couple of days at Christmas. It was really nice to be in a very Christmasy home with the whole Lewish family. My parents live in Florida during the winter, which is not a great place to train for skiing! So I’m lucky Erik’s family is relatively close by.
It is wonderful to go home for Christmas, but now that I’ve flown back to Europe and slogged through my first race, I remember why many American winter-sport athletes make the difficult decision to commit to five full months of hotel life: it is nearly impossible to perform well after travel! On top of the major germ exposure, sleep deprivation, substandard nutrition, and long hours crammed into a seat, anyone who has flown across timezones knows how out-of-it you feel for a few days. The common saying is that the adjustment takes one day per hour of time change. I don’t think I am truly back to my optimal physical and mental capacity for at least that long. Consequently, our first races of the season in November and again after Christmas in January are somewhat sacrificial. And when they don’t go well, the confidence blow can be hard to overcome. After working so hard all summer, it’s extremely frustrating to thwart your own chances for success. But that’s my choice: five months of hotels, or a Christmas at home that all but guarantees dismalperformance come January. I went home and saw my boyfriend and ate scones and slept in my bed. And that’s that.
I am now in Ruhpolding, Germany getting ready for World Cup 5, which kicks off on Wednesday, January 10th with the men’s 20k Individual. My next race is the women’s 15k Individual on Thursday the 11th. Then on Saturday, Susan and I will finally be joined by two more American women so we can compete in our first 4x6k women’s relay! We had to sit out the first two relays of the season while other American athletes progressed through various stages of team qualification. There are now just four women competing for the remaining three Olympic Team spots– 2 plus 1 alternate. We will know on Thursday who our relay and Olympic teammates will be. Four years ago, I set my mind to doing everything in my power to avoid competing in these last-minute, high-pressure, high-stakes races at which beating your own teammates inevitably becomes your primary objective. Not everything has gone my way this season but pre-qualifying for the Olympic Team in December definitely did!!!
Our journey from Austria to France for World Cup 3 was a day that will live in US Biathlon infamy. Thanks to a blizzard, our 8.5-hour drive turned into almost 16 hours and concluded with the whole team pushing the van up the driveway to our rental house at midnight. Worst of all, we were under a time constraint to get to the Mont Blanc tunnel before a scheduled closure, so we only stopped twice the whole day for quick snacks and a bathroom break. Getting enough food is one of my biggest challenges so this was a major setback. I started coming down with a cold the next evening.
Two days later, fighting the cold, I slogged through the sprint, missing 3 targets and placing 81st. It was my worst result in a few years. My teammate Susan, on the other hand, who had struggled mightily on the shooting range at World Cups 1 and 2, accomplished a heroic biathlon turnaround by shooting clean to place 10th. We were all ecstatic for her.
Joining me in the disappointing-race club was my other teammate Emily, who also missed 3 and finished in the 80’s. Neither of us would be moving on to the pursuit race. Time to pack our bags and head home for Christmas.
It was in this moment that I technically clinched my Olympic Team spot. My 35th place from the sprint in Hochfilzen at World Cup 2 stood as the top result between Emily and me. Susan is pre-qualified for the Olympics. Emily would have to return to the 2nd-tier IBU Cup after Christmas to battle it out with other top women for the remaining three spots.
I felt anything but triumphant. I had just finished my worst race in years, I was leaving the first trimester of racing with fewer World Cup points than I’ve had in any other year, and I took zero pleasure in Emily’s bad race. I was sick and tired.
“If no one meets the automatic standard [30th place] before Christmas, then the team will be filled to a maximum of 2 people, [including pre-qualified athlete, Susan Dunklee]” based on best World Cup result. I had the Olympic Team qualification criteria memorized. And as I ran it through my head, I thought that, in fact, filling the team to “a maximum of two” does include the possibility of filling it to just one. Susan tried to give me a high five. I told her I wasn’t celebrating yet; I wanted to wait until I saw my name on an official press release. Our coaches and staff were focussed on the upcoming pursuit races and said nothing to me. If only I had hit my last shot in that sprint in Hochfilzen…
I had some special people watching on course that day: my parents and my unofficial host family from my semester abroad in Switzerland. I wish they all could have a seen a more beautiful race but I was glad to have them there nonetheless. After the race we all drank hot chocolate and spoke Frenglish together.
My parents came all the way to France only to watch me do one bad race. But their attendance soon served a greater purpose when they put me up in their hotel so I wouldn’t give my cold to my teammates. We watched the pursuit races together from the stands. It was an unfamiliar vantage point for me and a reminder that, in spite of all the frustration, I still prefer to be on the athlete’s side of the fence. Then we drove down to Geneva for the night, where my parents treated me to steak tartar, Glühwein, and a choir concert. It felt good to escape from the biathlon circus and plant my feet firmly in the real world.
The next morning, I woke up to messages and emails congratulating me on making the team. I read my name in the press release: “Clare Egan achieves Olympic Dream.” I still felt like I was in a biathlon nightmare. I knocked on my parents’ hotel room door and told them the news. Then I got on a plane and flew back to the U.S. early, a day before them.
There was no crossing the finish line in a blaze of glory, fists in the air, running into my coach’s arms, reaching to hug my mom in the stands. I think in a way I’m mourning the loss of that moment. I am trying to let go of the romantic vision I had about how anything pertaining to the Olympics is supposed to go or feel.
Three days, four phone interviews, and hundreds of congratulatory messages later, I am still struggling to reconcile acute near-term disappointment with totally overwhelming long-term achievement. It’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat all at once.
I finally let Susan congratulate me today. This will be her second Olympics; she narrowly missed making the team in 2010 and then pre-qualified in 2014 as the top American woman biathlete in history. “It’s a big emotional load, no matter how it falls,” she said. In 2014, when I asked Susan how she felt about qualifying for her first Olympics, she said “ready.” My emotions may be all over the place, but I can say with complete certainty that I am ready, too.
My season got off to a %#$ brutal start! In the very first race, the Mixed Relay, I had two %$# penalty laps in standing despite using all three !@# extra rounds, and ruined the whole @#$ race for my team for the 2nd consecutive year. Lovely! My next two races I placed in the 70’s. @#$%&&#$.
I felt unprepared, jet-lagged, sluggish, and consequently stressed. For better or for worse, our team always starts off slow and excels in February at the championship races. I’m confident that I’ll be in peak shape when it counts the most, but it’s still hard to overcome the early-season blow to my confidence. On the bright side, my shooting in training was excellent, and I felt better and better each race.
After almost two weeks in Sweden, we traveled to Hochfilzen, Austria. I was happy to return to one of my favorite hotels and the site of the magical 2017 World Championships. We traveled on a charter flight, which I always enjoy because it is one of the rare times when all the athletes come together in a non-competition atmosphere. I sat with Quentin Fillon-Maillet (FRA) on the plane and he was even chattier than me.
During the first few days in Hochfilzen we enjoyed a much-needed dose of sunshine. We also got out new uniforms!!! And I spent several hours rotating between the sauna, cold pond, steam room, and relaxing bed. I felt enormous gratitude for my lifestyle. My training continued to go really well, and with the help of our sports psychologist I worked hard to rebuild my confidence. Just in time for the Sprint race, it started dumping snow.
It was the crazy kind of weather that made me laugh during my warm-up, as I wondered, “how am I gonna see the #$% targets?!” The wind was gusting and I couldn’t see anything though my snow-caked glasses. But I’ve always done well in inclement weather and this was no exception. I shot 8/10 (missed 1 prone and 1 standing) and finished 35th, less than 10 seconds outside of my team’s top-30 automatic qualification standard for the Olympic Team. I had missed my last #$@ shot. Still, I was thrilled to have a good race under my belt, to have scored some World Cup points (top 40), and to have qualified for the pursuit race (top 60). Starting in 35th position in the next day’s pursuit would also put that top-30 standard well within my reach. To celebrate, I went to the main square to celebrate St. Nicholas Day with the locals.
The first lap of the pursuit I was right where I want to be. I felt relaxed skiing in a pack of super strong women. Then I didn’t adjust my sights correctly for the wind when I came into the first shooting and missed two. I didn’t lose hope. Then I missed two again on my second shooting. Still didn’t lose hope. Then I missed two more on my third shooting and lost hope. On my last shooting, I hit the first four and then missed my last #$% shot again. I did pass one person in a glorious charge up the final hill.
I slid back from 35th to 53rd place in the pursuit. But I left Austria relieved and satisfied, knowing 35th would likely be enough to earn me a spot on the Olympic Team. We were also given a case of mini-champagnes by a devoted fan, which didn’t hurt.
The race season is upon us! My favorite time of year!
Coming back to Östersund, Sweden for World Cup 1 each November has this “back-to-school” feel. You get to see all your friends you haven’t seen since last year. You return to the same old place and familiar routine. You have new clothes, fresh supplies, and a blank slate. It’s my third year now. I can only imagine how Ole Einar Bjørndalen feels as he begins his 25th.
Our first race is on Sunday. I will do the mixed relay with Susan Dunklee and two of our men, to be determined. During training this week, a lot of people will ask, “How is your shape”? This must translate well from some language, but I haven’t yet figured out which one. Maybe everyone thinks it comes from English so we continue to repeat it to each other, each assuming it sounds legit in the other’s language. But really, does anyone know the answer? I won’t be able to say for sure “how my shape is” until I test it out on Sunday. I think I’m in good shape. I mean, nothing crazy happened this summer. I was healthy; my training seemed fine. But our sport is all about ranking ourselves relative to everyone else. Unlike a runner, I don’t know any of my race times. All I know is that I got 1st or 15th or 80th or whatever. So Sunday is when I’ll find out how the last seven months of hard work have affected “my shape.” I can say for sure that I’m well-prepared and ready to race!
Be sure to tune in on Sunday to watch us live, here. The full race schedule, with times automatically listed in your local timezone, is here.
Since June, I’ve been enjoying my new favorite hobby: Korean lessons!!! After spending last winter learning the basics on my own with a textbook and audio CD’s, I realized I needed help from a teacher in order to improve my speaking and listening abilities.
I was delighted when Seok Bae Jang, a professor at my alma-mater, Wellesley College, agreed to “meet” with me twice per week on-line. Neither of us had ever done a one-on-one digital class before but it has worked out great. Using Google Hangouts video/audio chat, we can have a conversation just as if we were sitting in the same room together. To help me learn new words, he writes on a mini whiteboard and holds it up to the camera for me to see.
I am learning so much! But it is so much more difficult than any of the European languages I have previously studied that my progress feels slow. As of very recently I am able to piece together sentences on my own. Our lessons will end in mid-November when I head to Sweden for our first races but I will continue to practice on my own. My goal is to be able to communicate with Korean fans and volunteers in Pyeong-Chang, IF I am selected to represent Team USA at the Olympics.
Last February when I raced in Korea, the local people were so excited when I could say even just a few words. Learning another’s language is one of the greatest signs of respect, and in a time when the US is perhaps not viewed in the kindest light by our global neighbors I hope that my small voice can make a big impression.