The turning point of my 2017 season happened in February at World Championships when, after blowing my team’s chances in the Mixed Relay, I hit all my targets in the sprint to finish 20th. Building on that momentum, I had two more top-25 finishes during the championships: 22nd in the 15k Individual and 24th in my first 12.5K mass start! There I was, competing with the top-30 women in the world, wearing bib 30. I was actually ranked 31st going into the final race, but one woman pulled out, so I got to start. It was one of my greatest career goals to race in a mass start, and to do so at World Championships was especially meaningful. I finished 24th and felt totally comfortable and competitive so I know I can be back in the future.
After World Championships, I took a well-deserved break from biathlon by renting a nice hotel for myself in Munich, Germany for a few days. It was a luxury to have my own room, visit museums, go shopping, and relax at local restaurants and coffee shops.
But before long it was back to the grind. We still had three more World Cups to go, and a tough travel schedule– World Cups 7, 8 and 9 took us to Korea, Finland and Norway.
This season seemed especially long, because of the timing of World Championships so early in the season. It is easy to build momentum and motivation up until World Championships, but I found the later races exhausting both mentally and physically. I had some great results during that last trimester though, as my skiing continued to get faster and faster, and I felt more relaxed in my shooting.
One of my favorite moments was the mixed relay in Finland at World Cup 8. That day, our team prioritized the single-mixed relay, with Lowell and Susan pairing up to win the U.S.’s first relay medal in 23 years. That left me and some of our other newer biathletes to race the mixed relay: we called ourselves the B+ Team. I led off, and combined my fastest skiing of the season with decent and fast shooting to tag off in 6th place, a mere :30 seconds behind 1st place. My teammates Joanne, Paul and Sean all did a great job and we finished 8th, which tied the best finish for Team USA all winter, including when we entered our top athletes in the event.
Now I’m at the next turning point: where the 2017 season ends and the 2018 season begins. The Olympic year is almost here! It is crazy to think about next year already, and to be honest I’m not ready for it.
Just a few days after Lowell made history by becoming the first American ever to win gold at the World Championships (or at any senior-level international biathlon race, for that matter), Susan Dunklee made history as well. She is the first American woman ever to win a medal in an individual event at World Championships! Like Lowell, Susan shot a perfect race– 20 for 20– and did so faster than any other woman in the 30-person field. But with the World Cup overall leader, Laura Dahlmeier of Germany, also shooting clean, Susan missed the top step of the podium by just 4 seconds. It was a thrill to watch.
I highly suggest you check out the Highlights or Replay. I will too, since I didn’t get to watch… I was too busy racing in my first mass start competition! I was a bit distracted I must say, as I heard on the stadium loudspeaker that Susan was winning the race as we left the shooting range for our final lap. I shot 1, 0, 1, 2 and finished 24th. It was great experience to race with the best in the world and I look forward to more.
On Thursday at the 2017 World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, my teammate Lowell Bailey shot 20-for-20 and out-sprinted Czech’s Ondrej Moravec in a heroic and historic finish. He is the first American ever to win any biathlon race at the senior international level, and he is the World Champion. Congratulations, Lowell!
I highly recommend watching the race replay or at least highlights. Hearing the Star Spangled Banner at the medal ceremony is something I will remember for the rest of my life!
After World Cup 6 wrapped up in Antholz, Italy, my teammates and I remained there for two more weeks of high-altitude preparation for World Championships. It’s a heavenly place, but true to form, the Isolation Station got the worst of me and I had a mental breakdown just in time for World Championships. A change of venue, the arrival of fresh faces among our staff, and a heightened sense of purpose associated with upcoming races brought me out of the hole.
My first race at World Championships was the mixed relay, where I joined Susan, Lowell and Sean. It was one of the more brutal failures of my biathlon career. Susan tagged me in 4th, just seconds out of the lead, and I tagged Lowell in 17th, over two minutes back. It is a horrible, horrible feeling to let your teammates and staff down.
With my next race just one day away, I couldn’t waste any time dwelling on the mixed relay. As I said in an interview with TeamUSA.org, “I have to be diligent immediately about shifting my focus” forward to the 7.5k sprint. If you don’t approach a race with confidence and a positive outlook, there is no chance for success.
One factor that proved critical in my mental rebound was a message I got on facebook from my cousin, Liz Egan. She reminded me of something that I wrote on this very blog: “how you do one day has no bearing on how you do the next.” Those are my own words, yet how easily we forget! I really needed the reminder.
Only one day after my epic biathlon failure, I achieved one of my greatest successes. I hit all 10 targets and finished 20th in the 7.5k sprint. It was my 2nd-best result ever at the World Cup level, and a 20-place improvement from my previous best at World Championships. It was only the 3rd time I’ve ever “cleaned” (hit all my targets) in any race. Fast forward to 56:30 in this race replay to see my smiling face.
The 7.5k sprint was followed two days later by the 10k pursuit. I was happy with my shooting 17/20, but I didn’t have the energy to keep up on skis and dropped 21 places to finish 41st. This was one of those days where my auto-evaluation of my race did not match my rank on the results sheet.
Biathlon is a volatile sport characterized by much higher highs and lower lows than I was used to as a runner or cross-country skier. It’s what makes it so exciting, but learning to manage those ups and downs has proved one of the greatest challenges of becoming a (sane, successful) biathlete.
Another way biathlon differs from many other sports is that being results-oriented gets you absolutely NOWHERE. In fact, it’s a direct path to the penalty loop. The drive to win is as powerful on the track as it is destructive on the range. My high school running coach used to cheer to great effect, “Who wants it more?!”, but wanting to hit the target never helped anyone. (If you have ever tried bowling then you may understand this principle.) To hit the target you have to forget the result entirely and focus on the process. Biathletes have to make this major mentality adjustment each time they transition between skiing and shooting. To clarify the point, I give you effective self-talk for skiing: “I’M GONNA CATCH THIS BITCH NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and shooting: “Inhale… Exhale… gently pull trigger.”
No wonder it’s so hard to maintain emotional stability!
I’m lucky that the non-biathlon parts of my life are stable, like my friends, family and boyfriend. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Trimester two of the World Cup season is a wrap! Over the last three weeks we raced in Oberhof, Germany; Ruhpolding, Germany; and Antholz, Italy. Now my teammates and I will remain in Antholz for two more weeks where we can soak in the benefits of high elevation and sunshine. Then, it’s onto World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria.
Fans in Ruhpolding, Germany
I raced twice in Ruhpolding and felt horrible both times. The physiological definition of “feeling horrible” is working harder and going slower. My maximum heart rate of 193 during the 7.5k sprint was the highest I’ve seen in cold weather in at least a year, yet my ski time rank of 62nd was my slowest this winter. Everyone has those kinds of days (right…??); figuring out how to minimize and work through them is one of the great challenges of being an elite athlete. At least in biathlon you can self-rescue by doing a flawless job on the range. (In this particular case I did not, so I got 77th place.) I don’t have any secrets, but I do have a lot of experience. Two of the most important lessons are: 1) how you feel during your warm up has absolutely no bearing on how you might feel in your race, and 2) how you feel one day has absolutely no bearing on how you might feel the next.
In fact, less than a week after suffering through my races in Ruhpolding, I felt great racing the 15k Individual in Antholz. And my wax techs gave me the fastest skis I’ve ever skied on in my life! But I mishandled the blustery wind on my second stage, foiling any chance at a good result (1,4,0,1).
Antholz Biathlon Stadium, 2 hours before race start
Then, in Sunday’s 4x6k relay, I finally put together one of my best races of the season! I skied the first leg, starting from the last row of the mass start in bib 22 out of 23 teams. I wasn’t able to gain too much ground on the first loop as I was stuck in traffic, but with clean shooting on my prone stage I moved up to 4th place, just 3 seconds off the front. I held onto the lead pack for a strenuous second loop, then used just one spare round to clear my standing targets. I had the 4th fastest time on the last loop and tagged off in 9th place, just 21 seconds out of 1st!
(In the relay in Ruhpolding I also shot 9/10, but then I panicked and it took me all three spare rounds and a whole lot of time to clear the last target. This week I prepared myself mentally for better execution of shooting my spares and it paid off.)
Susan went next and expertly brought us up to 2nd. Joanne cleaned her prone and was sitting in 5th, still only 21 seconds back! Then she did what I’ve done many times and struggled with standing, dropping back to 13th. Standing is so unforgiving! Maddie anchored our team, shooting extremely fast and well and holding onto 13th. This strong performance hinted at the top result our team is capable of, despite being extremely young (in biathlon experience).
The best part of the week was that my boyfriend, his parents, and my parents were all in attendance. I miss them already! Now it’s back to the training grind, as we sharpen our shooting skills and ski speed for World Championships.
Time flies when you travel to a new country every Monday. My results from the first trimester of the World Cup season (Sweden-Slovenia-Czech Republic) showed good improvement from last winter. I still haven’t repeated the top-20 result that I managed in my first sprint of last year, but my average performance is WAY better. I am skiing faster and my shooting percentage continues to be around 80%. It’s hard to believe but we are already part way through our second trimester (Germany-Germany-Italy).
One area in which I have a lot of room for improvement is standing shooting- both accuracy and speed. I often hit 5/5 prone and 3/5 standing in order to achieve that 80% average. So after the races were over in the Czech Republic, our shooting consultant, Olympic 50 meter rifle champion Matt Emmons, helped me establish a new standing shooting position that is more stable. Matt is one of the best shooters in the world, and so I am very, very fortunate to have his counsel.
Success in shooting comes from repeating the perfect process so many times that it becomes an unconscious act. So learning to set up a new position in the middle of the season is hardly ideal. At first it is very slow, awkward and inconsistent. What may look like small changes to an observer feel outrageous to me! For example, I have placed my rifle into my shoulder the same way at least 100,000 times, so placing it just 1cm lower makes me feel like I’ve never held the darn thing. However, my focus is on World Championships in February and the Olympics next winter, so if I have to take two steps backward in order to take three forward, it’s worth it.
I can feel right away that the new position is more stable. After I take a shot, when the rifle recoils, I can watch through my sites as the barrel moves straight up and down, and hovers near the target. With my old position, the recoil movement was random and far-flung. This stability is helpful physically for aiming on target, and mentally in terms of confidence. And now that I’ve been working with the new position for almost a month, I am getting closer to the shooting times I was used to with my old position.
Since traveling back to Europe after our two-week Christmas break, I have not felt great racing, but I am doing everything I can in terms of training (proper stimulus for my body’s current needs) and recovery (nutrition, sleep, mental breaks) to get back to the pre-Christmas shape I know still exists somewhere inside of me. It is a long season with the biggest races yet to come!
My parents are here in Ruhpolding, Germany this week and will be joined by my boyfriend’s parents next week in Antholz, Italy. I am glad that my family can experience two of the most exciting venues on our World Cup circuit. After next week, my teammates and I will have a two-week training camp in the high altitude of Antholz before heading to Hochfilzen, Austria for World Championships.
I was home in Lake Placid for about a week between our training camp in Canmore and our departure for World Cup 1 in Sweden. There, I celebrated my 29th birthday by doing a solo biathlon time trial on rollerskis followed by max-effort stair climbing intervals up the ski jump. It was 65 degrees and sunny! Here’s a video– Erik thought it would be fun to jump in behind me on my last one.
My day got a lot better from there; I got a massage, my neighbor surprised me with a Happy Birthday banner and beer, Erik took me out for a really nice dinner, and we met some of our friends for hot mulled wine afterwards. Then the temperature plummeted and it began to snow…and snow…and snow.
My teammates and I flew to Ostersund, Sweden (Albany-Washington-Munich-Stockholm-Ostersund) on November 22nd. There is not very much daylight there at this time of year; dawn goes from 9-12 and dusk goes from 12-3. These extended sunrises and sunsets are very pretty and are the only plus side to having 18 hours of darkness.
Our World Cup season started out with a mixed relay (2 women and 2 men). It was my first time ever competing in this event, joining my teammates Susan, Tim and Lowell. All three of them have World Cup podium finishes to their name and I was a bit nervous. Susan tagged me in first place (!) so I led the lead pack for a while. It was a great feeling to be able to keep up with some of the top athletes comfortably. I shot clean in prone and hung onto a chase group, coming into the range for standing in 6th place. In standing, I let my nerves get to me, and that combined with the challenge of a windy range left me with two penalty laps even after using three spare rounds. Bummer! I really focussed on the positives from this race (good skiing and prone) and didn’t let the failures overshadow the successes. Maintaining a level head and positive outlook is one thing I am working on improving from last year.
Next we had the 15k Individual, which is our longest race and the only format that replaces penalty loops with a 1:00 time penalty per miss. It was a crazy windy day! I saw some mid-race rankings on the big screen as I approached the range for the first stage, and saw that even the superstars were missing a ton. So when I missed one and then FOUR in the first two stages (prone, standing), I didn’t panic. I decided to adjust my normal shooting process and just wait out the wind for the next two stages. It paid off and I hit my last ten shots! With a total of 5 misses- that’s five minutes of time penalty- I finished 40th. Top 40 finishers score World Cup points so I scored 1 point!
After the Individual, we had a much-anticipated day off, during which I enjoyed $hopping in Ostersund and several hours at our hotel spa. Then it was back to work! In the 7.5k Sprint I shot 0,2 and skied fast enough to finish 44th. I was so excited to qualify for the 10k Pursuit by finishing in the top 60. The next day in the pursuit, I started 44th based on my Sprint result, 2:04 after the leader. I was surrounded by a lot of athletes throughout the 10k race, so I had to fight the whole time to keep my place. I shot 0,0 in the prone and moved up to 24th place. One miss in the first standing stage was good enough to keep me in 24th, but then two misses in the final standing stage bumped me back to 31st, right with a huge pack of racers. I really fought on the last lap to get in the top-30 and won a sprint finish with four others to take 30th. I am very proud of this result!
I felt SO depleted by the end of the week after traveling to Europe and doing four races. Believe it or not, one of the biggest challenges for me in a full race week like that is eating enough calories. Before a race I don’t have an appetite, right after a race I don’t have an appetite, and then once I do have an appetite, you can bet that the hotel meal hours have ended. It also doesn’t help when we race at 6pm (dinner?!) or 1pm (lunch?!), and with no regularity so my metabolism can’t get into a routine. So now I am in Slovenia, committing to what I call “food camp.”
As you can see, Slovenia is beautiful. I highly recommend visiting Bled for a romantic getaway. On our day off I ventured to Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, to visit the Christmas market. It was my first time there and it is a beautiful city that has a mix of Austrian, Italian and Slavic influence. In other words, it’s clean, there’s good shoe shopping, sausages of many varieties, and ornately painted buildings.
The last few days have flown by and it is already time for a pre-race workout tomorrow. On Friday 12/9 we have a Sprint, followed by a Pursuit on Saturday 12/10. Our team does not have a full 4-person squad of men or women on the road right now, so we will not participate in Sunday’s relay.
Stay tuned for a race update from Pokljuka, Slovenia! And as always watch LIVE. (www.eurovisionsports.tv/ibu).
Tonight is my last night in Canmore, Alberta, where I have been training for almost three weeks on a 2.5km loop of snow saved from last winter. This was the first time in several years that our team made the trip to “Frozen Thunder”, and I think it was well worth it. Rollerskiing just doesn’t compare to being on snow. When we first arrived, the weather was more wintery, and we even got enough snow at one point to ski to Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, but for the last week it has been balmy- near 50 degrees- meaning t-shirts, sunscreen, and slush.
We competed in two races here, and between them I saw a very wide variation in my skiing performance! My shooting stayed fairly consistent- just below my goal for average hit percentage (85%). In the first race, I shot 0,2 (=8/10 hits or 80%) and skied at the very (s)lowest end of my ability through deep, slushy conditions. I was trying hard, but not moving fast at all. That was Wednesday morning, and I blame my empty gas tank on sleeplessness and emotional distress caused by Tuesday night’s shocking US presidential election result. Despite an immense level of distraction, I was proud that I managed to make it through the race with decent shooting. I was not proud, however, to wear my Team USA uniform. That was a first.
On Thursday’s race, I shot 1,2 (=7/10 or 70%) but skied way, way faster. I was actually the fastest woman on my team that day, which has never happened before in any race. Comparing myself to a couple of teammates is not the gold standard, because everyone has bad days (just looks at how I skied on Wednesday!) but this was a dramatic confidence boost that I needed, so I will take it! If you look through the results you will notice that I was 10th both days. The important thing to look at, though, is the number farthest to the right, which is the time back from the winner. For me, that number was over two minutes on Wednesday and just 44 seconds on Thursday, despite having one more miss. You won’t see the breakdown of shooting times, lap times and total ski time, which our coaches formulate into a “race analysis”. That is the only document I bother to look at because that’s what I can learn from. Results from Wednesday. Results from Thursday. I should note that Susan Dunklee’s result on Thursday was mis-recorded and she actually won the race, with just one miss!
With two races and three weeks of training behind me I am ready to GO HOME TO MY APARTMENT AND MY BOYFRIEND. I will be in Lake Placid for 8 days before I turn around and fly to Sweden for World Cup 1. Stay tuned to watch live here. The first World Cup race of the year is only about two weeks away!
To my fellow athletes (and other-job-doers too) who are in a rut: you are not alone.
Since returning from training camp in Germany a month ago, I’ve been clawing my way back from biathlon burnout. The training camp environment has always posed a high risk of burnout to me, and this particular camp burned my “fire within” down to its embers and left me feeling like…ash. The subsequent week of rest and easy training went by too fast and was followed immediately by our annual “testing week,” which jams five race-effort sessions into seven days. That was like throwing a big bucket of water on dying coals. I had to pull out of our final test; it was the first time in memory that I didn’t finished a workout I started.
Rollerski time trial in Jericho, VT… the last workout before I bailed.
With the first World Cup competition less than eight weeks away, it was a tough call whether to take a two-week vacation from my personalized training plan, or to push ahead, knowing I might be digging myself a deeper hole. After much discussion (crying) with my coach, I decided to continue training, but with a few scheduled 3-day breaks, reduced high intensity, and a commitment to taking it day-by-day. I slowly started to rekindle my fire within, the intermittent breakdown notwithstanding.
Behind every “I’m so happy to be here doing what I love!” there are moments of “Why am I doing this?”
This past week, I logged my second-highest training volume of the year: 22 hours and 35 minutes, plus several additional hours of shooting, and most importantly I did it tear-free and even enjoyed myself. So I can say with relative confidence that my internal flame is flickering once again.
Succeeding at the highest level of sport is deceptively hard. Behind every “I’m so happy to be here doing what I love!” there are moments of “Why am I doing this?” But the world almost never sees those moments. It is taboo to talk about them, because doing so might discourage young athletes, disappoint sponsors, or detract from a perfect public image. And after all, unlike true hardship, this is a choice. But like many taboo topics, moments of doubt are clandestinely universal. We can help each other out by acknowledging their existence.
Shout out to my sports psychologist, Sean McCann, who is a sage. Just look at him!
Also shout out to my coach, Jonne Kähkönen, who sees me at my worst and never gets mad.
Also shout out to my teammates who step up the positive energy in times of need.