Biathlete Clare Egan has taken a slower, somewhat unorthodox route to where she is now — almost like a cross-country skier who decided to take a detour off the conventional path, stop for a bit, and shoot at something.
Three years ago, the then-25-year-old cross-country skier had never competed in biathlon and never even shot at a target. Now, at age 28, Egan is on the US Biathlon team for this season’s first three IBU World Cup events.
“I was pretty late to the game,” Egan said last week from Norway, where she was training before heading to Sweden for the first world cup event, which began Sunday.
Egan’s wandering path began conventionally enough with a serious career in cross-country skiing and running that started in middle school in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. She won state titles in track and had top-20 finishes in skiing at the Junior Olympics. But Egan’s road to the elite ranks took its first unusual turn when she went to Division III Wellesley College, which didn’t even have a ski team.
There, Egan became the school’s first outdoor track All-American and took sixth in the NCAA DIII championships in the 1,500-meter. But cross-country skiing became mostly a sport she did for fun, competing on a club team that she had to start. And Egan didn’t even compete all four years at Wellesley, taking off a year to study abroad in Switzerland and Italy.
But sometimes the less-traveled road has unexpected rewards, and Egan managed to qualify for the NCAA cross-country skiing championships as an individual in 2010. Then, against her expectations, she finished in the top 30.
“I was there for fun and did way better than I expected,” Egan said. “I thought, ‘I should do more of this.’”
So she did, using that year of remaining eligibility from her year abroad to run track and join the varsity ski team at the University of New Hampshire while studying linguistics in graduate school. Her renewed focus on cross-country skiing led to training at the prestigious post-collegiate skiing program at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont.
But even there, Egan was struggling a bit with the plateau effect so many longtime athletes face. At the elite level, the low-hanging fruit has been taken care of and even small improvements are harder to come by.
So when two of her Craftsbury training mates, US Biathlon team members Hannah Dreissigacker and Susan Dunklee, suggested Egan give the sport a try, she was game. And after she got a chance to work with Algis Shalna, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union who went on to coach the US Biathlon team, she was hooked.
“I started working with him and was really learning so much,” Egan said. “I said, I want to do more of this.’”
After frustration with her skiing, the new stimulus was just what she needed.
“I really have enjoyed learning to shoot,” Egan said. “It’s so different from anything I’ve ever done.”
Egan’s already strong cross-country skiing and her fire for learning to shoot got her noticed pretty quickly. After the 2014 season, Egan was invited to join US Biathlon’s development program, and last January she made her biathlon world cup debut in Italy, just a couple of years after taking up the sport.
She knows she still has a long way to go — she wrote a blog post back in November about her “worst result in a biathlon race ever,” in which she fell once while skiing and missed all five targets while shooting from the standing position.
She said last week, though, that there were positives from that performance — her shooting wasn’t erratic; rather, all the misses were in the same area.
“That means I was doing pretty good shooting, just something was off in my aim,” Egan said. “That’s a much easier problem to solve,” than if her shots were in wildly different places.
Egan is competing this week at the first event in the 2015-16 IBU World Cup in Oestersund, Sweden. After that, Egan and her teammates will compete in World Cup 2 on Dec. 7-14 in Hochfilzen, Austria, and then in World Cup 3 in Pokljuka, Slovenia, Dec. 14-20. After that, she might be racing in the developmental series, with the hope of further improving in this new sport. If she does well, she may be back on the big stage in future world cup events.
“My goal is to try to take on these world cup experiences with my best possible effort and attitude and give myself good practice for hopefully what will be future world cups,” Egan said.
She knows she has a lot to learn.
“But I have had really good, consistent, full-time coaching,” Egan said. “I’m trying to play catch-up best as I can.”
And as long as she is continuing to learn, she’ll probably keep catching up, and keep enjoying her unusual path to the top level of the sport.
“It’s a steep learning curve, but that’s fun after many, many years of working very hard to see small improvements,” Egan said. “It’s great because I’m still learning all the time.”
Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.