Lowell Bailey became the first American in history to win a biathlon world championship Thursday, taking the gold medal in the men’s 20-kilometer in Hochfilzen, Austria.
Just five days after becoming the first athlete to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team, Bailey struck gold in 48:07.4, finishing 3.3 seconds ahead of now five-time world medalist Ondrej Moravec of Czech Republic. France’s Martin Fourcade, the world cup leader and 11-time world champion, missed two targets and finished third, 21.2 seconds behind Bailey.
After his final shooting round, Bailey entered the final stage of the competition with one thought: Don’t repeat the fade on the final loop that cost him a podium in the pursuit four days prior, when he finished sixth.
“After the pursuit, and watching the medal go away from me, I replayed this last loop in my head probably a thousand times the last three days,” Bailey said in a post-race interview. “I told myself if I ever have that chance again, that I can’t let that medal get away. I just kept saying that in the last loop today.”
That thought kept pushing him to go beyond anything any American had accomplished at a biathlon world championships. Until Thursday, Team USA had earned only two individual medals at worlds, 20K silvers by Josh Thompson in 1987 and Tim Burke in 2013. The women also took a bronze in the 1984 team relay.
"This is the most perfect day of my biathlon career," Bailey said, according to the Associated Press.
"To shoot clean at world championships and to have unbelievable material, every single part of my race came together today. I will remember this for the rest of my life."
Bailey’s gold medal bodes well for his goal to become the first-ever U.S. biathlete to earn an Olympic medal come next year. His eighth-place finish in the 20K in Sochi three years ago is already the best individual finish for a U.S. biathlete.
The championship is yet another peak on a journey that could be taken from a Hollywood script. As the 2015-16 season wound down, Bailey was all but convinced that it would be his last on the competitive circuit. At age 34 (now 35), the best showing of his career seemed to be in the rearview mirror, a world cup bronze two years earlier in Kontiolahti, Finland, that eventually was changed to silver when Russia’s Alexandr Loginov was stripped of the medal after a positive doping test.
With a growing family – he and wife Erika at the proud parents of daughter Ophelia – retirement seemed to be the course laid out for him. With only 13 top-10 world cup finishes since his world cup debut 15 years ago and only one top-10 finish in individual Olympic or world championship, an eighth in Sochi, Russia, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that Bailey’s competitive fire may have flickered a bit.
“No one can truthfully say that it is easy to maintain your 100-percent motivation when you’re at the bottom of the results as when you are battling for the top-15,” he is quoted as saying on International Biathlon Union bio page.
But fate had other plans for Bailey, who was born in Syler City, North Carolina, and raised in Lake Placid, New York. Those plans in the form of a job offer out of the blue from a biathlon center in Bozeman, Montana. That offer came with one condition: If Bailey chose to pursue his fourth Olympic team, the position would be waiting for him when he returned from South Korea.
“It’s a goal that I’ve had for a long time and I think now it means so much more for me to be competing with the support of my wife Erika and our new daughter Ophelia,” he told TeamUSA.org after becoming the first U.S. athlete of any sport to qualify for the PyeongChang Games. “To know that I can represent the U.S. team for her is really special for me to be able to have that privilege.”
All he needed to earn that privilege was a top-six finish at the world championships in any event. He went far beyond that, placing in the top six in all three events he raced, starting with a fourth in the 7.5K sprint, followed by sixth in the pursuit, a result that provided the inspiration for Thursday’s gold-medal performance.
“It’s a huge confidence boost,” Bailey said Sunday after his first two top-six finishes, in regards to medaling at next year’s Olympics. “The last two days have been the best world championship results of my career, and that gives me the confidence going forward with my training and my approach to PyeongChang to really attack the races there.”
Bailey began his biathlon career in 1996 and made his world cup debut in 2002, but after missing out on the Salt Lake City 2002 Games he put his rifle on the rack, instead focusing on cross-country skiing while attending the University of Vermont. A three-time academic all-American for the Catamounts, he also was silver medalist at two NCAA championships before returning to biathlon in 2005.
In addition to his passion for biathlon, Bailey also has a passion for music. An accomplished guitar and mandolin player, his music is well-known on the biathlon circuit – the international federation’s YouTube channel features several videos of Bailey performing bluegrass and jazz.
Bailey’s IBU bio also talks about how he strives for another “perfect day” to follow the lone world cup podium three years ago. Now with a second perfect day in hand, Bailey might just add a third before he leaves Hochfilzen, with the men’s relay scheduled for Saturday and the men’s mass start Sunday to close out what has been a landmark world championships for Team USA.