On Thursday, Feb. 16, Lowell Bailey did what no U.S. biathlete had ever done. He won a world championship title in the men’s 20-kilometer individual race. Three days later, Susan Dunklee became the first U.S. woman to win an individual world medal, bringing home the silver in the women’s 12.5-kilometer mass start race.
Both biathletes hit 20 of 20 targets in their races — a first for Dunklee and the third time for Bailey in a four-stage race (where they shoot four times in one race).
With two medals and six top-six finishes, it was US Biathlon’s best world championships ever. American biathletes also won world championship medals in 1984 (bronze, women’s relay), 1987 (silver, Josh Thompson), and 2013 (silver, Tim Burke).
“We’ve had a great week, everything is coming together for our team,” said Dunklee after her race. “We’ve had the potential to do this for a long time, and this week, we actually, we did it.”
Dunklee also benefitted from Bailey’s win.
“Seeing Lowell win gold a couple days before was absolutely huge,” she said. “It’s so easy to ride the momentum once it gets going. But it’s really hard to make that momentum start.”
The team’s momentum shift began in 2006 after the men’s relay finished ninth at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games. Bailey and Tim Burke were on that relay, and it was the first time they realized that they could compete with the best in the world.
The U.S. Olympic Committee also made note of the performance and “expressed a real willingness to get behind us like never before,” said US Biathlon Chief Executive Officer Max Cobb. “They challenged us to find the best coach in the world.”
So began a series of changes that have helped American biathletes reach their potential. Here’s a look at what helped Bailey and Dunklee win their medals at the 2017 world championships.
1) “Coaching Is Huge”
In 2007, US Biathlon hired coach Per Nilsson from Sweden. Bernd Eisenbichler, who started in 1999 as a ski technician with the team, became high performance director and is now chief of sport.
With new staffing, the team shifted the way it approached training, team logistics and travel. The biathletes began spending more time in Europe, which helped make the world cup biathlon venues feel more familiar, more like home. The men also increased their training volume by 30 to 40 percent — a shift that took Bailey at least four years to adapt to.
“That was the point where we went from a team that was participating to a team that was serious about contending with the best,” said Bailey, 35, who rejoined the team after graduating from the University of Vermont in 2005.
In 2010, US Biathlon hired Jonne Kahkonen from Finland as women’s coach.
“That gave the women’s program a lot more specific energy and attention, and that helped me a lot,” said Dunklee, 32, who took up biathlon after graduating from Dartmouth College in 2008.
The team now has a full support staff that helps with ski technique, shooting expertise, ski prep, athlete recovery and injury management, and sports psychology. At the 2017 worlds, “we had some of the best skis of any team there,” said Dunklee.
“I’ve heard Tim Burke say that he feels like if he doesn’t succeed, it’s no fault of anybody else but himself because the program has done a good job of looking at all the angles,” she added.
With calm focus required in the shooting range, mental preparation is key in biathlon. For every missed shot, a biathlete either has one minute added to his/her time (individual race), or he/she must ski a 150-meter penalty loop.
Dunklee credits USOC sports psychologist Sean McCann with her improved performances, which include three world cup podium finishes and a slew of top-10s, all of which came since the Sochi 2014 Olympics.
“He’s really helped me think about anticipating challenges and getting comfortable with the idea of stress and being in the lead at a big race and visualizing it long before I’m ever there,” she said.
She works with McCann primarily during the off-season.
“To create good thought patterns and discipline of thought and being able to recognize distracting thoughts and refocus them in the middle of a race is all about having done it a hundred times in practice,” she added. “You’ve got to create these good habits over months and months.”
Bailey also credited visualization with helping him win the individual race at worlds. Training at home in Lake Placid, New York, he visualized the world championships venue in Hochfilzen, Austria, and tricked himself into thinking he was running through a dress rehearsal of the individual race.
“In a sense, I had raced that 20K 10 – if not hundreds – of times before I actually got to the starting line for the actual race,” he said.
3) Relaxed And Focused
The mental prep, along with his other training, helped Bailey stay relaxed for the individual race. This was also his 11th world championships, giving him a familiarity with the event.
Bailey is also traveling with his wife, Erika, and their baby, Ophelia, this year — which he calls “a bigger element in keeping me relaxed and able to focus.” His family lends a balance to the “hyper-intense focused environment of competition at the top level of biathlon.”
Dunklee was also relaxed by the last day of the world championships, when the women’s mass start was held.
“It took emotional detachment from results,” she said, of winning her silver medal. “At the beginning of world championships, I almost wanted it a little too much. Toward the end of the week, my expectations were a little more realistic. I was in a better zone, focusing on the process.”
Looking Toward PyeongChang…
To improve her medal chances in 2018 — her second Olympic Games — Dunklee will work on her shooting consistency this summer. She improved her shooting speed this year, which helped her win silver at worlds. But with improved speed, she did not adapt well to difficult conditions on the range, like fog or wind.
This summer at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in northern Vermont, she will practice shooting in varying light conditions (sunrise or sunset), or make a paper target that’s gray rather than sharp contrast black on white, or other scenarios she can recreate on the range.
PyeongChang will be Bailey’s fourth and final Olympics before he moves to Bozeman, Montana, to help build a state-of-the-art biathlon training center. Between now and then, he is “steadfastly focused on the 2018 Olympics and doing everything I can to get on the podium there.”
For a chance to medal in PyeongChang, he must continue to work hard to maintain his high level of shooting. His best result at the Olympic Games to date is eighth in Sochi, which is also the best individual result for any American biathlete.
“To win a medal at world champs or the Olympics, you have to be perfect on the range,” he said. “There’s not a single biathlete in the world that’s perfect on the range every single day. But the key is to try and be at the top of your game when it counts.”
In PyeongChang, the team should be bolstered by Tim Burke, who struggled this year after trying a different training plan last summer, and 21-year-old Sean Doherty, who has won more junior world championship medals than any other biathlete in history — from any country. Doherty came down with mononucleosis during the fall and could not train for six weeks. He has played catch-up since then.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.