Each month, the Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Lowell Bailey won Male Athlete of the Month for February 2017, during which he became the first U.S. biathlete to win a world title. In Bailey's Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, he provides insight into his winning month - including his secret X factor: diaper duty.
Not long before he had to be at the start line for the men’s 20-kilometer individual at the IBU Biathlon World Championships, Lowell Bailey found himself in the venue parking lot facing an entirely different challenge: a dirty diaper.
He had decided to help his wife, Erika, get situated with their 8-month-old daughter Ophelia at the team van before getting ready for the race.
“Right when we pulled into the parking lot, Ophelia decided that was the time she was going to take her morning bathroom break,” Bailey said with a laugh. “It was the kind where you really have to do a full change of clothing. There we were, like two hours before the world championship race, holding Ophelia up while Erika mops her down with baby wipes, and we changed her diaper right there in the team parking lot.”
|Lowell Bailey stands on the podium with wife Erika and daughter Ophelia after winning the gold medal in the men's 20-kilometer individual at the IBU Biathlon World Championships on Feb. 16, 2017 in Hochfilzen, Austria.|
While changing diapers right before a world championship race might be a distraction to some, Bailey sees it differently. He was on the brink of retiring a year ago, worried about leaving his wife at home with a newborn baby while he traveled on the world cup circuit and unwilling to be an absent father for the first seven months of his daughter’s life. Bailey is still competing because his family is able to travel with him.
“It’s definitely not without its logistical challenges, but looking back on how this season has gone, it was the pivotal factor in keeping me grounded, keeping me positive,” Bailey said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a more mentally positive seasonal experience, because I never got homesick. I never missed my wife. I never had to face that unfortunate circumstance of wondering if I’m not being a good father and not present for those crucial first months of my daughter’s life. I think all of those are positive things and probably contributed to me being in a really relaxed but focused space when I hit the starting line for the world cups and world championships.”
It was this sense of normalcy that kept him loose at the world championships and the world cups throughout the season. Just like any other day, he and Erika woke up together, took care of Ophelia and ate breakfast before going on their daily family run. Biathlon became just another part of his daily routine.
Of course, Bailey has been training for two decades. That level of preparation gave him an additional sense of calm.
“If you do the preparation and the training and the work required and you’re prepared for your race, at that point, the only thing that can derail you is yourself,” Bailey said. “Things like stress, like nervousness, like anxiety - you're at the biggest race of the year, you know you have to perform, and you have all this pressure on your shoulders. I’ve experienced it, where it becomes too much pressure and it becomes a distraction that actually is counterproductive and is the reason why you don’t end up reaching the results that you probably should’ve gotten.
“I knew I had done all of the work going back two decades. I felt so prepared for the race that I think having the sort of positive distraction of seeing my daughter laughing or giggling and even having to change her diaper and help my wife get her situated, those are things that kept me grounded in the situation. And I think that that may have been the reason that I was in a very relaxed, focused mental state when I hit the starting line.”
The 20-kilometer race is the longest biathlon event, taking competitors nearly 50 minutes to complete. Bailey skied a great race after his diaper duty, not missing any of his shots and focusing on his fundamentals. A means of blocking out distractions, Bailey selects a distinct set of focus points in his shooting to avoid thinking about potential medals or the 30,000 people in the stands.
He was able to maintain his laser focus until the final loop of the course. It was only when he left the shooting range that he heard the announcement in the stadium that he was in first place and he knew that he was a mere four kilometers away from a world title.
“That was the longest four kilometers of my life,” Bailey said. “It seemed like every corner I had a US Biathlon staff member screaming at me. I was one of the last competitors out on the course, and the whole crowd knew that I was going for the gold medal. So the entire 30,000 people in attendance were screaming at me. At a lot of points, I couldn’t hear even the staff that was just on the side of the trail, four or five feet away from me, screaming at the top of their lungs.
“But when I got to the top of that [final] hill, Erika was right there with Ophelia on her chest, and she was running next to me, and all she was saying over and over again, was, ‘You’re winning! You’re winning! You’re winning!’ And it was this lightning bolt of the knowledge that I need to do this. I just need to do this. I have 700 meters left in this race and I need to make every single meter count. The rest of my life I’ll remember that moment of cresting that hill with her saying those words, screaming those words at me.”
Bailey had left the shooting range with a four-second lead. It stretched to six seconds, then shrank to as little as a tenth of a second at the final split, 500 meters away from the finish line.
|Lowell Bailey celebrates with US Biathlon Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler after winning the gold medal in the men's 20-kilometer individual at the IBU Biathlon World Championships on Feb. 16, 2017 in Hochfilzen, Austria.|
After dedicating two decades of his life to the sport, that’s what the biggest race of Bailey’s career came down to. Racing 20 kilometers in just under 50 minutes, his margin of victory was a mere 3.3 seconds.
Upon crossing the finish line, Bailey didn’t know what to do with himself before seeing his name up on the screen.
“I was just basically overcome with a huge wave of emotion that encompasses some joy, some relief, some validation. It’s just sort of indescribable,” Bailey said. “I saw the word Bailey and I saw the rank No. 1 and I started just screaming.”
Though biathlon is a predominantly individual sport, national team athletes train together and have formed a tight-knit group. For Bailey, who has spent so many years on the national team, athletes and staff alike have been an integral part of his journey. In the seconds after he won his world title, US Biathlon Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler ran into the finish area – incurring a 100-euro fine for violating IBU rules – to celebrate with him, the two screaming their heads off together after two lifetimes of dedication to a singular goal had finally come to fruition.
“The way I think about it is, if you win by 30 seconds, that’s a huge margin. You can kind of pat yourself on the back and say ‘I did a great job in my training this year, way to go me,’” Bailey said. “But when you win by 3.3 seconds, you have to thank every single person that put wax on your skis, that put the stone grind on your skis. … The level of dedication from this team to our athletes, to me and this result, is staggering and I am 100-percent sure that their hard work is the reason that I was able to keep that lead, that very, very narrow sliver of a 3.3-second gap. I’m just hugely thankful to our staff of dedicated people that have sacrificed so much over, in some cases, two decades. It meant so much, obviously for me and my family, but to be able to share the result with the team, it was so emotional because we’ve all been working towards this for so long.”