Lowell Bailey recalled a time in the early 2000s when he had just missed the Olympic team, and the funding for US Biathlon was such that he was struggling to put food on the table. Paying rent was “out of the question.”
“I was living in whatever free housing I could find, just to be able to train and compete for Team USA,” Bailey said. “Looking into my future I thought, man, I can’t do this forever.”
Bailey laughed thinking back to what he thought about doing instead.
“I grew up playing music,” he recalled in September at the Team USA Media Summit. “And at the time I was considering doing that, which is kinda nuts when you think about it, jumping from one career of scraping by not making any money to another.”
Now a three-time Olympian, Bailey certainly doesn’t regret sticking with biathlon. Last February, Bailey became the first U.S. athlete to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team, followed shortly after by teammate Susan Dunklee. This week, they begin the world cup season along with several other U.S. biathletes in Ostersund, Sweden.
But the journey of getting to that point as a biathlete in the U.S. can be a difficult one.
Dunklee, who made her Olympic debut in 2014, had to make similar sacrifices to reach the sport’s top level.
“I lived in the Olympic Training Center,” Dunklee said, “which was free housing and food for years. It was not an easy lifestyle, it was like living in a hotel room, but I was so grateful for the U.S. Olympic Committee to offer that to us. There’s absolutely no way I could have made it in this sport without that.”
The amount of time it takes to develop can be a limiting factor in getting athletes to try the sport.
Dunklee said it takes 10-15 years to fully develop in the sport — and at least three to four years just to learn how to shoot — and until an athlete gets to that elite level, it can be hard to make ends meet. Athletes at her level get support from the USOC, sponsors and more.
“Once you’re at your peak, it can be enough (to live on),” Dunklee said. “But for those first eight years, nine years, it’s not enough.”
In the U.S., few kids grow up as competitive biathletes, so officials typically look for elite-level skiers who can be taught how to shoot.
That’s how Dunklee started, having been on skis since the age of 2 thanks to her father, a two-time Olympian in cross-country skiing. She went on to ski for Dartmouth, where during her senior year US Biathlon approached her about giving the sport a try. She’d never even shot a gun.
Both Dunklee and Bailey pointed to notable improvements for U.S. biathletes in the last decade or so, including the addition of athlete stipends that allow more athletes the chance to train full-time, as is the norm in other nations. US Biathlon and the USOC have also placed a greater emphasis on coaching and developing young talent.
These changes have led to an unprecedented amount of success experienced by Bailey and Dunklee last season. Bailey won gold in the 20-kilometer individual at the 2017 world championships for US Biathlon’s first gold medal at a world championships. In total, he had four top-six finishes in his four worlds races. Dunklee took silver in the mass start for the first individual world medal by a U.S. woman. She also finished sixth in the women’s individual.
Dunklee, who remains heavily involved with her home ski club in Craftsbury, Vermont, pointed to growing a sense of community among young biathletes as an opportunity.
“What we need to do is we need to start having clubs or communities of kids programming basically, in all different areas of the country,” Dunklee said. “Honestly I don’t think the ranges or the equipment is a limiting factor. I think that the limiting factor in the U.S. for growing biathlon is people. It’s having a coach that knows enough about the sport to be able to coach it and to get a program running.”
Dunklee pointed out how the national team coaching staff is all European, due to not yet having enough expertise in the U.S. And looking at the Olympic medal table, it’s clear why. Germany, Norway and Russia are running away with the medals. Not listed? The United States, which hopes to win its first Olympic medal(s) at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 in February.
Bailey believes that biathlon enjoys a different sort of status in those nations that makes it a more viable option.
“When I look at some of the other countries, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of the athletes in these countries, for better or worse the United States has a lot of opportunities for a 22-year-old kid that is looking at what they want to do with their life,” he said.
“But in these other cultures in a lot of cases, it’s not much of a choice, if you’re a Russian athlete and you excel in biathlon, you’ve got the choice of following the path to becoming a national hero and a lifetime of accolades and financial support.”
Like Dunklee said about people being a determining factor, she believes it’s the passion for the sport from people like her and Bailey that will help determine where US Biathlon goes from here.
“I think we’re going to have more people who are willing to run and coach club-level programs going forward,” Dunklee said.