Sean Doherty finishes the men's 20km individual biathlon at the Winter Olympic Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 15, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
Bernd Eisenbichler isn’t saying he has that butterflies-in-his-stomach feeling athletes have before a big race, or even the sleepless excitement kids have before Christmas morning.
But he’s definitely eager to see what this new season brings for the U.S. men’s and women’s biathlon teams when they open their world cup circuit Sunday in Slovenia.
U.S. Biathlon’s chief of sport has brought in new head coaches for both teams — each with new methods, ideas and training approaches. These new leaders will be looking at remade rosters, with younger athletes hoping to replace some veterans that raised the bar for Americans in this sport that is still dominated by Europeans.
“I was actually, even in the middle of April, a little bit nervous,” Eisenbichler said of his coaching search, which hadn’t yet yielded results. “But I was also excited to start something new because I felt, and many others felt, it was time for a change.”
Three-time Olympic champion Michael Greis of Germany was selected as head coach for the men, with Italian Armin Auchentaller returning to take over the women’s program. He had been the U.S. men’s shooting coach from 2009-14, and most recently led the Swiss women’s team.
In addition to the coaching shakeups, there have been wholesale changes across both staffs, including the addition of recently retired American standout Tim Burke, a four-time Olympian and world silver medalist, as athlete development manager. Danika Frisbie takes over as sport program manager.
“We have a lot of new energy, a lot of new ideas,” Eisenbichler said.
New Men Must Step Up As Stalwarts Retire
For the first time in almost two decades, the U.S. team will be without Burke and Lowell Bailey, who each competed in four Olympics but retired in March after the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
“They were our strongest athletes for over a decade,” said Eisenbichler. “It’s a new situation without those two leaders.”
Though neither won an Olympic medal — no U.S. man or woman has in biathlon — Burke and Bailey were often in contention. They frequented the top 10 in world cup, Olympic and world championship events, with Bailey earning a world championship in 2017 in the 20-kilometer individual.
The belief is that Sean Doherty and Leif Nordgren are primed to step up to help fill the void. Doherty, at 23, is already a two-time Olympian. In 2014, he competed in the Sochi Games at 18 years old, making him the youngest American biathlete at those Games.
Doherty had one of the best junior careers in the sport’s history, winning 10 world championship medals. He was part of the U.S. four-man relay at PyeongChang that finished sixth (along with Nordgren, Burke and Bailey).
“Now it’s time to take the lead and show the world that (Doherty) can also be a really strong senior, and not just a promising junior,” Eisenbichler said.
Nordgren, 29, also is a two-time Olympian whom Eisenbichler believes has the talent to take big strides this season if he can get more consistent. Others on the men’s team in Slovenia for this world cup event are Paul Schommer and Travis Cooper.
Greis enters with the task of replacing longtime head coach Per Nilsson. Eisenbichler believes Greis can get the most out of this group. Greis was known for his competitiveness as an athlete, winning three Olympic gold medals and three world championships golds over his long career.
As a coach he’s an analyst, keen on detail, conditioning and resistance training.
“He’s a really, really demanding coach,” Eisenbichler said. “Pushes the athletes a lot and is very honest with them.
“It needed a while for both sides to get used to each other, but I’ve seen the guys developing and I’ve seen the passion and the motivation Mickey brings to the table.”
With More Experience, Women’s Team Aims To Take Next Steps
With Susan Dunklee returning along with three other Olympians — Clare Egan, Joanne Reid and Emily Dreissigacker — the U.S. women’s team could be even stronger this season than last.
Dunklee, 32, has been terrific the past few years. She went into the PyeongChang Games with a good chance to medal, but fell short, finishing 19th in the individual race and 66th in the sprint. She also helped the U.S. to 13th in the relay and 15th in the mixed relay.
Dunklee entered with confidence following a 2017 world championships experience in which she won a silver medal in the mass start and was sixth in the individual race.
Eisenbichler calls Dunklee “our most experienced and most decorated athlete” and says she’s healthy, fit and eager for a new season after taking off several months following the Olympics.
In her time away from the sport, Dunklee has taken a leadership position, working to organize and help lead all-women camps this past year for athletes across all levels of the national program.
Eisenbichler says he’s also is encouraged by the improvement in offseason training and camp performances from Egan, 31, and Reid, 26 (the daughter of Olympic speedskater Beth Heiden) and Dreissigacker, 30.
Auchentaller is seen by Eisenbichler as a good fit for the team not just for his technical knowledge, but for his ability to communicate and help the women form a cohesive group. Former head coach Jonne Kahkonen took the women’s team a long way during his tenure. Auchentaller is tasked with lifting them higher as they all work toward the 2022 Games in Beijing.
“Armin really, he pushes them, but also listens to them a lot,” Eisenbichler said. “I think they needed a new fresh hand, a new communication.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.