KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The story coming into this evening’s men’s 20-kilometer individual biathlon race was whether or not Ole Einar Bjoerndalen would win a record-setting 13th Olympic medal. The Norwegian legend is currently tied with his hero, Bjorn Daehlie, at 12.
While Bjoerndalen was off, missing four shots and ceding the Olympic medals to Martin Fourcade (France), Erik Lesser (Germany) and Evgeniy Garanichev (Russia), respectively, Lowell Bailey was having the race of his life. The 32-year-old American missed only one shot and crossed the line eighth, the best ever individual finish for a U.S. biathlete at the Olympic Winter Games.
“That’s awesome,” said teammate Tim Burke, the 2013 world championship silver medalist in the 20km. “Obviously great shooting, and with eighth place, he must have skied pretty well, too.”
Burke was favored to medal here in Sochi but ended up 44th. Russell Currier was 50th, and Leif Nordgren 83rd.
Bailey’s stellar performance came on the heels of one of his most disappointing races. In the 12.5-kilometer pursuit Monday night, he finished 38th — not his worst Olympic finish, but not what he expected at these Games.
“From your low to your high, that’s biathlon,” he said. “That’s a textbook definition of biathlon. It’s a sport where one day you can be at the bottom and then in a matter of 72 hours, be at the top.”
On a warm night on a grueling course, Bailey only missed one shot the entire night — one of 20. That one miss gave him a one-minute penalty. Had he shot cleanly, he would have taken the bronze medal. Looking at the scoreboard, he did the math, then chuckled.
“It’s a really hard sport to be perfect in, which is what makes it so exciting,” he said. “It’s why it’s the most popular sport in Europe. It’s so damn hard.”
“I shot above my average today and skied with the top guys in the world,” he added. “Where I can go wrong is when I can start thinking, ‘I need to go out there and win a medal’ versus ‘I need to go out there and do the best race I’m capable of.’ Today, this is the best race I was capable of.”
Biathlon is the only winter Olympic sport in which the U.S. has not won a medal.
Bailey’s third Olympic Winter Games did not start as he hoped last Saturday. He finished a disappointing 35th in the sprint, then the disastrous 38th in pursuit. He finished 36th in both races at the Vancouver Games and expected better here in Sochi.
But his body thought otherwise. Almost from the beginning of the pursuit on Monday, he felt totally flat. After finishing, he was inconsolable and couldn’t even speak for 20 minutes.
“Most of it was mental, I was so down,” said Bailey, a thoughtful man with a degree in political science and environmental studies from the University of Vermont. “You spend your whole life working for something to see it fall apart in a matter of 35 minutes. It can really beat you down if you don’t step back and gain some perspective.”
Then he saw his mom in the stands. Elizabeth Bailey traveled from Lake Placid, N.Y., to watch her son compete. Lowell’s dad, George, stayed home to teach sixth grade, but has the TV on in the class while his son is competing.
“I realized she’s the reason I’m here,” Bailey said. “She’s living in this tiny little house with 10 people down in the valley, and she came 4,000 miles just to see me race. When you think about that and how many people besides her who have worked to get me even to just the starting line, that’s pretty moving. It made me appreciate that I was here and that this is happening.”
Still, he was gun-shy coming to the start line of the 20km. He feared the race might be another suffer-fest. But soon he was flying, and he only missed one shot in the standing position. By the final uphill, he knew he was doing something special.
“That’s when I witnessed the emotion in one of our staff, Muck Bauer,” said Bailey. “He speaks pretty much only German. But I heard ‘top 10’ in English. I knew it was a good race.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.