(Photo: Nordic Focus)
Team USA Looks Toward Second World Cup Weekend in Kontiolahti
New Gloucester, Maine (December 1, 2020) - The long-anticipated start to the 2020-21 IBU World Cup season became a reality last weekend in Kontiolahti, Finland. Although it was a truncated two-day slate of racing, the athletes welcomed the return to competition after a long and uncertain off-season of training and adapting to new modes of preparation.
“Amid the rest of the uncertainty in the world due to COVID, it feels wonderful to step back into something that resembles normalcy,” said Jake Brown who raced to a career-best 30th place in Sunday’s men’s sprint. “Experiencing both the nerves of racing and the chaos of training on a busy range…I didn't realize how much I had missed it.”
Brown also realized that there is no time to ease back into a World Cup race. The competition is world-class no matter what time of year it takes place.
“I was reminded of how high the level is on the World Cup,” Brown added. “These athletes are bringing their A-game every day, and to compete with them demands our best effort.”
One major difference that was apparent to the athletes at the venue and to anyone watching the live stream at home was the empty stands. Normally filled with thousands of boisterous fans who create an incredible atmosphere of energy, the bleachers in Kontiolahti sat grimly silent and empty during the weekend’s races.
“To come together and be able to race was something familiar, we are just missing the spectators who make sure to create a fantastic scenario and aura around the competitions,” said U.S. Women’s National Team Coach Armin Auchentaller.
For athletes like Joanne Reid, the lack of fans does not adversely affect her performance on the tracks.
“Racing without fans is so calming,” she said. “Introverts rejoice in the golden silence. In the end, every race is you, your skis, your rifle, your own two legs, and a shooting mat. No amount of fans will change that in one direction or the other. The little voice in your head running commentary on how bad the current race hurts isn’t in any way affected by external sound.”
Another adjustment for the teams during the 2020-21 season is the reduced travel schedule, an effort instituted by the IBU to curb exposure to COVID. As such, all teams are remaining in Kontiolahti this week to prepare the second series of races at the same venue used last weekend, a strategy that may be utilized well beyond this season.
“I think it’s a great idea to spend two weeks at a single venue and this season will be a good test run for that,” said 10-year World Cup veteran Susan Dunklee. “Having the entire field pack up and travel every week is exhausting for participants and has a high carbon cost. The IBU has recently begun to assess its environmental impact and athlete sustainability so I hope we’ll see more schedules like this in the future.”
“I think staying for two weeks is a great idea,” Maddie Phaneuf, 25, added. “You get a chance to learn the course/venue a bit better so it’s more comfortable, you can settle a bit more into your hotel room and your routine, and it’s better for the environment and our immune systems. Overall, I think it’s great and I wouldn’t mind this becoming a more common thing in the future.”
Of course, the other noticeable change to this season is the increased testing and precautions needed to assure that athletes, coaches and staff are protected and that the World Cup schedule is not adversely affected.
“The organizing committee did a good job trying to decrease congestion points and keep social distancing,” said Sean Doherty of last weekend’s opening races. “Between that and the IBU testing, I feel reasonably confident that our precautions are working.”
Added Reid: “Everyone is doing the best they can with what they got right now. There’s going to be a learning curve, and we just have to hope that it’s fast, controlled, and allows us to keep racing through the season. We all assumed a heightened risk to ourselves and those around us when we signed on for this season, and so far I have great respect for this team, staff, and the IBU for what they’ve done to get us to the starting line in 2020.”
And from a coaching standpoint, Auchentaller agrees the added measures are necessary to assure everyone’s health remains a priority.
“I think that IBU did a great job in having to different World Cups in one place,” Auchentaller said. “We avoid traveling and this is crucial these days in order to stay healthy. It is kind of strange to have different pods inside the team but we have to do this to be able to guarantee the health of the team.”
The second weekend of BMW IBU World Cup racing runs this Thursday through Sunday with the following schedule (all times Eastern):
Thursday, Dec. 3
7:30am – Men’s 10km sprint
10:30am – Women’s 7.5km sprint
Saturday, Dec. 5
7:20am – Men’s 12.5km pursuit
9:15am – Women’s 4x6km relay
Sunday, Dec. 6
6:45am – Men’s 4x7.5km relay
9:15am – Women’s 10km pursuit
Events can be streamed live on Peacocktv.com or the NBC Olympic Channel. Replays are available after each event on https://www.eurovisionsports.tv/ibu/.