Cross country skier and runner Clare Egan didn’t take up marksmanship until she was 25. Today, at 33, she’s established herself as one of the top biathletes in the world. What inspired her to take up biathlon? And what are the motivational factors that push her to continue her quest for excellence? Clare spoke to Heartbeat: The U.S. Biathlon Podcast from Kontiolahti, Finland where the BMW IBU World Cup Biathlon tour is underway amidst strict International Biathlon Union COVID-19 protocols.
Athletes come into biathlon via myriad pathways. As a young girl, Cape Elizabeth, Maine native Clare Egan loved to run. She had the physiological engine for it and rose quickly as a cross country runner and later a cross country skier. Biathlon wouldn’t cross her radar for some time to come.
A strong runner and skier in high school, she was also an emerging leader. She weighed her interest in sport as she looked at colleges. And while she was strongly considering an NCAA skiing direction, she ultimately chose Wellesley College where she ran division three cross country. But there was no ski program. So, she started one! Her leadership - as a coach and program manager - set Wellesley on a productive path in the U.S. Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association club program.
Her passion for sport grew after college, inspired by friends Susan Dunklee and Hannah Dreissigacker. She moved to Craftsbury in Vermont. At 25 she tried shooting for the first time. A year later she was competing. She narrowly missed the 2014 Olympic Team but became an Olympian in 2018. Today, she’s one of her sport’s most respected athletes and leaders.
Clare Egan’s story is unique. But so is every other biathlon story. At 33, she cherishes each season. She’s proven by her results that she’s among the best in the world. She’s a leader as an athlete representative to the International Biathlon Union - a pro-active spokesperson in a now highly-respected sports federation. And she’s a role model for the next generation of biathletes.
Clare Egan joined Heartbeat host Tom Kelly from her hotel in the eastern Finland city of Joensuu during the opening IBU World Cup Biathlon competition week in Kontiolahti. She speaks openly about her pathway to find training solutions during COVID-19 and her decision-making process that has led her to continue her pursuit of excellence on the road to Beijing 2022.
Listen to the full Heartbeat interview with Clare Egan from the World Cup opener in Kontiolahti. Learn about her late entry into biathlon, how she’s taken on leadership and what motivates her towards the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.
Clare, you’re now back to World Cup competition. What has it been like given the pandemic?Well, in some ways, it's been the most normal thing I've done all year - that's basically how I would sum up my experience on the biathlon course. But, in other ways, it’s definitely different. Sometimes I don't even recognize people I'm seeing for the first time in several months because everyone's masked up. I had a test the morning before my race. So there's definitely a layer of newness and difference. But there's also some things that are exactly the same. And that's refreshing.
Every sports organization is experimenting with protocols to continue competition and keep athletes safe. How has biathlon been managing?The IBU, the International Biathlon Union, has done a tremendous amount of work and just gone above and beyond to do everything they can to make this event possible. So, basically every event participant, whether that's an athlete, a coach, an official, media personnel, needs to take a COVID test before they arrive and have a negative test within 72 hours of arrival. And then once you arrive on site, you get tested right away again. Once that is negative, then you can have your accreditation for the event and you can move around as normal within the event space. Then you're also on a testing regimen every four or five days. So there's a lot of testing involved. There are also rules in place. For example, mask wearing is required everywhere other than when you're in your own personal hotel room or actively competing or training. So that was really new for a lot of people.
Amidst the pandemic, what were some of the decisions you had to make last spring?It wasn't only that I didn't know what my training was going to be like, I also didn't know what the 2020-21 season would look like. And, in some ways we still don't. It's a question mark all the time. As a thirty-three year old athlete. I certainly do not view this year as a building year or training year. Every year I have left in the sport is really an important competition year for me. And so it was definitely a question of whether or not to continue the spring. Do I want to dedicate another year of my life to training for something that I don't even know will happen? That was the biggest question on my mind in those months.
If I can pair the shooting I did this year with the skiing I did last year, I can be one of the top athletes in the world.’ And that's an inspiring thing. I knew that I still have more to give to the sport.
How did you come to your decision to continue?I still have work to do here! I was coming off a tough season in terms of my skiing, but I had increased my shooting percentage to a point that I was really pleased. And the previous year I had skied really well. I was looking at those two things and saying, ‘OK, if I can pair the shooting I did this year with the skiing I did last year, I can be one of the top athletes in the world.’ And that's an inspiring thing. I knew that I still have more to give to the sport.
I'm hopeful that when it's time for me to be done, I'll know it's time for me to be done. I wasn't quite at that point last spring. And so I guess that and then paired with the confidence in the International Biathlon Union to make sport possible, I decided to go ahead.
How did your training base work out in Lake Placid?We had to make some adaptations. But one thing that we are really fortunate to be able to do in biathlon is to train outside and use the great outdoors as our training environment. We can hike in the mountains and ride bikes and run and roller ski and do pretty much all of the things that we need to do outside.
How did you manage coaching and teammates?We were really able to do all of our summer training, despite the pandemic. It just was different in the fact that I didn't see my coach until later and we didn't have any organized camps until October. I did have a couple of teammates who also live in Lake Placid - Maddie Phaneuf and Chloe Levins both were based in Lake Placid. And we did a lot of training together this summer, but we didn't have any full team camps until October.
You were able to get to Europe for an IBU meeting in the fall. How did you parlay that into a training opportunity, as well?I had a great experience, just an excellent, really productive camp training with Armin. And also I had some great training partners. I trained with a Finnish athlete, Mari Eder, as well as some Italian, mostly younger junior athletes, and also the Estonian women's national team. They were all in Antholz training while I was there. It just made a big difference to have some of those training partners. As soon as I got to Antholz and I had my coach there in person able to see me shooting and what was going on, I just felt like we made a couple of really important changes and improvements already within the first few days that then I got to put in to really put into place and solidify over the next three weeks.
Your pathway to biathlon was unique. Where did it begin?I'm from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. I started my athletic career as a runner, my parents would probably tell you from a very early age, I was running maybe more than they would have liked. I fell in love with running and did a lot of track and cross country through middle school. I actually only started cross country skiing in seventh grade and that was sort of a natural progression, I think, from my cross country running team. A lot of my friends who did cross country running in the fall did cross country skiing in the winter. So I sort of followed my friends into that. And I competed throughout high school for my high school team, Cape Elizabeth High School, and. When I had the decision to ski in college or not, I was really on the fence because if you ski in college, it really sort of limits your college choices. Or so I thought. I was thinking NCAA skiing and there's just not very many schools that have that. And I ended up going to Wellesley College. It's not a member of the NCAA ski league. And I ran cross country and track at Wellesley division three and I actually started a cross country ski club that was part of the U.S. Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association. I really did more coaching than skiing on that club, but it was really fun and it's a legacy I'm really proud of. There were 40 people on the Wellesley ski team last winter.
How did you get back into racing?I jumped into some division one races and I really surprised myself by qualifying for the NCAA national championship as a guest skier. And that was kind of coming from this club program where I was the coach. And so I think from there I thought this is something that I'm good at. I love doing it. And I really like to have more opportunities to be on a higher level team and be coached. So from there, I went to the University of New Hampshire as a graduate student, and since I had spent my whole junior year abroad at Wellesley, I had an extra year of NCAA eligibility remaining, That was my stepping stone to the Craftsbury Green Racing Project in Vermont. I lived in Craftsbury for about four years. I was a member of their cross country ski team. I learned about biathlon and started to get involved. Susan Dunklee and Hannah Dreissigacker were both based in Craftsbury. I did a lot of training with them in the summer, but then they would go off in the winter and do biathlon and they had great success.
How old were you when you first picked up a rifle and started to shoot?I was 25 and then 26 when I did my first competitions. It was 2015 when I did my World Cup debut. At that point I was 28.
How did you learn the marksmanship aspect?With a lot of good coaching and a lot of time! It didn't happen overnight. Both the physical skills and the psychological skills took a lot of time because they're totally different than anything I had ever done before. I still feel that every year my skills and shooting improve and you can just see that on my shooting statistics year after year.
You are a part of an important period of U.S. Biathlon history. How does your team work together for the benefit of all?We've set a high bar, but it's always going up. Our junior athletes see that and you can already see, for example, our junior boys are now competing sometimes with our senior athletes. It’s athletes always helping other athletes. I look at what Susan has done and how it helped me do what I've done. Hopefully what I do can help somebody else do even better. That's how it works.
Internationally, how do you look on your role as an athlete representative to the IBU executive board?It’s pretty interesting - that wasn't even on my radar, and then my previous coach basically handed me a piece of paper and said, ‘we think you would be good at this. You should run.’ I thought no one even knew my name. And it's the other athletes who are voting. But at the time in 2018 the IBU and a lot of winter sports in general were in the middle of a major crisis in terms of doping in sport. And I had been really outspoken about that. And I ran for this position and I got the most votes by a lot and it shocked me. But it made me realize that when I had been outspoken against doping, people actually had been listening and they really cared about it. Since then a lot has changed including major fundamental changes to the organization and the response to doping and other integrity issues. So it's been a great progress that I'm happy to be part of.
Do you feel the IBU is listening to athletes?Yes, I do. Since I was elected, the IBU's added a position on its board for an athlete representative that didn't exist before. There was no listening to athletes before because they weren't even in the room. And I feel completely respected and heard by my board colleagues and by the IBU staff, particularly the people who are working there every day and who are responsible for things like anti-doping and managing events and everything with our sport. With good leadership and with integrity, you can solve any problems.
You became an Olympian in 2018 - was that a lifetime goal?
For me, it was definitely not a lifetime goal. I didn't believe it was possible. I didn't even understand how people do that or it was just totally out of my field of view until 2014. I participated in the biathlon trials in 2014 - they were among my very first biathlon competitions that I ever did. I was quite close to making the team. I got close enough that I knew then and there this is definitely possible for me and I'm going to do it in 2018.
One thing that I really cherish about my experience as an athlete is the opportunity it's given me to to travel internationally, to meet people from other countries and to be part of this global community. It's such a privilege to have these experiences and it's an honor to represent my country in these experiences.
Clare, looking back on your career in biathlon and Olympic sport, what has that brought to your life as an athlete?
Oh, that's a good question - there are so many ways that I could answer. One thing that I really cherish about my experience as an athlete is the opportunity it's given me to to travel internationally, to meet people from other countries and to be part of this global community. It's such a privilege to have these experiences and it's an honor to represent my country in these experiences. I think since I was a child, I always envisioned some kind of career for myself in international relations, maybe as a diplomat or something like that. I'm not quite doing that. But there are definitely aspects of this job that I have as an athlete that feel like that. And those are some of my favorite things.
What’s her favorite biathlon venue?
Why was she mountain biking across the southern USA this spring?
How did her ability to speak Korean help the team in Seoul after the 2018 Olympics?
Oh, and how many languages does she really speak?
Finally, what one word describes how she feels about biathlon?
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