Clare Egan approaches the range during a women's sprint race in Kontiolahti, Finland
Trying times can be the most rewarding.
U.S. athletes certainly proved that adage to be correct over the first trimester of IBU World Cup races this season.
After an off-season of disrupted training plans, limited travel and in-person interaction with coaches, and a modified World Cup schedule, the US Biathlon team came out of the gate strong throughout the first four events, setting numerous personal bests and achieving a feat the team had not seen in 15 years.
"We are happy to have a really challenging first period in the books,” said US Biathlon Director of High Performance Lowell Bailey. “With all of the distractions and added stress due to COVID and the necessary health and safety protocols, it is impressive to see how the athletes stayed focused on the singular goal of performing on the tracks.”
Among the many highlights were Clare Egan (Cape Elizabeth, Maine) ranked 20th in the World Cup standings after racing to the two best sprint results of her career, Jake Brown (Saint Paul, Minn.) posting his highest World Cup finish ever as well as personal bests in the sprint, individual and pursuit, and Wisconsinites Deedra Irwin (Pulaski, Wis.) and Paul Schommer (Appleton, Wis.) qualifying for their first-career World Cup pursuit races.
“In all my experience as an athlete there is nothing more physically demanding than the first trimester of the biathlon World Cup,” said Egan. “If you do all the races it's 11 in four weekends, including six in the last 10 days.”
Adding to the pressure this season was having a compacted schedule to cut down on teams’ travel. The first two BMW IBU World Cup races were staged on consecutive weekends in foggy, overcast Kontiolahti, Finland (Nov. 28-Dec. 6). The teams then traveled to Hochfilzen, Austria, for the next two races (Dec. 11-20), and the site of many recent historic performances for the U.S. team continued to be kind to the Americans.
Egan raced to a career-best sprint finish of 10th on the first weekend, then bettered it the second weekend by placing ninth. In doing so she became the first U.S. biathlete to meet the standards set for early qualification to the 2022 U.S. Olympic Team at the end of the season. Early qualification is available for up to two athletes who meet the standards of the U.S. Biathlon selection procedures, in this case, two top-12 finishes at an IBU World Cup race during the 2020-21 season.
“I intentionally tried to come into this season really sharp,” Egan said. “I came up short in Kontiolahti but by the time we got to Hochfilzen I was feeling good. I had a really challenging winter last year where I lagged the whole time, so I am overjoyed to be feeling good and skiing fast again. I think resting for several months instead of just several weeks in springtime was key, as was my training camp in Europe in September where I touched base with my European competitors.”
On the first weekend of racing in Hochfilzen, Egan and teammates Joanne Reid (Grand Junction, Colo.), Susan Dunklee (Barton, Vt.) and Irwin all placed in the top 60 of the sprint, thereby qualifying the entire team for the women’s pursuit, the first time that has happened in 15 years.
The U.S. team will remain in Austria for much of the holiday break to rest, recover and train for the next back-to-back World Cup weekends in Oberhof, Germany, Jan. 8-17.
“I'm tired now and looking forward to a break, but I was really satisfied with how my body responded to consistent racing and I look forward to more after Christmas,” said Brown.
“I haven't skied this fast since 2018-19 so I am a bit out of practice when it comes to approaching the range at a higher pace and potentially in a top position,” added Egan. “I need to work on those physical and psychological details over the break. But other than that, it's just getting back to basics and putting in some training like every year.”
The big picture, of course, is that the first third of the World Cup season is in the books during a time of so much upheaval.
“To have competitions in this uncertain time is the most important thing for athletes and coaches,” said U.S. Women’s National Team Coach Armin Auchentaller. “It is the most familiar feeling you can get during these difficult times and gives you sometimes the feeling of thankfulness that we are actually still able to do what we love.”