New Gloucester, Me (Nov.25, 2020) -
Last season ended abruptly for the US Biathlon Team with an early-morning wake-up call in Kontiolahti, Finland, and a hastily arranged flight back to the U.S. amid fear that the border would be closing to all international flights as the coronavirus took hold around the globe.
Fast forward eight months to November 28 when American biathletes will attempt to pick up where they left off, at an IBU World Cup event in Kontiolahti, albeit in a very different atmosphere than what they are accustomed to in the cyclical nature of a typical World Cup season.
For starters, the three races that normally begin the season in November and December have been expanded to four and will take place in just two locations to minimize travel. Kontiolahti will play host to the first two IBU World Cups, including an abbreviated two-day opener, Nov. 28-29. The World Cup will remain in Kontiolahti for the second event, Dec. 3-6. The circuit then travels to Hochfilzen, Austria, for the third and fourth World Cup events, Dec. 11-13 and Dec. 17-20.
The reduced travel schedule is appealing to athletes like two-time Olympian Sean Doherty (Center Conway, N.H.).
“I think it is a great idea to have back-to-back World Cups in the same location,” Doherty commented. “I hope that this continues even when COVID considerations are not a factor. Cutting back on travel saves costs and a lot of energy. Although I appreciate a change of scenery I think it is nice to be in one place a bit longer.”
Originally, Ostersund, Sweden, and Annecy Le-Grand Bornand, France, had been scheduled to host two of the opening World Cup events. Limited or no spectators will be allowed to attend depending on the national health authorities’ regulation in place for each venue in connection with the IBU COVID-19 guidelines.
“Although the empty stands change the atmosphere, the competition, the event itself is the same as ever,” said Doherty. “I do enjoy the spectators but in some ways, it is easier to focus and avoid distraction without all the noise. I do hope live audiences can come back soon because who will sing along to Sweet Caroline when they play it? Looks like that will be next season at the soonest.”
Between last season’s sudden end and this year’s unfamiliar start was an off-season like no other, one that tested the athletes’ resolve as their normal training routines were upended.
“I didn’t see a single coach or USBA athlete from February when I left the Czech Republic until November 9 when we all landed in Europe,” said Joanne Reid from the team’s pre-season camp in Austria.
Reid spent the summer training near her hometown of Grand Junction, Colo., as well as at the Soldier Hollow Olympic venue in Utah.
“I’m quite a bit farther away than driving distance from the Eastern-based biathletes, so I stayed on my own the whole training season. It was pretty fun for me to explore new venues closer to me, ones that I haven’t had the opportunity to go to because I was traveling back and forth from the East for the last couple of years.”
Like Reid, World Cup veteran Leif Nordgren is a self-described homebody who didn’t mind training on his own this summer, especially since he’s the owner of a new house in Vermont.
“Two days before the 2019-20 season my wife and I bought a house. Being forced to stay at home for seven months was actually really nice. I finally got to live in the house that we’d bought and make it our own,” Nordgren said.
He also benefitted from his home’s proximity to the National Guard training site in Jericho, Vt.
“My house is only 20 minutes from the training site and the National Guard was really good about getting our range up and open for training, even while Vermont was still in a lockdown state. I probably had one of the most consistent summers of biathlon training that I’ve ever had and I’m really looking forward to seeing this winter how it’s paid off,” said Nordgren, who raced to a career-best 8th place in the men’s individual at last year’s IBU World Championships.
Some athletes, like Clare Egan, Maddie Phaneuf and Chloe Levins, were able to train together for parts of the summer months. The veteran Egan felt she and the younger athletes complemented each other’s strengths well.
“They are eight and 10 years younger than me, so they brought a refreshing energy to our training together. Maddie and Chloe are both exceptionally accurate and fast shooters, so they pushed me to improve on the range, and I pushed them to improve their ski speed. I hope I was able to pass on some of my experience from many years of training and international competition.”
Egan was also able to travel to Europe in September to train with her coach in Italy as well as with Finland’s Mari Eder, the Estonian women’s national team, and the Italian military biathlon team.
For the athletes, one element that doesn’t change heading into any season is the unknown of where you stack up fitness-wise to your competitors, and that only comes into focus during the first World Cup event of the year.
“I think there is always a question mark over fitness, even in normal years,” says Paul Schommer, who is beginning his sixth year of international biathlon competition. “I know everyone has had to overcome obstacles this year so I am just focusing on what I can do now that will best prepare me for the first races in Kontiolahti.”
When the calendar flips to 2021. the first three IBU World Cup races are set to take place in two locations, with Oberhof, Germany, playing host to back-to-back events, Jan. 7-10 and Jan. 13-17. Italy will be the scene of the seventh World Cup in Antholz-Anterselva, Jan. 21-24, before the IBU World Championships take place in Pokljuka, Slovenia, Feb. 10-21.
The fate of the final three World Cup stops in February and March will be confirmed by the end of November.
Despite the uncertainty of the year, there is excitement in the air that the World Cup circuit is starting as planned. Although the training season has been unpredictable and anything but normal, and the races will look a little different without the throngs of fans, when the athletes put on their bibs this weekend they’ll be back in their element and where they would normally be at this time of year.
The IBU World Cup races will be live-streamed on Peacock at peacocktv.com and the NBC Olympic Channel.