US biathletes focus on process in pursuit of first-ever Olympic medal

BEIJING — Saturday marks the first day medals are awarded at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

And this is the first chance at these Games for the US biathlon team to break through.

American biathletes have the distinction of being the only American Olympians who have never been on the medal stand.

Innovations since the last Olympics raise hopes that the United States can finally place in the top three in one of the combined cross-country skiing and target shooting events traditionally dominated by Europeans.

Biathlon like baseball

American biathlete Clare Egan came to China ready to answer the question — why no American medals? – and armed with an answer that people who know nothing about his eccentric sport could understand.

“In baseball,” Egan said, “even the best hitters get three out of 10 hits when at bat.”

This means that failure happens more than success.

Same thing in biathlon, says Egan. Over the past decade, the United States has had the athletes who have competed with the best and been successful.

Lowell Bailey was the 2017 world champion. Susan Dunklee, who is in China for her third and final Olympics, won two silver medals at the World Championships. Before her, Tim Burke won one. But neither they, nor any other American biathlete, were able to get the timing right at the Olympics.

“We have maybe 30 races over the winter,” Egan said, “but the Olympics are once every four years and only a few competitions. So statistically the likelihood of us landing on the podium any given day is quite low.”

And before you say, well, all those Norwegians and Germans seem to have no trouble winning Olympic medals, consider this: Biathlon, in these and other European countries, is hugely popular and heavily funded. There are hordes of Europeans in international competitions, so statistically these countries have a better chance of winning a medal.

But they too can… withdraw.

In 2018 Finland’s Kaisa Leena Mäkäräinen, the Women’s World Cup leader at the Winter Olympics, went skunk at the Games.

“It’s no surprise to us,” Egan said, “because it’s like baseball.”

The unique biathlon challenge

Indeed, the unique nature of biathlon can appeal to you, whether you come from a mighty country or the United States, with its mighty little engine attitude.

“Biathlon is a very unpredictable sport,” said Max Cobb, president of US Biathlon.

It combines cross country skiing and target shooting – it’s the COMBINED part that makes it really challenging. Cobb says no matter how good a sniper you are with the .22 caliber biathlon rifle, try doing it lying on your stomach, after charging on the ski course and getting your heart rate up to 170.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” Cobb said. “From the supine position, you are [trying to hit a target] the size of a golf ball from 165 feet away. And you try to shoot at least every two seconds, if not less.”

Unpredictability happens, for the most part, on the range. And that can have a drastic effect on the overall results.

Upon entering the shooting range, a biathlete can lead the event, but if his shooting is disabled, because he cannot control a heaving chest, gusts of wind or snowfall, the advance can disappear.

Changes over the past four years

Since the 2018 Olympics, when the United States again finished without a medal, Cobb says the program has taken steps to end the drought.

They worked more frequently with Matt Emmons, a former summer Olympic gold medalist in shooting. They have done innovative things with athlete skis.

“The big thing in preparing the ski for Nordic skiing,” Cobb said, “is breaking surface tension. Essentially, this exists when the ski slides over the snow and a thin film of water is created. With all the different types of snow crystals there are and the different temperature and humidity settings, there is an almost limitless number of ski preparation techniques that we use to try to essentially improve the glide by breaking the surface tension of the snow.”

This includes changes to the structure of the base of the ski.

“It’s our best-kept secret,” Cobb said, “but it’s been really effective.”

And perhaps recent results confirm all this.

“We had some really amazing performances in our squad at our last World Cup. [event] before the Olympics,” Egan said. “Paul [Schommer of the men’s team] had a ninth place [in the 20km Men’s Individual race] it was a great personal record for him. His first top 10 in the World Cup. We also had our best result in the women’s relay since the early 1990s. We finished fifth and that was very exciting for us.”

And then Egan had his second-best World Cup result ever, placing fourth in the 15km individual race in Antholz, Italy.

“It was all really exciting,” Egan said. “I think it showed that our team is forming at the right time.”

So, will Egan or any of the other rising Americans be the breakthrough biathletes at the Beijing Olympics?

Egan prefers not to talk about it – in fact, it’s Team USA strategy not to talk about it.

“One of the things we say in biathlon,” Cobb said, “is that the more you want it, the less likely you are to achieve it. It really has to be process-oriented here. And that is really our goal for these Games.”

A sports psychologist works with athletes on mental focus and techniques for refocusing when the mind drifts toward the outcome rather than the process.

Especially during the filming phase.

“If you start thinking about what it means to hit those targets,” Cobb said, “they become a lot harder to hit. If you think about it too much, you’re going to miss.”

So American biathletes will continue to hear the questions – why no medals? – but keep your mind and eyes on the ski slopes and shooting targets ahead.

And at the end of the process, maybe one or more can finally hit that biathlon home run.

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