With Few Fans And Little Funding, U.S. Biathlon Team Hopes For First Olympic Medals
Imagine running up 10 flights of stairs as hard as you can, and then immediately trying to thread a needle.
A similar union of two opposite skills defines the sport of biathlon. It combines the all-out exertion of cross-country skiing — pushing the limits of human endurance — with the calm, focused precision of rifle shooting.
Biathlon has the distinction of being the only winter Olympic sport in which the U.S. has never won a medal. The American team is hoping to finally break that drought this month.
"I've never seen our team in such high spirits," says biathlete Lowell Bailey, 36, who will be competing in his fourth Olympics. "It's palpable. Everyone wants us to achieve that goal."
Hopes are especially high for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang: The U.S. team is coming off a year of unprecedented success. Last February, Bailey won gold at the biathlon World Championships, becoming the first-ever American world champion. A few days later, his teammate Susan Dunklee nabbed silver, earning the first individual medal for a U.S. woman at a World Championship.
Biathlon requires top speed and maximum cardiovascular strength. During a race, the heart rate of an elite biathlete carrying a .22 caliber rifle typically hits three beats per second. When athletes reach the shooting range, they have to immediately slow their breathing, steady their hands, calm their nerves and focus with perfect precision on targets 50 meters away.
It's one of the most unpredictable, and therefore exciting, sports to watch. Leads change constantly throughout a race. A gust of wind, one missed shot — and a medal that looked like a sure win can vanish.
When Bailey won gold at the World Championships last February, "It was one of those days where everything clicked, everything went right," he says. "And in biathlon, that's a rare occurrence."
Bailey lives and trains in New York's Adirondack Mountains, where one of his first childhood memories is of riding up high in his father's backpack as he skied through the North Country woods. "Faster, Pop!" were some of his very first words, his mother recalls.
By the age of 3, Bailey was cross-country skiing on his own. He was racing by age 4, started competing in biathlon as a young teenager and has devoted himself to the sport full time since he graduated from the University of Vermont in 2005.
During the 20-km event at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Bailey missed just one shot out of 20 and slipped to eighth place. It was his career-best Olympic finish, but bittersweet.
"I was very, very happy," he says, "but also cognizant of the fact that I was about half a centimeter away from an Olympic medal."
Despite its recent successes, biathlon in America remains very much unknown, unappreciated and underfunded, Bailey and his teammates fret.
"We're still facing budget deficits coming off of our best year ever," Bailey says.
Europeans overwhelmingly dominate the sport, and their teams' budgets dwarf that of the U.S. team. Most European biathletes can count on a government salary and a pension. If they're successful, their government may even reward them with land.
Bailey's wife, Erika, remembers a question Lowell got in Finland last year, after he won the World Championship: "Somebody said, 'So did Donald Trump give you land?'"
"And it wasn't a joke," Lowell adds. "I have a friend on the women's Finnish team who won World Championships and she was given a plot of land to build a house on."
By contrast, top U.S. Olympic biathletes get a stipend of $2,000 a month, plus bonuses if they win on the World Cup circuit. Others on the team scrape by however they can, often paying their own way to compete in Europe. Without financial security, some decide to cut their athletic careers short.
"What you see is athletes that stay long enough to make an Olympic team, but then quit because they can't make a living, and they can't ensure their future financially," Bailey says. "Imagine if you're a doctor and you go to work and don't know whether or not you're gonna get a paycheck. That's the life of a U.S. biathlete."
And don't bother looking for biathletes on a Wheaties box or in a Coke commercial. Top U.S. endorsement deals just aren't there.
Recently, though, Bailey's teammate Dunklee decided to get creative. She was competing in Europe, where biathlon is among the most-watched winter sports on television.
Dunklee made a sticker and put it on her rifle, right on the spot where the TV cameras zoom in. "And [it] said, 'Millions of viewers. Your ad here,'" she says.
She quickly picked up sponsorship deals from two overseas companies: the Swiss firm Feuerdesign, which makes tabletop grills, and Syndecor, which makes plastic film. Now in World Cup competitions, Dunklee's rifle stock sports logos from both sponsors.
Dunklee, 31, lives and trains in Craftsbury, Vt., not far from where she grew up. Her father, Stan Dunklee, was a two-time Olympic cross-country skier. She was skiing pretty much as soon as she could walk, started racing for lollipop prizes at about age 5, went on to compete in cross-country skiing at Dartmouth College and then, out of the blue, got a recruitment offer from U.S. Biathlon to join their development program.
The skiing was second nature, but shooting a rifle felt completely alien to her.
"I remember going to the shooting range the very first day," she says, "loading the magazine and then shooting and smelling gunpowder. It was just a really foreign smell that didn't belong there."
Over time, she got used to it.
But last fall, things changed. The mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas forced Dunklee to consider her sport in a new, painful way.
"Watching the news after the Las Vegas shooting, I just had this disgust about anything gun-related," she says. "It really took away the joy that I enjoy doing my sport, just thinking about that and the whole gun culture. Most of the time, I kind of forget that my sport is a gun sport. It's just biathlon: to me it's something totally different."
Dunklee grows pensive as she talks, wrestling with her ambivalence.
"I look at what's happening with all these mass shootings and it's so sad, and it's not OK," she says. "It almost makes me want to just put the rifle down and never touch it again. Sometimes."
In the end, she says, she's come to this realization: "To me, shooting well is such a mastery of emotion, and a mastery of your body. There's nothing violent about it at all. There's no anger in it. There's no room for that. It's all about control: being very precise and very calm and collected and Zen-like."
"Of course," she adds, "it's a rifle. It's capable of doing serious damage if it's not used in the right way."
So at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center where Dunklee trains, rifle safety is the first thing taught to children learning biathlon. Dunklee helps coach these kids, hoping to build the sport she loves and encourage a new generation of biathletes.
On the day I visit, she also drops by Craftsbury Elementary School to talk about her passion for her sport. She answers patiently as eager third- and fourth-graders pepper her with questions: "Do those suits keep you really warm?" (No, not at all.) "Is it hard to put the suits on?" (Yeah, they're kind of tight.)
And inevitably, one of the boys lobs this question: "Have you gotten any gold medals?"
Dunklee doesn't miss a beat.
"Not yet!" she says. "That's one of my dreams."
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