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In the Mix

I know how to deal with race nerves. I’ve probably competed in over 500 skiing and running races over the course of my life. However, the intensity of pressures I felt before my first Olympic race in Sochi threw me off balance.

It all caught up to me a couple days before Opening Ceremonies. With unreliable shuttle services, we often ended up walking, or rather hiking, between the venue, the cafeteria and our chalet, logging up to 2 extra hours of exercise per day. No matter how well I planned, I was always running behind. I hate being late. We had interviews, team meetings, training, drug tests, and inspection times for race equipment. I quickly gave up staying on top of all my emails and messages, realizing that the energy would better directed towards the races.

And the pressure of races themselves- talk about butterflies! Years of training and preparation that all comes down to a few minutes. The world was watching and I could feel the eyes of Vermont’s entire Northeast Kingdom. Over the past year, I’d had mounting expectations, self-imposed and otherwise. And dreams… The US has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon, it is our nation’s last frontier for the Winter Games. Everyone in the American biathlon community is aware of how far one Olympic medal could go to develop the sport in our country.

Four days before the first race, the anxieties, the exhaustion, and the nerves hit me all at once. We were doing our last important interval workout, and I was running late, again. I nearly missed my assigned start. I frantically threw my rifle onto my back and began skiing without fully understanding what the workout was supposed to be. I was mad at myself for being late and mad at the coaches for not giving clearer instructions ahead of time. I skied fueled by anger, but even more by pent up anxiety from the past days. I thought about how poor quality this last crucial training session was turning out to be as I thrashed around the course on my skis. Then I thought about how detrimental my current attitude was for my upcoming racing, which of course didn’t help. Midway through the intervals, the anxiety manifested itself physically and I started hyperventilating.

The severity of my reaction shocked me as I had never experienced anything quite like that. Normally I am very stable in high pressure situations and my head has always been my strongest asset as a competitor. The good news was that I had four days left to get back on my normal track again. And I had a wonderful staff of coaches and our sports psychologist to help me.

It is not usual for athletes at the Olympics to have moments of freakouts. The trick is to look forward and refocus when they happen.
One of my first tasks was to remember what my job was. It wasn’t to win a medal or achieve a certain result; it was a lot simpler than that. My job was to perform well. If I could do that, the results would take care of themselves. I reminded myself that I didn’t have to do anything special on race day; I only had to do exactly the same thing I did in practice every day for the past several years.

Performing well requires focusing on the process of what you are doing rather than on the result. (Easier said than done!) Take shooting for example. Worrying about hitting targets while shooting can create extra muscle tension. It can also distract the mental focus away from important elements of the shooting process, like trigger squeeze and follow through. When stray thoughts enter your head, it is important to refocus to the task at hand: setting up a relaxed shooting position on the mat or feeling the pressure of the trigger against your finger.

20140310-231851.jpgShooting well requires being 100% focused on the task at hand. Photo: Getty Images.

Over the next few days, I found my normal prerace routines again. I decided that my key word for the Games would be “patience” because it applied to so many things that I was working on. I could be patient on the course and find the most efficient ski technique. Thinking about patience at the shooting range could help me relax and allow the shooting to feel more automated. If (when) unexpected obstacles came up, I could patiently adapt to deal with them. With results, I’d be patient too: I’d work on the tasks at hand and trust that over the course of the Games, something would come together for me.

I was still incredibly nervous at the start line of my first Olympic competition, the 7.5 km sprint. However, I discovered that I could set the tone for the race in the first 100 m after departing from the start gate. Rather than applying a maximum effort to accelerate to full speed immediately, I focused first on finding a smooth rhythm on skis. “Be patient,” I reminded myself. Soon I was skiing very efficiently, carrying forward momentum with each glide. Even the unusual experience of hearing hundreds of camera clicks going up the first hill couldn’t pull me from the zone. As the race progressed, I constantly evaluated the terrain and snow conditions and adjusted my ski technique accordingly, as I had planned with my coaches beforehand. We knew that the real gains or losses on skis would be made on the final pitches of the course’s long climb where everybody would be feeling tired, so I held back from skiing at my full effort until I hit that critical section.

20140302-115529.jpgPhoto: Competitive Images/USBA

The feeling of control on the ski course also carried over to a relaxed and confident feeling as I approached the shooting range. My shooting felt very automatic and routine, just like in training. I “cleaned” the prone stage, hitting all five. The last stage, standing, felt smooth as I knocked down the first four targets. Only one was left. I took a normal breathe, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. The shot landed just outside the target, which meant I had to make a single visit to the penalty loop.

I was having a fantastic race in spite of the penalty and smiled at myself, but I also knew that one mistake, occurring in just a fraction of a second, had cost me a truly extraordinary result. What I didn’t know at the time was exactly what that result would have been. Turns out had I hit that last shot, I could have walked away with the silver medal that day. Instead I placed 14th. It was close.

20140304-132041.jpg
The missed shot is the mark closest to the target at 10 o’clock. Photo: Fasterskier.com

But that is the nature of biathlon; there is usually a very tiny amount separating a great performance from a perfect performance, but that difference can look huge on the results sheet. It was incredibly empowering to realize I had been legitimately “in the mix” for an Olympic medal. And it was humbling to realize that 9 other athletes had come just as close because they also would have stood on that podium, had they only hit one more target.

This past summer, our coaches often had us do a “podium test” shooting drill, in which we imagined we were at a World Cup, or the Olympics, and fighting for a medal. The goal was to hit a certain percentage of the targets in under in a certain amount of time, which they had calculated would be a medal-winning performance for us. The purpose of the drill was to prepare us so we would feel ready and confident in that situation. During our second Olympic race, the pursuit, I was once again in medal contention during the last shooting stage. I entered the range immediately behind the 3rd and 4th place athletes. We had a head-to-head shooting battle, the most exciting and high pressure type, and unfortunately I finished with some trips around the penalty loop and lost several places. It was a disappointing ending, but after the race one of my coaches was quick to point out that I had gotten to do a “real, live podium test at the Olympics.” Pretty cool.

The next couple weeks were a blur with a lot more racing and some truly exciting moments. We had some very strong finishes on the team. Lowell got a top 10, Hannah improved her best World Cup result by over 30 places, and we posted a 7th place in the women’s relay, our highest placing yet. That may have been our best result ever, but it was far from our best performance. we used 13 extra rounds to hit our targets that day, as opposed to 4 and 8 in our other two relays this year, which left us wondering, “what if?”

20140227-201448.jpgThe massstart where I notched my best result and placed 11th. Photo: Fasterskier.com

I left Sochi feeling great about my own performances. I did struggle under the pressure a few times and my attitude occasionally got off-track, but I learned that I could refocus before each new race. I posted high results, the best ever for a US woman biathlete (although there is still plenty of room for improvement). My Olympic shooting percentage was more consistent than normal and I felt fearless on skis, ready to challenge anyone. Most of all, I am proud that I was able to truly be myself during much of the Olympics and enjoy the thrill of competing on the world’s biggest stage. I left Sochi hungry for more racing and couldn’t wait for the regular World Cup season to resume.

We didn’t go home after Sochi.

The Olympics may be done, but the world’s best biathletes will be duking it out in World Cup races until late March. This week, we have 3 races in Pokljuka, Slovenia. Then we will travel to Finland and finally to Norway. The same cast of characters that you enjoyed watching in February will be back. Darya Domracheva and Tora Berger will be battling for the season overall World Cup title and Martin Fourcade will certainly put on an entertaining show.

Here’s the exciting part- you don’t have to wait 4 more years for more biathlon!

20140302-124825.jpgTim and Hannah in the mixed relay. Photo: USBA

I know many of you have become big biathlon fans in the last few weeks and that’s exciting! I know I am a little bias, all right, maybe a lot, but I absolutely love this sport. It is suspenseful to watch, extremely difficult to master, and unlike anything else out there. It’s also relatively undiscovered, especially in America. I would love to share more about it with you.

You can stream World Cup races live or watch replays of the highlights anytime on Biathlon World TV. Check it out. Our next race is on Thursday; the women will race at 9:30 EST. Tune in and cheer us on! When watching live, I recommend pulling up the live timing results too for a little more excitement.

I promise I will put up some more blog posts soon with Sochi pictures and stories about what it was like to compete in Olympics for the first time. Stay tuned.

We’ve had a few days now to settle in and explore the Endurance Village. Life has been pretty busy. Tomorrow are the Opening Ceremonies. I will not be marching in them because I will be preparing for our first race this weekend.

20140206-164240.jpgFantastic mountain scenery in every direction here… It just makes you want to dance!

20140206-172527.jpgThe Endurance Village seen from above

20140206-173846.jpgHannah jogging our commute to breakfast. We have been logging a lot of walking time each day to and from meals since the shuttle buses haven’t been running super consistently yet.

20140206-171259.jpgSara grabbing some food from the salad bar with NBC in tow. There are camera crews everywhere. Today I even ran into some during my sauna!

20140206-173900.jpgLooking down at the biathlon stadium from the top of the course.

20140206-171202.jpg Annelies and coach Per enjoying a sunny day on the shooting range. So far, everyday has had blue bird skies!

20140206-172535.jpgOur rifles are stored in secure lockers and we sign them out before practice each day. There is dryfire room where we can warm up before shooting practices. We were pleasantly surprised to find Skiergs there (see on far left) which we have been incorporating into our training the last month.

20140206-171540.jpgHanging out in our team’s chalet. So far, there hasn’t been as much down time as I expected, but if we ever get bored, there is a karaoke/cinema, disco, arcade game room and plenty of other entertainment within the village.

20140206-172552.jpgEndurance Village and heated pool by night.

20140206-175130.jpgMyself, Ida and Hannah: the Craftsbury girls at The Games. Our club coach, Pepa, arrives tonight as a coach for Bermuda. This afternoon our thoughts are with the Craftsbury and Dartmouth communities as they hold a memorial ski for Torin Tucker.

Smooth Arrival in Sochi

The last couple of days have felt surreal. Saturday morning, we finished our preparation training camp and drove from northern Italy to Germany for USA Olympic Team Processing. Yesterday we flew to Sochi and settled in the endurance village (biathlon and xc ski athletes only) on top of a mountain.

The Team Processing took place in the Munich Olympic Hall. We were outfitted with our team uniforms, including opening and closing ceremony stuff and received our credentials. There were a lot of stations to visit in a short afternoon.

20140202-215555.jpgTrying on the opening ceremony outfit

20140202-214912.jpgCraftsbury gals in our closing ceremony garb

20140202-215147.jpgIt was a nice surprise to see a familiar face in Munich- Sam from the Lake Placid OTC kitchen was helping to organize food and logistics for team processing.

20140202-215040.jpgLowell at the autograph station

20140202-214550.jpgOur biathlon team leader, Bernd, shares some history of the 1972 Munich Olympic Park and its democratic design. The walls and roofs of the venues in the background were made of glass so that everybody could see in and share the experience. The Park’s paths were paved after the Games based on where people had chosen walk and naturally worn in paths.

Early Sunday morning we took a charter flight from Munich to Sochi with other American athletes and staff, including a large contingent of the luge team.

20140202-220225.jpgRetrieving luggage at the airport: a chaotic scene. And more of our bags are yet to come!

20140202-220426.jpgThe Sochi volunteers are hard to miss- we are loving the rainbow Russia!

20140202-215425.jpgBlue sky day in the city of Sochi

The Endurance Village is about an hour’s bus ride away.

20140202-215933.jpgView on the gondola ride up to the Endurance Village.

Antholz, Italy has been one of my favorite destinations on the World Cup since I first visited it a couple years ago. (Le Grand Bornand in France was pretty good this year too.) Sunshine, meters of fluffy snow, gorgeous mountains, quiet forests… what’s not to love? Unlike many of our race venues that are lacking in natural snow, Antholz has been a reliable winter paradise. The atmosphere is always festive too, with thousands of energetic fans filling the stadium and lining the ski track.

20140121-142757.jpgCraftsbury gals and now Olympic teammates- Me and Hannah skiing today at the Staller Pass above Antholz. Photo: Judy Geer

We had three races here last week beginning with the 7.5 km sprint. In both shooting bouts I hit all my targets, “cleaning” an individual World Cup race for the first time.

20140121-145645.jpg On course during the sprint. Photo: Andrei Ivanov Facebook

During the last loop, my coaches gave me splits saying that I could be on the podium. I fought hard. When I crossed the finish line, I was sitting in first place but was ultimately bumped down to fourth by some of the later starters. It was a career best result and I was only half a second off the podium! I was also very happy to see Anais Bescond of France win that day; it was her first World Cup victory and she is one of the nicest ladies on the circuit.

20140121-142901.jpgWaiting with Tora for the flower ceremony to begin. Photo: Erik Lewish

20140121-143242.jpgWhen I first got up on the awards stage, I was a little confused because I couldn’t remember where the 4th-6th places were supposed to stand. Luckily Andrea (2nd place) noticed and discretely nodded towards her left. Photo: Erik Lewish

The next race was a 10 km pursuit. In a pursuit, the winner from the previous day starts first and the other athletes start behind, handicapped by how far back they finished the day before. The first person to cross the finish line wins. I started fourth, only 11 seconds back and I was a little nervous being surrounded by such fast women who have proven themselves many times. I had to remind myself that starting near the front is exactly where I want to be. Before the race, I visualized being in the lead pack while skiing smartly and shooting relaxed, and that made me feel more comfortable.

20140121-154745.jpgA front row place on the pursuit start line! A very new experience. Photo: Grant Ernhart

20140121-160958.jpgIn pursuits, each athlete is responsible for starting themself. If they leave the start line early, there is a large time penalty added. Photo: Grant Ernhart

Unfortunately, despite staying relaxed and near the front for a couple of loops, I lost a lot of places by the end and finished in the 20s. Along the way I broke a pole and lost a couple of ammunition clips which cost me some time, but my biggest problem was missing 3 out of 5 targets in one of the standing shooting stages. It was still a great learning experience and I hope to have more chances like that in the future.

The week culminated with a team relay race. We were psyched to have our team back at full strength after having to sit out the last World Cup relay when half our members were away at Olympic try outs. Earlier this winter, we netted two top 8s in the relay event, one of our strongest years ever, and we couldn’t wait to keep that momentum going.

20140121-155325.jpgSara and Annelies warming up before the race with some standing holds and dryfire exercises.

The day started out very foggy and at times we couldn’t see the shooting targets 50 m away. During the warmup, we skied small circles around the stadium, ready to jump on our shooting mat and zero our rifles whenever there was a brief lightening of the fog. Normally zeroing takes me about 5 minutes but this time it took over 35. By the time I finished, I had just enough time to take off my warmups and get to the start line on time. I didn’t get a chance to do my usual skiing warmup or go to the bathroom one last time. However, one thing that racing has taught me about life is that sometimes you just need to be flexible. Luckily during my leg of the race, the fog held off and I could see the targets fine. I tagged off to Annelies for the second leg. She made it 2/3 of the way through her leg and we were sitting in 5th when the fog set in again and the targets disappeared. At that point, the officials decided to cancel the race. Sara and Hannah never even got to start.

20140121-145138.jpgOfficials calling off the race during the second leg’s standing shooting. It was the second time this year a World Cup has been cancelled mid race due to weather. Photo: Fasterskier

Now the races are finished and we have a couple weeks of break before traveling to Sochi for the Olympics. We are staying here in Antholz for a training camp at altitude. I love skiing the trails here and savoring the sight of the mountains.

20140121-145548.jpgThis morning I skied out of the fog to the top of the Staller Pass behind our hotel. This is view looking back down. The biathlon venue is just out of sight on the far side of the lake.

Home Fires Burning

On a quiet morning in late December, my teammate Hannah and I unrolled a couple of shooting mats and unfolded the legs of an old spotting scope. We were setting up for biathlon practice along the back edge of Craftsbury’s lower ski stadium. 50 meters away, through a tunnel of trees, four black and white metal targets perched on rustic cedar scaffolding. A grid of cables suspended their reset ropes above a gully. This is our home training grounds. Although we both race on the National Team now, we love spending time at home, at the venue where we got our start.
20140105-095447.jpgOur rustic shooting range. Photo: screenshot from WPTZ news.

After zeroing our rifles, we skied several loops around Lemon’s Haunt, a 2 km trail where I remember racing as early as six years old. During our interval workout, Hannah and I wove in and out around packs of local junior and youth skiers. We all wore matching uniforms of the Green Racing Project and Craftsbury Nordic Ski Club. We looked like one big team. As we pushed hard side-by-side to ski faster, we certainly felt like one unified team too.
20140105-094547.jpgCraftsbury’s up and coming skiers, sporting their snazzy new uniforms. Photo: Callie Young

Later for my afternoon workout, I left my rifle at home and savored the longer trails that took me far from the shooting range. I packed a headlamp in my waterbelt because I usually finished after dark. I tried to go as long as I could without turning it on. I enjoy the challenge of skiing in the dark; it helps improve balance. Besides, I like to think I can predict every dip and turn of Craftsbury’s trails.

In the two weeks I was home, I went through several sets of headlamp batteries, but not simply because of the night skiing. On the Sunday before Christmas, northern Vermont awoke to an ice storm. The forest was coated in thick ice and looked like a crystal palace! All day long, we heard the gunshot sound of tree trunks snapping and the broken glass shatter as branches tumbled to the ground. Our team house was without electricity for five days as utility companies scrambled to repair downed lines across the region. We made sure to keep our wood stove well stocked. It took the Outdoor Center’s staff, plus loads of volunteers, several days to clear debris off the ski trails.
20140105-094839.jpgView of the ice storm near my parents’ house in Barton. The storm and subsequent cold snap created perfect ice skating conditions on Crystal Lake for Christmas day. Photo: Stan Dunklee

Stau in the Penalty Loop

Now that I am home with solid internet and don’t have to focus on racing for a couple weeks, I am hoping to catch up on some stories from the World Cup. Here’s one from early December:

We have spent endless hours on the Autobahn during our travels. Our most dreaded road sign, spotted all too frequently, is a “Stau” warning: traffic is about to slow to a crawl. Somewhere miles ahead, an accident has happened or vacation traffic is bottlenecked as it returns to Munich. All we can do is settle in and wait out the traffic jam or “Stau.”

I recently found myself in a different sort of Stau during our pursuit race in Ă–stersund. Following the first shooting, a windy struggle in which I missed all 5 targets, I made straight for the penalty loop. As I started my third circuit around, I took a quick glance over my shoulder. “Well, this is something new,” I thought. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a continuous parade of color; about 30 athletes were circling the loop at once. With no room to maneuver in the penalty loop, we were stuck going the same speed as the person ahead of us. It was like driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Despite my disastrous start to the race, I realized that everyone was struggling and I could still be competitive.

20131217-153431.jpgUnusually high traffic in the penalty loop. Photo: USBA/NordicFocus

As the race progressed, conditions didn’t improve. Windblown snow had piled up across the race track. On downhills that I usually tuck at high speed, my skis sunk deep into the drifts and I slowed to a stop. I drafted behind other athletes to avoid wasting unnecessary energy against the headwind. The little red wind flags hanging in the shooting range ripped horizontally, unlike their gentle fluttering during our zeroing (sighting-in) period 45 minutes earlier. The wind whipped up clouds of snow that would obscure the targets and blind anyone in their path. Flatland, one of the Norwegian women, lost her sunglasses when they flew off her head in a particularly strong gust.

20131217-152741.jpgStormy conditions on the shooting range. Photo: USBA/NordicFocus

20131217-152955.jpgOne week earlier, a similar windstorm tore down the wall next to the shooting range.

Unbeknownst to the athletes, the competition jury was meeting and they decided to stop the race midway through, citing unfair and unsafe conditions. A strong windstorm earlier in the week had already toppled big pine trees onto the course. Athletes who normally hit over 90% of their targets were “dirtying” (missing all 5.) Other athletes, shooting during breaks in the wind or on the higher points protected by a wall, could hit more targets, avoid the penalty loop, and pass 25-30 people at once!

I was finishing up my third shooting stage, when I heard a race official speaking behind me. “The race is done. You must stop now.” I put my rifle on my back and turned around. Everyone was packing up. Per, one of our coaches was standing nearby behind a spotting scope so I went over to check in.

“That was wild!” I exclaimed, pumped up on adrenaline. “I missed 8 out of 10 prone targets and I was in still the hunt for a top 40 and points.”

“Yeah, it was crazy,” he agreed. Per nodded towards the lower numbered shooting points. “You should go rescue your friend,” he chuckled. Sure enough, I looked over and there was my teammate Annelies, all by herself and still cemented to her mat. Apparently she was the most focused athlete out there that day. She was completely oblivious that the rest of the competitors were already streaming towards the stadium exit. Normally we take 30 seconds to shoot five shots, but she’d been standing on that mat for minutes, waiting for gaps in the wind.

I skied over. “Hey Cookie,” I said softly, not wanting to startle her with a loaded rifle in her hands.

She lifted her head off the rifle’s cheekpiece, bewildered. “Huh?”

“They stopped the race. We are done.”

“Oh.”

As we joined the other athletes at the exit I asked, “Couldn’t you hear that nobody else was shooting?”

“No. I thought it was quiet because everybody was just waiting for the wind too.” We had a good laugh.

According to our Swedish friends, Ă–stersund’s wacky weather continued in the weeks after we left. Strong windstorms ripped down trees, damaged houses and left the region without power.

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