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Archive for January, 2012

Since January 1st, the biathlon World Cup circuit has given us a tour of central Europe.  We started in Oberhof, Germany, a biathlon mecca that attracts over 30,000 fans.  Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic, site of the 2013 World Championships, hosted us the following week and treated us to some of the windiest, snowiest and most challenging race conditions we’ve seen.  Antholz, Italy welcomed us at the start of this week with mountains, altitude, and the first real sunshine of the season.

Oberhof

Favorite moment:

Cooling down with Sara after the Oberhof sprint.  There were so many fans exiting the stadium blocking the sidewalk and road that the only place we could successfully jog was a narrow space in between the 100 or so double parked shuttle buses.  We covered about half a mile running between buses.  Weaving between the crowd and the buses made me feel like I was on The Knight Bus from Harry Potter.

Sara and Annelies dryfire to warm-up before the sprint.

Racers in the crowded finish pen at Oberhof's women’s mass start. We watched from the sidelines because none of us qualified for the race. It's fun to be part of a crowd of over 25,000 fans and have a front row spot to cheer from. I couldn't help but think it would have been even more fun to be in the race.

Crazy Oberhof fans

Nove Mesto

Favorite moment:

I used to think we had a pirate on our staff, or at least a pirate want-to-be.  He is a wax tech from Czech named Gara, and he always greets us with a hearty “ahoy!”  When we arrived in Czech, I was surprised to discover that many of Gara’s countrymen were also pirates.  Everywhere I went, I heard people hailing each other with “ahoy!”  Then I had a revelation: perhaps Gara wasn’t a pirate at all; perhaps Gara was simply Czech.

 

Banners along the Nove Mesto race course. Nove Mesto is the only venue I’ve raced at every year since I started biathlon (they often host IBU Cups.) This year they introduced a brand new course in preparation for hosting World Championships next year.

A view outside our hotel

Most reachable surfaces in the surrounding neighborhood are colored with graffiti. It's actually nice to see some brightness in a gray place.

Some of the team and staff chilling in the hotel hallway. There were very few places in the building where we could pick up a wireless signal.

Antholz

I got off to a rough start in Italy.  We had a very long travel day from Nove Mesto (made even longer by a five hour delay due to car problems) and I was feeling overly tired and depressed from being sick.  All the women on the team were starting to feel the strain of being on the road for so long away from home, family and friends.  I desperately needed to set the reset button in my brain.  The best cure: mountains, sunshine, and racing!

Favorite moment (so far):  When I left the range after my final shooting in the sprint race, I knew I was on track to have my best result yet.  I only missed one target and I was getting splits that I was sitting in about 15th place.  The rest of the race was a fight to earn a mass start spot.  Only 30 athletes get the honor of starting in a mass start- the top 25 ranked competitors from the entire season, and the next 5 best finishers from the previous sprint.  Last year Sara, Laura, and Haley all earned mass start spots at some point during the season (the first time any American women had in years), so I knew it was possible.  I placed17th in the sprint with my best finish yet, and I’m racing the mass start on Sunday!

But first things first:  team relay this afternoon!  This is only the 2nd time this year that we’ve been able to field a women’s team and we are excited.

Finally, the mountainous venue I’ve been waiting for: Antholz!

Armin, one of our coaches, standing behind the scope in his hometown. Most of the US team's staff are Europeans.

Official training under the first true blue sky I’ve seen in Europe this year.

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Knock, knock, knock!  On my first morning in Oberhof, Germany, I’m jolted out of sleep by someone rapping on my door.  I crawl out of bed and poke my head out into the hallway.  “Good morning sleepy head!” my teammates Sara and Annelies great me with a laugh, “you really ought to see yourself in the mirror- you’ve got a handprint on your face.”  I must have been using my hand as a pillow.  I grunt and glance at my watch: 9:25.  I slept for almost 11 hours and I vaguely remember deciding to sleep through my alarm.  Oh, the joys of jetlag!

Following breakfast, I venture into the grey world outside for an easy jog and I check out the race venue.  The towering spruce trees along the road rock dangerously in the wind.  A thin strip of plastic fencing tape is blowing so hard that it sounds like the clatter from a rolling luggage bag.  Oberhof has a reputation for crappy weather: wind, rain, and fog.  In the race stadium, I run into Max Cobb, executive director of US Biathlon and an IBU official for this week’s competitions.  “Is it always this windy here?” I ask him.  Max informs me that the Oberhof World Cup usually has at least one day like this.

On the day before the first event, the organizers worked nonstop to truck in enough snow.

The wind hasn’t abated by the afternoon when we arrive at the wax cabins and prepare for official training.  The wax room doors are accidents waiting to happen.  Open them even the slightest bit and the wind will catch them, swing them wide open, and pin them against the wall.  Sara struggles to wrestle our door closed; it looks like a more arduous workout than skiing but I’m laughing so hard that I can’t assist her.  I’m very glad our upstairs wax cabin is on the end of the building so we don’t have to risk walking along the narrow balcony front of everybody else’s doors.

Predictably, today’s shooting is frustrating.  A teammate sums it up saying “If you can hit 3 targets [per stage], you are doing well.”  Standing is especially difficult- my whole body sways in the wind.  In order to hit anything, I have to wait out the worst of the gusts and be ready to shoot when there is a split second of calm.

The skiing is slightly better, although the snow is sparse.  The organizers have only a 1.5 km loop open for the first couple days of training and are preserving the rest of the course for the races.  Before the second afternoon of training, our high performance director, Bernd Eisenbichler, asks the team: “Who hasn’t skied here before?  Susan?  Annelies?”  The closed off part of the course includes the strenuous “Bergsteig” climb and a challenging downhill that will be featured in the race.   Last week, the world’s best cross country skiers raced down it during the Tour de Ski and there were a handful of epic crashes.  “Don’t worry,” Bernd tells us with a grin, “you only go about 60 km/hr on the downhill.”  He’s  exaggerating slightly- Tour de Ski competitors were only clocked going 58 km/hr.  We are a little worried.

Leif, a member of our men’s team chimes in: “Yeah, it’s not like it is twisty and technical or anything.”

“Shut up!” cries Annelies, and gives Leif a shove, but she’s smiling.  On the day before the sprint when we finally get a chance to preview the course, I find the actual downhill anticlimactic after hearing so much about it.

A row of coaches at the scopes during offical training. In the background you can see part of the stands, which wrap around the hill like an amphitheatre.

As soon as we arrived in town, Sara started talking up Oberhof’s opening ceremonies.  Last year, she was the only US athlete who bothered to participate, and she thought it was really cool.    Usually these events are long and drawn out, with lots of speakers (translated into a couple different languages) and hours of standing in the cold wind.  However, this one’s designed to be athlete friendly.   Sara, Annelies, and I decide to go as a group this year.  We arrive in the indoor waiting area at our assigned time and are immediately given an American flag and instructed to line up at the doorway behind the Ukrainian team.  Two minutes later, it is our turn to march outside onto a stage to the sound of some unmemorable soundtrack.  Annelies leads with the flag.  We smile and wave at the crowded park below.  The announcer turns to interview us.  “How do you find the weather here?” he asks, and thrusts the microphone under my nose.     Oh, you mean the pounding winds, the walls of mist that blast against our faces, the slushy saturated1.5 km loop of snow?  “We’re loving it!” I declare.  The announcer turns to Sara: “Are you planning to use your wax skis or your water skis?”  I’ve never heard of snow skis referred to as wax skis before.  “We hope we’ll be using our wax skis,” she responds.   The announcer thanks us, and then we are waving to the crowd one last time and parading off stage.  Barely five minutes have passed since our arrival in the waiting area.  Short and sweet- the way opening ceremonies for these events should be.

Upon exiting the back of the building, we are mobbed by a group of 20 or so autograph seekers.  Oberhof is one of the most popular World Cups in terms of fan attendance.  On a Wednesday night race, in the worst weather imaginable, 15,000-20,000 fans will show up to watch.  Thousands more appear for weekend races.  The small group around us right now wields sharpies, event posters, and printed out athlete photos.  They ask for our autograph cards.  I hadn’t needed them until this year.  Right about now, I’m feeling thankful that Annelies and I made a last minute decision to design some cards for ourselves.  We each printed out about 100 the day before we flew to Sweden back in November.  Fans in Europe expect you to have them on hand, and I like having their support.  Let’s face it, American Nordic skiers can use all the support we can get.  The tricky part is that if you give out one card, or sign something for one person, the entire group crowds around you.  Luckily, there is a security guard in a bright yellow coat ready to intervene if necessary.  At this rate, I am going to run out of cards before I even race this week.  As we leave the crowd, Sara gives me a piece of advice: “If I were you, I would make sure to save some cards for Ruhpolding.”

Another section of the stands. 3 hours until the men's relay, and fans are already claiming their places.

On my second morning in Oberhof, I wake up at a reasonable early hour.  On my way to breakfast, I run into one of our coaches, Per and he looks cheery.  “Come here Susan,” he calls me over to the window.  “I have to show you something.  Look!”  We peer through the blinds and he points to the sky.   I can see some clear sky among scattered clouds.  It’s threatening to snow.   It’s even threatening to sunshine.   It’s beautiful weather, for Oberhof.

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