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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.