Posted May 1st, 2010
A couple of recent experiences have reinforced an old lesson. One of the reasons I was so excited about attending the Vancouver Olympics was the realistic possibility that an American biathlete might finally win a medal. The U.S. team has made impressive progress during the past quadrennial, dramatically illustrated by Tim Burke’s position as World Cup leader prior to the Olympic break. Three other veteran athletes on the men’s team, Jeremy Teela, Jay Hakkinen, and Lowell Bailey, had also experienced the emotional rush of stepping onto the podium at an international competition.
But as any experienced athlete knows, doing your very best on the day when it really counts is extremely difficult. In fact, it often seems that if anything can go wrong it will. A freakish snow squall during the men’s 10K sprint made it impossible for any athlete starting later than 10th to finish near the top. Mother Nature’s intervention was a boon for Jeremy Teela, who finished 9th, but a significant handicap for the other three Americans, who all finished well back in the results. To make matters worse, the 10K was the first segment of the pursuit, the start order of which was determined by the results of the 10K, in effect, a double jeopardy for Burke, Hakkinen, and Bailey.
Although there were several other biathlon events, Vancouver would not be the site where U.S. biathletes broke the Olympic medal curse. A sense of pride in the dedication of our athletes was tempered by an undercurrent of discouragement that once again they had fallen short of that elusive goal. And yet, a more objective perspective might focus on the accomplishments. Jeremy Teela’s 9th place in the 10K sprint is America’s best ever Olympic biathlon finish. In the mass start event, Tim Burke demonstrated the skiing speed and poise on the shooting range that earned him the yellow jersey earlier in the season. For much of the race he fought it out with the world’s best, in third place, before a couple of missed targets dropped him to 18th. He was in good company; Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway (multiple Olympic medalist and considered by many to be the best biathlete ever), like Tim, worked his way to podium contention, only to drop back after missing a couple of targets.
Finally, Sarah Studebaker, a relative newcomer to biathlon competing in her first Olympic Games, astoundingly shot clean—no misses in her first Olympic event! It is relatively rare for experienced competitors to shoot clean in the big races, so a rookie hitting all her targets in the Olympics is remarkable. I’ll bet Sarah will be back, and at this point, it’s anyone’s guess whether America’s first Olympic medal in biathlon will be won by a man or a woman.
In mid-March, the U.S. Biathlon National Championships were held in Fort Kent, ME. Although some of the top Canadian and U.S. athletes had returned to Europe for the final World Cup events, there was a strong field, including several Vancouver Olympians. During the course of the competitions an interesting drama developed. At age 27, Walt Shepard of Yarmouth, ME, was competing in his final biathlon events. For more than half his life, Walt had been an elite competitor, traveling to 17 foreign countries and accumulating 32 national and international medals.
Also a native Mainer, Russell Currier of Stockholm was a product of the Maine Winter Sports Center, a program conceived by Shepard’s dad, Andy, to stimulate the economy and provide athletic opportunities for the youth of northern Maine. The races in Fort Kent were significant for Walt and Russell, since both had been promising contenders for the Vancouver Olympic team, yet had endured the frustration of missing the cut. Both were determined to end the season with victory.
The final event was a mass start in which the lead changed repeatedly, with Shepard and Currier constantly in the mix. Then, on a stage of standing shooting, Shepard missed a couple of shots while Currier cleaned his targets, and the suspense was over: Russell Currier, National Champion, Walt Shepard, silver medalist.
I glanced across the stadium where Walt’s folks waited for their son. Clearly Andy was disappointed that Walt hadn’t finished his career with one more national title, but at the same time, Currier’s victory was undeniable evidence of the success of the Maine Winter Sports Center. It’s all a matter of perspective.
John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, VT, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.