The 2007 Biathlon Season was another record-setting year for the US Biathlon Team, led by the men’s squad of Tim Burke (Paul Smiths, NY), Jay Hakkinen (Kasilof, AK), Lowell Bailey (Lake Placid, NY), and Jeremy Teela (Anchorage, AK).If 2006 was a renaissance year for the men, then 2007 was a coming of age for the group. Led by the new coaching staff of Per Nilsson and Mikael Lofgren, the US Team started fast and never looked back. Before the first World Cup in Ostersund, Sweden, Nilsson commented, “The athletes are really eager to start racing. We have had some good training and physical testing in the past few weeks,” At the same time, the athletes could feel the same excitement in the staff, as Lowell Bailey added, “I think the coaches are as excited as we (the athletes) are.” From the outset, this excitement and enthusiasm transformed into a year of excellent performances for the men as well as a step back up the performance ladder for the women.
The men finished the 2007 season with an all-time high 10th place in the Nations Cup standings, scoring 4244 points. They were in heated battle with Italy and Ukraine until the final competition of the season for eighth through tenth places. When the dust settled, the US was 10 points shy of ninth place Ukraine while Italy finished eighth. Still the US men had made a huge leap from 15th in 2006 with 3084 points to 10th, scoring 1160 more points this year! This put the US team within striking distance of perennial powers like Austria, Sweden for the first time.
The US potential surfaced in the Men’s 10K Sprint at the Hochfilzen, Austria World Cup in December. Three US men finished in the top 25 (a record), with Burke in 10th, Bailey 18th, and Teela 21st, giving the US 349 Nations Cup points in one competition. That day the team ranked THIRD, with Germany at 400 and Russia at 372. Norway, France, Austria, and Sweden were all behind the US. Several other times, including the World Championships 20K (322 points with Burke in 7th) the US either beat or gave the powerhouses a good scare.
This big potential was further reinforced with seventh place in the 4 X 7.5K relay at Ruhpolding. After finishing ninth the previous week, Coach Per Nilsson expected more from the four men, “I told the boys after the 9th place in Oberhof that they should be up there in 5th to 7th place; they are that good.” The group delivered with performances described by the stadium announcer several times as, “sensational.” An outstanding second leg from Tim Burke, with aggressive skiing (alongside Raphael Poiree) and only one extra round, combined with Lowell Bailey’s two extra rounds and equally fast skiing were the keys to success. US Biathlon Executive Director Max Cobb punctuated the importance of the day, exclaiming above the din of the stadium packed with 15,000 fans, “I do not remember ever being in seventh place in a relay. It is pretty exciting!”
At the Biathlon World Championships in February, the US team continued to roll. Tim Burke finished seventh in the 20K Individual, the second best ever World Championships result for the US. A few days later, Jay Hakkinen finished ninth in the 15K Mass Start, claiming third on the all-time list. In between, Burke and Hakkinen teamed up with Bailey and Teela to finish ninth in the 4 X 7.5K Relay. All four also qualified for the 12.5K pursuit, another World Champs first!
When the dust settled, the US had three top 10 finishes (two individuals and a relay) at World Championships for the first time ever!
Tim Burke led the team throughout the season, finishing the year ranked 25th in the world, another all-time US best. At the same time, Jay Hakkinen ranked 41st for the year, Bailey 72nd and Teela 76th, giving the US four ranked men, another first.
While the US men were moving up to the top 10, the US women, led by Lanny and Tracy Barnes (Durango, CO) were reestablishing themselves, after a disappointing 2006 season. The women made a nice jump from to 17th place in the Nations Cup from 20th in 2006, despite several setbacks from illness during the year. The women scored 2726 points this year compared to 2286 last year. Lanny Barnes set the tone for the group, with a personal best 15th place in the Ostersund 15K Individual, and being consistently the top performer for the US women.
The women had their best day of the year in the World Championships Sprint. Both Barnes sisters and Sarah Konrad (Laramie, WY) qualified for the Pursuit, while scoring a season best 258 Nations Cup Points to rank 12th on the day. Eurosport Biathlon commentator and five-time biathlon Olympian Michael Dixon validated the year for the US Team, “I think the US was the most improved team in the World Cup this year.”
Burke’s season ended with a thrilling final competition at Khanty Mansiysk where he charged to 17th place in the last loop, getting the nod in a photo finish over five time Olympic medalist Halvard Hanevold. Still fresh and smiling after almost 4 months of competition, he commented on his breakthrough year. “The season as a whole has not sunk in quite yet, after the first couple of races when I scored points, I thought, ‘I think I can finish in the top 50 at the end of the year.’ Finishing in the top 25…well, that is something I have dreamed of all my life. Now I am more motivated than ever before.”
Hakkinen’s comments after finishing ninth in the World Championships Mass Start illustrate both the improvements and the growing maturity of the US Team. Looking back on the Championships Hakkinen seemed almost satisfied with the outcome. “I think my preparation as well as our team’s overall was well planned and very professional. We did everything necessary to have good results. I wish I had hit that standing shot, but being able to compete for a top finish is a great feeling. I can tell you that I am really looking forward to next year’s World Championships that are not at altitude.”
After his clean shooting race in Lahti, Coach Per Nilsson, thrilled with Bailey’s effort, commented, “Lowell has been struggling with his shooting in races. He shoots very well in zero and training, so we know he can do it.” From this point, Bailey’s season turned around as he shot much better than his season average in the final competitions of the year.
Bailey explained his turnaround, “I decided this week to just concentrate on my performance and not worry about where I finish in the final results. At the same time today, with the conditions as they were, my plan was to stay relaxed, but focused on the shooting range. I hit the first four shots in the final standing stage, knowing that if I hit the final one, I would probably be in the top 30. Unfortunately, I missed it, but I am very pleased with my performance.”
Jeremy, known for his sprinting ability handles anchor leg on the men’s relay team. He crossed the finish line in seventh place at Ruhpolding punching the sky with his ski pole with excitement and satisfaction. Later, he commented, “The other guys gave me a good cushion (eighth place Czech Republic was 45.5 seconds back at the finish), so I tried not to be too aggressive. We have never been in seventh before, so I thought it was the day to take that and not risk any big mistakes (like penalties). It was fun hearing the announcer and the crowd as I finished. This is a big step for us.”
Lanny and twin sister Tracy both shot clean in the 7.5K Sprint at Lahti, Finland, the first time in the season that two US athletes were perfect on the shooting range. With her first clean race of the year, Lanny commented, “It is always nice to shoot clean.” When told Tracy also shot clean, she seemed more thrilled for her sister than herself, pumping her fist in the air, running to greet her sibling at the finish. Asked if they planned the double clean shooting, Tracy, after shooting clean for the fourth time this year, rolled her eyes, replying, “Of course…”
Star of the Year
Tim Burke – Coming into the season, Tim had never scored a World Cup point, although he finished the season with 267 points and 25th in the World Rankings. Once he earned the first point in the Ostersund 20K, he was unstoppable. Burke gained confidence and maturity with each competition improving to a 10th place finish in the Hochfilzen Sprint before Christmas. He reached the top eight (6th Place) in the Pokljuka Mass Start, the culmination of a great week (13th in the Sprint, 11th in the Pursuit) for almost any World Cup Biathlete. He was the key in every relay this season, showing the poise beyond his 24 years. Seventh place in the World Championships 20K Individual put him in the record books as the second best US performer of all time. His comments after that first ever top eight at Pokljuka sum up Tim’s season, “You have no idea how many times I have dreamed of this. It is a dream come true. My form has been getting better and better each week. It was just a matter of time before I was on the podium.”
US Coaches Per Nilsson and Mikael Lofgren – The coaches earned this spotlight usually reserved for athletes. In less than 6 months on the job, the two enthusiastic coaches from Sweden took the team to new levels of training, performance, and self-confidence. Working together harmoniously, the constantly challenged the athletes in every aspect of training while continuing the learning/training process throughout the competitive season. Although the long-term goals are medals at World Championships and in Vancouver, the two brought the US tantalizingly close this year. At Pokljuka and in an earlier interview, Tim Burke confirmed the impact of the coaches. “I had an excellent year of training under our two new Swedish coaches, Per Nilsson and Mikael Lofgren. That has been a big difference for me…Working with these guys has been incredible.”
Season’s Defining Moment
On January 11, 2007, the USA placed seventh in the Men’s Relay at the Ruhpolding World Cup. For many teams, this would not be important, but for the US Men, who used to battle not to be last in relays, this was a milestone. Each of the four men –Hakkinen, Burke, Bailey, and Teela contributed with either fast skiing or good shooting or both, but most importantly, they competed as a team, supporting each other. They battled from Hakkinen’s start to Teela’s raised ski pole at the finish, never flinching. This relay was another building block towards medals for the US Biathlon Team. It signified huge progress, but with more work needed to reach the podium.
At the time, Coach Per Nilsson analyzed the big day. “If you look at the 13 extra rounds (but no penalties) and compare to Sweden and Austria, fourth and fifth, with four (plus one penalty), and six extra rounds, we were right with them. Each extra round takes 8-10 seconds, so do the math. Our boys can ski with any of them; the difference is on the shooting range. We will get better.” Season defined!