Lowell Bailey wins first U.S. biathlon world title, qualifies for Olympic team

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The U.S. has its first world biathlon champion. It’s Lowell Bailey, a 35-year-old who nearly retired a year ago to become a cattle farmer.

Bailey became the first athlete in any sport to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Olympic team by winning the 20km individual race at the world championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, on Thursday.

“It’s a dream come true,” Bailey said in a podium interview, standing with wife Erika and 8-month-old daughter Ophelia, adding later at a press conference, “I am waiting for someone to wake me up.”

Bailey will compete in his fourth Olympics in PyeongChang, but first he can soak up history in Hochfilzen.

Starting No. 100 of 102 entrants, he was one of three to complete the 20km event hitting 20 of 20 shots. He edged Czech Ondrej Moravec by 3.3 seconds for gold after 48 minutes on course. France’s Martin Fourcade, arguably the most dominant athlete in any winter sport at the moment, took bronze.

“I know how important and good it is for biathlon to have some people outside of Europe winning,” Fourcade said. “I couldn’t be more satisfied about another guy winning today.”

Before Thursday, biathlon was the only Winter Olympic sport where the U.S. had yet to win an Olympic or world title. Biathlon has been part of the Olympic program since 1960. Its world championships have been held since 1958.

Before this year, Bailey’s previous best Olympic or worlds finish was eighth. A little more than one year ago, he had it all planned out that the 2015-16 season would be his last:

For his final world championships to be in Oslo, one of the iconic biathlon venues, in 2016. His wife was pregnant. Bailey would return from Europe. They would continue the tradition of his wife’s farming family, which had for nearly 30 years grown seed potatoes and then a herd of more than 100 bison in Upstate New York.

“We were going to start with raising cattle, because when we ran the numbers it just looked like we can actually make a profit,” Bailey said. “Bison are incredibly dangerous and a very risky business. Our plan was to start a cattle business and become beef producers.”

Plans changed late last season.

Bailey received a call from what was described to him as “a fledgling non-profit” in Bozeman, Montana, looking to build a world-class biathlon center for the western United States. They offered him a job — “I didn’t know that jobs like this exist,” Bailey said — and wanted him to continue competing through the 2018 Olympics while helping fundraise on the side.

“Erika and I thought it over,” he said. “We decided to give it a shot.”

Bailey’s early season was nothing too out of his usual results. His top individual World Cup finish was ninth going into worlds.

But he felt confident after skipping a World Cup in early January, giving him an extra week off during the holidays. Plus, the presence of his baby daughter and the feeling of being “part of something bigger.”

In Hochfilzen, Bailey finished fourth in the 10km sprint and sixth in the 12.5km pursuit before his gold on Thursday. An incredible showing given the U.S. has earned three total biathlon medals in the history of the Olympics and world championships — two silvers and one bronze, all at worlds.

Bailey left the fourth and final shooting stop on Thursday 6.4 seconds faster than the time of Moravec, who had gone about 25 minutes earlier. Bailey had one more 4km loop left to ski, which would take about nine minutes.

“The last loop felt like it was 40 kilometers long and not four kilometers long,” Bailey said. “I was fortunate that I was one of the last starters because I knew where Ondrej’s split times were, so I had every member of our staff screaming their heads off at me.”

The lead was cut to one tenth of a second at the last split with 1.1km to go. With 800 meters left, Bailey remembered a U.S. ski technician running alongside the course, telling him, “Now you’re even.”

“If there was ever a time to find this extra something, this is it,” Bailey thought to himself, that six-second advantage gone. “I tried to stay calm, because with ski technique you can flail and expend a lot of energy and not go anywhere.

“I willed myself to get to the finish as fast as I could.”

As Bailey circled that final loop, he thought back to Sunday, when he was in second place after the last shooting stage in the pursuit and faded to sixth skiing to the finish line.

“Watching the medal go away from me, I replayed this last loop in my head probably 1,000 times the last three days,” Bailey said. “I just told myself if I ever have that chance again, that I can’t let that medal go away. So I kept saying that in the last loop today.”

He reached the finish on Sunday a champion. U.S. high-performance director Bernd Eisenbichler emerged and grabbed him by the cheeks. Bailey screamed. And fell to his knees. And screamed. And screamed.

Bailey leaned over, caught his breath and heard his name on the loud speakers. Then he exchanged a handshake with Max Cobb, the president and CEO of US Biathlon, standing behind a barrier.

“This medal belongs to not only me, but I can think of at least 30 or 40 individuals,” Bailey said.

Another American, Susan Dunklee, is set to join Bailey in qualifying for the Olympic team following the completion of world championships races on Sunday.

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Erin Hamlin to run New York City Marathon

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Erin Hamlin, the first U.S. Olympic singles luge medalist and Team USA flag bearer at the PyeongChang Olympic Opening Ceremony, will run the New York City Marathon on Nov. 4.

Hamlin, a 2014 Olympic bronze medalist who retired after her fourth Olympics in PyeongChang at age 31, is running to fundraise for the Women’s Sports Foundation. So is Marlen Esparza, who in 2012 became the first U.S. Olympic women’s boxing medalist (flyweight bronze).

Hamlin has no marathon experience, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

“Being challenged in sport is something I am very familiar with,” Hamlin said in a mass email Wednesday, according to TeamUSA.org. “Long distance running is something I most certainly am not!! It will be difficult, mentally and physically daunting, but a way to test my abilities in a sport so far out of my comfort zone.”

Many Olympians in non-running sports have raced the New York City Marathon.

Bill Demong, the 2010 U.S. Olympic Closing Ceremony flag bearer and only U.S. Olympic Nordic combined champion, ran the 2014 NYC Marathon in 2:33:05, crushing eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno‘s 3:25:14 from 2011.

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Softball set to return to Olympics as first event on Tokyo 2020 schedule

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Softball, returning to the Olympics after a 12-year absence, is scheduled to kick off the 2020 Tokyo Games, two days before the Opening Ceremony.

The preliminary master schedule for the Tokyo Olympics was published Wednesday, with the first softball game scheduled for 10 a.m. local time on the Wednesday before the Opening Ceremony.

The first game is scheduled to be held in Fukushima, the site of 2011 nuclear plant meltdowns caused by an earthquake and tsunami 155 miles north of Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers have been eager to use the Games as a symbol of recovery from the 2011 disaster

Traditionally, soccer has been the first sport to have action at a Summer Olympics, one or two days before the Opening Ceremony. While soccer is again scheduled to have matches that same Wednesday, they start later than 10 a.m.

The Tokyo 2020 schedule is subject to change and certainly not a final version — swimming, diving and synchronized swimming schedules are still to be determined, but those sports do not typically start before the Opening Ceremony.

Softball was added in 1991 to the Olympic program to debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won the first three gold medals before softball and baseball were narrowly voted off the Olympic program in 2005/06 (a 52-52 IOC vote for softball, with a majority needed to stay in the Olympics), with the 2008 Beijing Games being the last edition. Japan won the last Olympic softball gold medal 10 years ago.

Then on Aug. 3, 2016, baseball and softball were among five sports added for the 2020 Tokyo Games only, at the request of Tokyo Olympic organizers. Baseball and softball are not guaranteed to remain on the Olympic program in Paris in 2024.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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