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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MORE: PyeongChang 2018 daily schedule highlights

World Cup Alpine season opener gets green light

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After checking the snow on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria, FIS officials announced Thursday that the traditional World Cup season opener is set to go ahead as planned Oct. 26-27 with men’s and women’s giant slalom races.

Current conditions at Soelden show a solid 30 inches of snow at the summit. The race finishes at an altitude of 2,670 meters (8,760 feet), far above the currently snowless village.

The first races of the season are never guaranteed to have enough snow, though last year’s men’s race at Soelden had the opposite problem, being canceled when a storm blew through with heavy snowfall and high winds. 

France’s Tessa Worley won the women’s race last year ahead of Italy’s Frederica Brignone and U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who would go on to dominate the rest of the World Cup season.

The Soelden weekend is followed by three dormant weeks until the season resumes Nov. 23-24 in Levi, Finland. The World Cup circuits then switch to North America. The men will run speed events Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Lake Louise, Alberta, then head to Beaver Creek, Colo., for more speed events and a giant slalom Dec. 6-8. The women run slalom and giant slalom Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Killington, Vt., and head to Lake Louise the next weekend.

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Olympic marathon and race walk move from Tokyo to Sapporo draws some pushback

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In the wake of a dropout-plagued set of world championship endurance races in Qatar, moving the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks from Tokyo to the cooler venue of Sapporo is a quick fix for one problem, pending the potential for untimely heat waves.

But the move has drawn some opposition for a variety of reasons.

First, many organizers and politicians appear to have been caught by surprise. Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, was “taken aback” and Sapporo’s mayor, Katsuhiro Akimoto, learned about the move from the media, Kyodo News reported. Koike even sarcastically suggested that the races could move all the way northward to islands disputed by Russia and Japan.

South African sports scientist Ross Tucker suggested that running in heat and humidity poses an interesting challenge for athletes, some of whom may be able to catch up with faster runners by preparing for the conditions.

British marathoner Mara Yamauchi made a similar point, saying the move was unfair to those who already were preparing for the heat, humidity and other conditions.

Belgian marathoner Koen Naert said he will make the best of the change but complained that some of his preparation and every runner’s logistical planning would no longer apply.

The angriest athlete may be Canadian walker Evan Dunfee, who placed fourth in the 2016 Olympic 50km race and nearly claimed bronze as a Canadian appeal was upheld but then rejected. He says runners and walkers can beat the conditions if they prepare, which many athletes did not do for the world championships in Qatar.

“So why do we cater to the ill prepared?” Dunfee asked on Twitter.

The move also takes athletes out of the main Olympic city and takes away the traditional, tough less frequent in modern years, finish in the Olympic stadium.

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