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Red, white & blueprint: U.S. biathlon forms plan to close gap

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The leader of the U.S. biathlon program sat down for a recent dinner at a bar in Park City, Utah, when he happened to glance at the television.

There, on the screen, was a biathlon competition . On TV. In a bar. In America.

“I’ve waited,” CEO Max Cobb said, “30 years for that moment.”

One day soon, Cobb envisions something even greater: The U.S. leading the charge in a sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.

To achieve that, Cobb, who’s been with the program since 1989, and his staff initiated a blueprint aimed at capturing the country’s first Olympic biathlon medal. The model includes bringing in coaches from Europe, contracting with a machine shop to test different sorts of metals for better glide performance and partnering with a university professor to analyze shooting mechanics.

“I believe the day an American wins its first Olympic medal in the biathlon, is the day our country discovers the drama and beauty of the biathlon,” said Cobb, whose squad will compete at the world championships beginning this week in Sweden. “It will be a beautiful moment.”

In a sport long dominated by nations such as Norway, Germany and Russia, the Americans remain an “economic underdog,” Cobb said, with an annual budget of about $2.6 million. That’s fractions of what their counterparts spend.

So they need creative ways to close the gap.

The road to an Olympic medal may be the result of using better metal, which is why the team has been working with a machine shop technician in Austria. The goal is to reduce the surface friction for better glide. So far, they’ve tried out 150 different blades.

Anything to help the athletes glide faster while skiing.

In addition, they’ve been working with Dr. Gerold Sattlecker from the University of Salzburg to analyze shooting mechanics. They’ve developed a remote trigger pressure sensor that allows them to see how much pressure an athlete is putting on the trigger.

Anything to help them shoot straighter at the targets under pressure.

“One of those things that I see as a competitive advantage of us is, we innovate and collaborate better than our competitors,” Cobb said. “The fact we know we’re being out-spent and have this clear goal of trying to achieve America’s first Olympic biathlon medal, those are really unifying goals that keeps us all focused.”

The organization began to revamp the business model in early 2016. It was a way to spring forward after a 2014 Sochi Games in which Susan Dunklee came within one missed shot from capturing an elusive medal. The team had breakout performances at the 2017 world championships, with Lowell Bailey earning gold in the 20-kilometer individual race and Dunklee taking silver in the women’s mass start.

It was proof that things were trending in the right direction. Then, at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang , South Korea last winter, something that couldn’t be predicted — sickness. Dunklee got the flu that week. Bailey, who’s now retired, fought an illness leading into the Olympics.

Soon after Pyeongchang, some big biathlon names were brought in to lead the team into the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing:

—Armin Auchentaller, who’s in his second go-around with the squad as he takes over the women’s squad after leading the Swiss team.

—Michael Greis of Germany, who’s overlooking the men’s side following a career that saw him capture three gold medals at the 2006 Turin Games.

—Retired American standout Tim Burke, whose new role is athlete development manager. The New York native competed at four Winter Olympics and earned a silver medal at the 2013 world championships.

“You have to be unafraid to change things, even when you’re going along pretty well,” Cobb said. “Sometimes, you need a new stimulation, to look at different ways of doing things.”

To boost the team’s profile, they’ve hired a marketing firm based in Austria. They’ve added sponsors in Europe (Maloja , a small German clothing brand) and in the U.S. (Ariens , a Wisconsin-based company that manufactures lawn mowers and snow blowers and expanding into Europe).

Europe is simply where the dollars are and the viewers reside.

“If you were to go to Germany and you turn on the television in prime time you’d see biathlon and you’d have 5 million people or so tuning in to watch. It’s like turning on the TV in the states and seeing NFL on ESPN,” the 33-year-old Dunklee explained. “It’s the most popular winter sport there. But you go to the states and you tell someone on the street, ‘Oh, I do the biathlon,’ and they’re like, ‘Is that swimming and running?’ I’m like, ‘Not quite.’ We don’t have much of a following over here.”

Steadily, that’s changing. This season, there will be about 85 hours of original content on NBC’s stable of networks, which is how Cobb was able to watch a World Cup biathlon race in a bar in Utah.

And last month, a biathlon World Cup event was staged on home snow for the first time in three years. The site was Soldier Hollow, where the biathlon events were contested at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Food trucks were brought in — along with a petting zoo and mechanical bull — to create a festival-style atmosphere.

“The crowds were tremendously impressive,” Dunklee said.

They all do their part, even filling multiple roles. Take Bernd Eisenbichler, one of the program’s visionaries who has gone from wax technician, to high performance director, to chief of sport over the last two decades. He still helps out with making sure the skis are finely tuned.

“Everybody is looking themselves in the mirror and asking, ‘Is there anything else I can do to help the team?’” Cobb said. “When you have that kind of buy-in, it’s inspiring to everybody.”

Rafael Nadal can tie Roger Federer’s Slam record with 13th French Open

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For all of the many qualities contributing to Rafael Nadal’s unprecedented superiority at the French Open — the bullwhip of a high-bouncing lefty forehand, the reflex returns, the cover-every-corner athleticism, the endless energy and grit — there’s one element that stands above all the rest.

According to the opponent Nadal beat in the last two finals in Paris, anyway.

“You go into the match knowing that even your best tennis, even if you play it over three, four hours, might not be enough. I mean, if you do it, you maybe have a little chance, but you have to go to your limit on every single rally, every single point,” Dominic Thiem, who won the U.S. Open less than two weeks ago, told The Associated Press.

“That makes it not easy to go into the match,” Thiem said. “And that’s the mental part, I guess.”

When main-draw competition begins Sunday at Roland Garros, Thiem and every other player in the men’s bracket will be pursuing Nadal as the 34-year-old from Spain pursues history.

If Nadal manages to claim a 13th French Open championship — extending his own record for the most singles trophies won by anyone at any major tennis tournament — he would, more significantly, also collect his 20th Grand Slam title overall, tying Roger Federer’s record for a man.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Nadal’s tally elsewhere: four U.S. Opens, two Wimbledons, one Australian Open.

He spoke Friday in Paris about what “probably are the most difficult conditions for me ever in Roland Garros” — a lack of matches in 2020; a new brand of tennis balls (“super slow, heavy”); cooler weather and plenty of rain in the forecast.

“But you know what?” Nadal said. “I am here to fight and to play with the highest intensity possible.”

Asked recently about the possibility of catching the 39-year-old Federer, out for the rest of the season after a pair of operations on his right knee, Nadal expressed a sentiment he’s uttered before.

Climbing the Grand Slam list, Nadal said, is “not an obsession at all.”

“I know that you put a lot of attention on all of this,” he replied when the topic was raised last week at the Italian Open, Nadal’s first tournament since February because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Of course I would love to finish my career with 25, but (that’s) something that probably will not happen. I’m going to keep fighting to produce chances, and then when I finish my career, let’s see, no?” he said. “I just want to keep enjoying tennis. And that’s it. If I am playing well, I know I normally have my chances. If not, going to be impossible. That’s it.”

There is, of course, another great of the game playing during this era and, like Nadal, gaining on Federer.

That would be No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, who had won five of seven major titles to raise his total to 17 before being disqualified at the U.S. Open for accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball while walking to a changeover.

In this oddest of years, the Grand Slam season will drawing to a close in France; the clay-court major was postponed from May until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Roland Garros is the last Slam, the last opportunity of this season. So we all know who the main favorite is there: Obviously, it’s Nadal. And everything that he has achieved there, losing maybe a couple matches in his entire career on that court … is probably the most impressive record that anybody has on any court,” Djokovic said. “So, yeah, of course you would put him right there in front as a favorite to win it.”

For the record: Nadal has won 93 of 95 matches in the French Open and his last 21 in a row.

So what makes him so dominant there?

“He’s an unbelievably great tennis player. Probably on clay, a little bit better than on the other surfaces,” Thiem said. “He’s left-handed, which makes it very uncomfortable. And then his forehand, the topspin on the clay, it’s cruel to play.”

Thiem takes notes and hopes to emulate aspects of Nadal’s game.

So do others.

In Rome, for example, two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep and one of her coaches, Artemon Apostu-Efremov, caught one of Nadal’s training sessions.

“We were watching the way he hits the ball, the acceleration, the energy he has on the court and the way he practices 100%. It’s always an inspiration,” Apostu-Efremov said.

“This dedication on the court and focus on court,” he said, “it’s something that, for sure, could be transferred to Simona.”

Nadal wound up losing his third match in Italy, which is neither ideal form nor the sort of prep work he is accustomed to ahead of Roland Garros.

Still, Nadal at the French Open is unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

“Regardless of how he feels, I’m sure he’ll find a way,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 2019 Australian Open semifinalist seeded No. 5 in Paris. “He always finds a way, every single year. Clay is his surface. I’m sure he’s going to do well.”

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Skate America will not have fans

Skate America
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Skate America, the top annual international figure skating competition held in the U.S., will not have spectators in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

U.S. Figure Skating said the restriction was “due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in strict accordance with the Nevada Gaming Control Board guidelines.”

Skate America is the first top-level event of the season, kicking off the six-stop Grand Prix Series leading up to December’s Grand Prix Final, which is scheduled this season for Beijing.

The series has already been modified to restrict fields to skaters from the host country or to the event closest to their training location.

Grand Prix fields have not been announced, though two-time world champion Nathan Chen said last month he hoped to go for a fourth straight Skate America title.

Chen trains in California. Most, if not all, top U.S. skaters train in the U.S. or Canada, which means they will compete in Skate America or Skate Canada if they participate in the Grand Prix Series at all.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough to compete on the Grand Prix until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

Skaters are limited to one Grand Prix start this season. In past seasons, they’ve typically competed twice.

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