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.”

2023 French Open men’s singles draw, scores

French Open Men's Draw
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The French Open men’s singles draw is missing injured 14-time champion Rafael Nadal for the first time since 2004, leaving the Coupe des Mousquetaires ripe for the taking.

The tournament airs live on NBC Sports, Peacock and Tennis Channel through championship points in Paris.

Novak Djokovic is not only bidding for a third crown at Roland Garros, but also to lift a 23rd Grand Slam singles trophy to break his tie with Nadal for the most in men’s history.

FRENCH OPEN: Broadcast Schedule | Women’s Draw

But the No. 1 seed is Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, who won last year’s U.S. Open to become, at 19, the youngest man to win a major since Nadal’s first French Open title in 2005.

Now Alcaraz looks to become the second-youngest man to win at Roland Garros since 1989, after Nadal of course.

Alcaraz missed the Australian Open in January due to a right leg injury, but since went 30-3 with four titles. Notably, he has not faced Djokovic this year. They could meet in the semifinals.

Russian Daniil Medvedev, the No. 2 seed, was upset in the first round by 172nd-ranked Brazilian qualifier Thiago Seyboth Wild. It marked the first time a men’s top-two seed lost in the first round of any major since 2003 Wimbledon (Ivo Karlovic d. Lleyton Hewitt).

All of the American men lost before the fourth round. The last U.S. man to make the French Open quarterfinals was Andre Agassi in 2003.

MORE: All you need to know for 2023 French Open

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2023 French Open Men’s Singles Draw

French Open Men's Singles Draw French Open Men's Singles Draw French Open Men's Singles Draw French Open Men's Singles Draw

Coco Gauff, Iga Swiatek set French Open rematch

Coco Gauff French Open

Coco Gauff swept into the French Open quarterfinals, where she plays Iga Swiatek in a rematch of last year’s final.

Gauff, the sixth seed, beat 100th-ranked Slovakian Anna Karolina Schmiedlova 7-5, 6-2 in the fourth round. She next plays the top seed Swiatek, who later Monday advanced after 66th-ranked Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko retired down 5-1 after taking a medical timeout due to illness.

Gauff earned a 37th consecutive win over a player ranked outside the top 50, dating to February 2022. She hasn’t faced a player in the world top 60 in four matches at Roland Garros, but the degree of difficulty ratchets up in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

Swiatek won all 12 sets she’s played against Gauff, who at 19 is the only teenager in the top 49 in the world. Gauff said last week that there’s no point in revisiting last year’s final — a 6-1, 6-3 affair — but said Monday that she should rewatch that match because they haven’t met on clay since.

“I don’t want to make the final my biggest accomplishment,” she said. “Since last year I have been wanting to play her, especially at this tournament. I figured that it was going to happen, because I figured I was going to do well, and she was going to do well.

“The way my career has gone so far, if I see a level, and if I’m not quite there at that level, I know I have to improve, and I feel like you don’t really know what you have to improve on until you see that level.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Also Monday, No. 7 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia dispatched 36th-ranked American Bernarda Pera 6-3, 6-1, breaking all eight of Pera’s service games.

Jabeur, runner-up at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year, has now reached the quarterfinals of all four majors.

Jabeur next faces 14th-seeded Beatriz Haddad Maia, who won 6-7 (3), 6-3, 7-5 over Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo, who played on a protected ranking of 68. Haddad Maia became the second Brazilian woman to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal in the Open Era (since 1968) after Maria Bueno, who won seven majors from 1959-1966.

Pera, a 28 year-old born in Croatia, was the oldest U.S. singles player to make the fourth round of a major for the first time since Jill Craybas at 2005 Wimbledon. Her defeat left Gauff as the lone American singles player remaining out of the 35 entered in the main draws.

The last American to win a major singles title was Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major drought matches the longest in history (since 1877) for American men and women combined.

In the men’s draw, 2022 French Open runner-up Casper Ruud reached the quarterfinals by beating 35th-ranked Chilean Nicolas Jarry 7-6 (3), 7-5, 7-5. He’ll next play sixth seed Holger Rune of Denmark, a 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (7) winner over 23rd seed Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina.

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