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.”

U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

FIBA Women's World Cup
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The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new up-tempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

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The U.S. women’s basketball team won its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headlined a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, included neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team had nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 60 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The U.S. beat China in the final, while host Australia took bronze to send 41-year-old Lauren Jackson into retirement.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), wasn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA 88, Serbia 55 Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada 79, Puerto Rico 60 Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China 85, France 71 Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia 86, Belgium 69 Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA 83, Canada 43 Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China 61, Australia 59 Semifinals
11 p.m. Australia 95, Canada 65 Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. USA 83, China 61 Gold-Medal Game