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 World Alpine Skiing Championships TV, live stream schedule

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Every race of the world Alpine skiing championships airs live on Peacock from Feb. 6-19.

France hosts the biennial worlds in Meribel and Courchevel — six women’s races, six men’s races and one mixed-gender team event.

Mikaela Shiffrin is the headliner, in the midst of her most successful season in four years with a tour-leading 11 World Cup wins in 23 starts. Shiffrin is up to 85 career World Cup victories, one shy of Ingemar Stenmark‘s record accumulated over the 1970s and ’80s.

World championships races do not count in the World Cup tally.

Shiffrin is expected to race at least four times at worlds, starting with Monday’s combined. She earned a medal in 11 of her 13 career world championships races, including each of the last 10 dating to 2015.

Shiffrin won at least one race at each of the last five world championships (nobody has gold from six different worlds). Her six total golds and 11 total medals are American records. At this edition, she can become the most decorated skier in modern world championships history from any nation.

She enters one medal shy of the record for most individual world championships medals since World War II (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt) and four medals shy of the all-time record. (Worlds were held annually in the 1930s, albeit with fewer races.)

She is also one gold medal shy of the post-World War II individual record shared by Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson.

The other favorites at these worlds include Italian Sofia Goggia, the world’s top female downhiller this season, and the two leading men: Swiss Marco Odermatt (No. 1 in super-G and giant slalom) and Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde (No. 1 in downhill).

2023 World Alpine Skiing Championships Broadcast Schedule

Date Event Time (ET) Platform
Mon., Feb. 6 Women’s Combined Super-G Run 5 a.m. Peacock
Women’s Combined Slalom Run 8:30 a.m. Peacock
Tues., Feb. 7 Men’s Combined Super-G Run 5 a.m. Peacock
Men’s Combined Slalom Run 8:30 a.m. Peacock
Wed., Feb. 8 Women’s Super-G 5:30 a.m. Peacock
Thu., Feb. 9 Men’s Super-G 5:30 a.m. Peacock
Sat., Feb. 11 Women’s Downhill 5 a.m. Peacock
Highlights 2:30 p.m.* NBC, Peacock
Sun., Feb. 12 Men’s Downhill 5 a.m Peacock
Highlights 3 p.m.* NBC, Peacock
Tue., Feb. 14 Team Parallel 6:15 a.m. Peacock
Men’s/Women’s Parallel Qualifying 11 a.m. Peacock
Wed., Feb. 15 Men’s/Women’s Parallel 6 a.m. Peacock
Thu., Feb. 16 Women’s Giant Slalom Run 1 3:45 a.m. Peacock
Women’s Giant Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Fri., Feb. 17 Men’s Giant Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Men’s Giant Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Sat., Feb. 18 Women’s Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Women’s Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Highlights 2:30 p.m.* NBC, Peacock
Sun., Feb. 19 Men’s Slalom Run 1 4 a.m. Peacock
Men’s Slalom Run 2 7:30 a.m. Peacock
Highlights 3 p.m.* NBC, Peacock

*Delayed broadcast
*All NBC coverage streams on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app for TV subscribers.

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Diana Taurasi says 2024 Paris Olympics ‘on my radar’

Diana Taurasi
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Diana Taurasi said immediately after winning her fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo that she might try for a record sixth in Paris.

It’s still on her mind 17 months out of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It’s something that it’s on my radar,” Taurasi told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday after the first day of a USA Basketball training camp in Minnesota, her first national team activity since Tokyo. “I’m still competitive, still driven, still want to play, I still love being a part of USA Basketball.”

Taurasi will be 42 at the time of the Paris Games — older than any previous Olympic basketball player — but said if she’s healthy enough she’d like to give it a go.

“If the opportunity comes to play and be a part of it, it’s something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in,” said Taurasi, who shares the record of five Olympic basketball gold medals with the retired Sue Bird. “When you get to my age at this point in my career, you just try to win every day. Right now this is a good opportunity to be part of this team moving forward we’ll see what happens.”

She said she would have played at the FIBA World Cup last year in Australia, but had a quad strain that kept her out of the end of the WNBA season.

“I got hurt a little bit before. I had a good conversation with Coach (Cheryl) Reeve and (USA Basketball CEO Jim) Tooley. I felt like I hadn’t played enough basketball to be out there and help,” Taurasi said. “That’s the biggest thing with USA Basketball is being able to help the team win.”

Reeve said Monday that when she succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach a few months after Tokyo, she wasn’t sure whether Taurasi would play for the national team again. That was before her conversation with Taurasi.

“I look forward to having a chance to have her be around and be, as I told her, a great voice,” Reeve said. “Obviously, the competitive fire that she competes with is something that we all do well with.”

In Tokyo, Taurasi started all six games and averaged 18.8 minutes per game, sixth-most on the team (fewer than backup guard Chelsea Gray). Her 5.8 points per game were her fewest in her Olympic career, though she was dealing with a hip injury.

Taurasi is an unrestricted free agent although she is expected to return back to Phoenix where she’s spent her entire career since getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2003.

“Phoenix still has things they need to work out,” the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer said.

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