For Lowell Bailey, the shift came when his identity wasn’t wrapped up in biathlon. With retirement on the horizon two years ago, Bailey was already fully satisfied with what he’d accomplished in the sport.
As he and Erika, his wife, planned for the birth of their daughter and the launch of their grass-fed cattle business, Bailey was content with their decision to take on new challenges.
So when an out-of-the-blue opportunity kept him competing, it came with a freedom, a chance to take more risks and be more aggressive on the biathlon course. When Bailey was OK with any outcome that followed, the best finish of his career did.
Bailey, 36, heads into his fourth Olympics buoyed by the USA’s first world championship gold in the sport, a breakthrough win that came with Erika and daughter Ophelia by his side.
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With the perspective he’s gained over the past two seasons, Bailey has a chance at an Olympic medal in the only winter sport in which the USA doesn’t have one.
“I’m so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to pursue biathlon for the better part of my life,” Bailey said. “All that being said, having a family, having a daughter, seeing her grow up, having that balance in my life has given me a perspective that’s different than when I was 20 or 21 where biathlon was everything. … So I would say that having that perspective, ironically enough, kind of freed me up mentally to go out with much less pressure.”
Reaching next level
Growing up in Lake Placid, N.Y., Bailey started in cross-country skiing and took to biathlon as a teen when he saw a chance to compete at junior world championships. The sport combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting at targets from prone and standing positions.
Bailey did both sports in college, focusing on skiing while competing for the University of Vermont while training in biathlon after missing the 2002 Olympic team.
Bailey made his first Olympic team in 2006, and after those Games, US Biathlon made changes by bringing in a new staff, restructuring training in a way that effectively doubled up what the team had done before.
“He didn’t right away take the biggest step,” said Per Nilsson, the US Biathlon national team head coach. “Lowell was not there yet. … In (the aerobics) of biathlon, it’s really competitive so it takes some time.”
Bailey got his first top-10 finish in a World Cup in the 2010-11 season and finished in the top five in two World Cups to finish the next season ranked 14th.
In Sochi, his eighth-place finish in the individual event was the best ever by an American as Bailey missed a medal by one shot. Later that season, he earned his first World Cup podium, a third-place finish that was later upgraded to silver because of an anti-doping rule violation.
“It seemed like he had reached a new level in that season,” said Max Cobb, CEO of US Biathlon.
A new start
Despite that, Bailey was ready to retire. In 2016, he and Erika were days away from signing a loan to start a grass-fed cattle business on her parents’ farm in Upstate New York when he got a call from Crosscut Mountain Sports Center in Bozeman, Mont.
As Crosscut was starting its program, it wanted Bailey to be its executive director. The decision would allow Bailey to continue competing and fund-raise while Crosscut got established.
“It felt like the right time to end. It wasn’t a big decision, actually,” Erika said. “But it seemed like a special enough opportunity to make us pause and think about which direction we really wanted to go.”
Added Lowell, “I really did feel like I had done enough things in biathlon that I was satisfied with where I had taken my career, so I didn’t really feel like I had anything left to prove to anyone, most importantly myself.”
When Bailey accepted the position with Crosscut, Lowell and Erika decided she and Ophelia would travel with him during the World Cup season, which effectively keeps the team in Europe for six months.
That meant waking up when Ophelia cried in the hotel room, sure, but it also allowed them to spend time together as a family and gave Bailey the financial stability of a job waiting for him.
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“All of those things combined created a sense of calm in him that he’s never had the luxury of having before,” Cobb said. “When you put that together with the skills and the experience and the physical development he’s had over the last decade, that’s what led to the powerful season that he had.”
The highlight of that season, of Bailey’s career, came in the IBU World Championships, where Bailey shot clean and won the men’s 20-kilometer race by 3.3 seconds. As he made his final lap, he could see Erika wearing Ophelia, then 8 months old, on her chest and shouting that he was winning.
“I wouldn’t say one race ever validates a lifetime of work, but I think it’s a moment that showed me that, yes, all of that time was well-spent and worthwhile,” Bailey said.
Bailey repeated the same training plan this season, skipping a European camp this summer to be at home with family and training in Lake Placid. To prepare for the sustained ascents of the Pyeongchang course, he roller-skied an 8-mile stretch of Whiteface Memorial Highway.
Erika and Ophelia have continued traveling with Lowell this season, an endeavor made more difficult because she’s mobile but worthwhile when she started saying “Dada” this winter.
“You still see the sport and the work as super important, but you are a little bit more balanced. And if things go bad, you just have a different feeling about it,” said Bernd Eisenbichler, US Biathlon’s chief of sport.
Bailey heads into Pyeongchang coming off a third-place finish in the single mixed relay with Susan Dunklee in the IBU Open European Championships on Sunday.
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In a sport dominated by the Germans, Norwegians and Russians since it was added to the Games in 1960, the Americans have a shot at their first Olympic medal thanks partly to what Bailey has done since he almost retired.
With the logistical challenges of having a family in the athletes village, Erika and Ophelia won’t join Bailey in Pyeongchang. But he’ll carry the perspective he’s gained the past two seasons into those races.
Said Erika, “I think the fact that he puts her and puts me and our family in front of racing has actually benefited his racing.”