Q & A with Lowell Bailey, the first American Olympian to qualify for PyeongChang
by U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation
Lowell Bailey stands atop the podium at the Biathlon World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, on Feb. 16, 2017.
Last year, biathlete Lowell Bailey nearly retired from his sport to take up cattle farming. Instead, his fourth- and sixth-place finishes in sprint and pursuit at the 2017 Biathlon World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, earned him a spot on the 2018 Olympic Team. After he found out he’d be representing Team USA in PyeongChang, the 36-year-old made history when he became the first American biathlete to win a world title, nearly 60 years after the first world championship in biathlon was held.
Over the course of his career, Bailey has helped put U.S. Biathlon on the map. Now, at the pinnacle of his sport, he reflects on his training, his achievements and what the support of generous Team USA donors means to him.
How did you learn that you qualified to compete in the 2018 Olympic Games in PyeongChang, and how did you feel at that moment?
I was at the Biathlon World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, where I had just finished fourth and sixth in the sprint and pursuit competitions. Our pre-qualification guidelines allow athletes who acquire two top-eight finishes in the previous season’s World Championships to qualify for the Olympic Team. To be honest, I was so focused on performing well in Hochfilzen that I had no idea I had prequalified for the 2018 Olympic Games. I was mostly disappointed that I had missed medaling in the first two races by razor-thin margins. But upon relaying my disappointment to USBA Executive Director Max Cobb, he informed that although it was heartbreaking to get so close, I could take solace in the fact that I had in fact prequalified for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team. This definitely lifted my spirits. Ironically enough, it was after all of this that I had the race of my life and won gold a week later in the 20km individual race at the World Championships.
What would it mean to you to represent Team USA on the medal podium in PyeongChang?
As a biathlon nation, the US has never been in a stronger position to vie for medals on the Olympic stage. U.S. Biathlon had never won a World Championship gold until last season. There is an incredible amount of positive momentum on the team right now and we fully intend to carry that through PyeongChang. One of the proudest moments of my life was at World Championships last winter when, for the first time in biathlon history, the international crowd witnessed the American flag raised to the top of the podium with the Star-Spangled Banner as accompaniment. I will always remember this moment and it would thrill me to no end to relive that again in PyeongChang.
How far in advance of the Olympic Games do you begin training?
In many ways, the most critical timeframe in a biathlete’s life is the early introductory years, when the athlete is making the decision about whether to continue in their respective sport or launch into myriad other opportunities available to America’s youth. It is imperative that talented athletes receive the knowledge that, with hard work, they will be supported, and there is a career path ahead of them in pursuing their Olympic dream. Without that, many of the most talented athletes will abandon their Olympic hopes before they have the chance to reach their potential. I started biathlon more than two decades ago, and from the start, the Olympic Games were always at the top of my list of goals. They still are.
What does an average training day look like for you?
During a typical training day in the summer training season – which starts May 1 – I wake up and eat a high-calorie breakfast before my morning training session. After breakfast, I meet my coaches and team at the biathlon venue and have a roller-ski/shooting (or “combo”) workout. This involves roller-skiing 30 to 50km on a paved loop and shooting 100 to 160 rounds of .22 biathlon targets. The morning session typically lasts three to four hours. After lunch and a brief recovery period, I have an afternoon workout, which usually consists of strength work at the Olympic Training Center weight room, or cross-training endurance sessions of either running or cycling. After dinner, it is not uncommon to have a dry fire (shooting without bullets) session to work on shooting technique or coach and athlete meetings to discuss training plans or travel logistics. We train six days a week, with Sunday as our typical recovery day.
How important has the support of the United States Olympic Committee been to your journey?
The USOC’s support has been invaluable. I could not have sustained my biathlon career into my thirties without the financial support of the USOC. As many of you know, Team USA is unique among its international peers in that we do not receive the same government support for our Olympic Teams that virtually every other country enjoys. In Germany, for example, a typical biathlete will start his or her career as a member of the German Border Guard, receiving a monthly salary commensurate with that job title. However, their only “job” is to represent Germany as a national team athlete on the world stage. They may never stamp a passport in their entire lives, but they are given the means necessary to make a career out of biathlon. USOC's athlete stipend programs have given me the chance to pursue biathlon as a career path instead of a hobby. We are now one of the most competitive biathlon nations in the world, largely due to the fact that, with the USOC’s support, athletes can continue into their thirties (just like the rest of the world) and reach their peak athletic performance age.
What does it mean to you to be backed by patriotic Americans who give to Team USA?
I have an incredible appreciation for the citizens of the United States who choose to support Team USA and who understand that without their support, we would not be able to compete with the powerhouse government-funded Olympic teams of Germany, Russia and others. Every time I put on my Team USA uniform, I am acutely aware of and appreciative of the tremendous amount of work it takes to get an athlete to the Olympic stage, from USOC staff to U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation trustees to national governing bodies, all the way down the line to regional youth development coaches. I’m able to compete because of the support of Americans and it’s a privilege, every race, to represent the United States.