In a small mountain town in southeastern France earlier this winter, Olympic biathlete Lowell Bailey came face-to-face with the kind of person he almost never meets in the United States: a fan.
It happened as Bailey and his wife, Erika, were shopping at a pottery store in Villard de Lans (population as of 2012: 4,051 people), where they had spent Christmas. Looking for a gift to bring home, Bailey settled on a water pitcher. But as he was paying for his purchase, the studio’s potter came up to him. The potter had recognized Bailey from his time on the biathlon World Cup circuit, and wanted to tell him how much he admired his career and the sport. The two exchanged pleasantries before the Baileys left, new pitcher in hand and reminded once again how crazy the continent is for the strange pairing of cross-country skiing and target shooting that is biathlon.
“You run into biathlon fanatics all over Europe who are poring over the stats and know your shooting percentage and ski speed,” Bailey says. “A lot of those stats, I don’t even know.”
“That’s the case for Lowell every week there,” says U.S. biathlon head coach Per Nilsson.
Few sports are as popular in Europe as biathlon, which is televised in primetime across the continent and attended live by tens of thousands of fans in France, Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere. But while Bailey may be a household name across the Alps and up and down the fjords of Finland, he’s far less known in his home country, where biathlon remains a curiosity practiced by few and excelled at by fewer.
That could all change this February in PyeongChang, however. A year ago, the 36-year-old New York native made U.S. history in the sport by becoming the first American ever to win a biathlon world championship. Now, as Bailey gets ready for his fourth Olympic games, he’s aiming to help end America’s drought in the only winter sport in which it’s never medaled.
“I think that we’re closer than ever to that goal of an Olympic medal,” he says. “We have the confidence now to know that we can compete at that level and fight for the podium.”
Norway is the only nation that has collected more total Winter Olympic medals than the United States, which owns 282 of them over roughly a century of competition. But that success is nowhere to be found in biathlon, and it’s easy to understand why. The sport, invented in Scandinavia in the 18th century and officially added to the Olympics in 1960, is arguably the most arduous of all the winter events. Competitors must ski in a timed race against each other, going anywhere from 10 to 20 kilometers (roughly six to 12 miles) across hilly terrain and also periodically stopping to shoot at stationary targets 50 meters (160 feet) away; every missed shot results in penalty laps. Biathletes must be equally adept on their skis as they are with their rifles, and on top of that, they need to pair top-flight endurance with elite speed. Imagine Usain Bolt being asked to run a marathon while sinking free throws as he goes, and you have an idea of what biathlon is like.
It’s a sport that takes years to learn and longer to master. Other winter events, meanwhile, usually require far less time to get into and find success in. Combined with biathlon’s European provenance, the United States’s limited availability of year-round snow, and biathlon's lower profile in America relative to the major winter sports, it makes for an activity that has few adherents in this country.
Bailey, though, has been at it for 20 years, having picked up biathlon as a teenager in Lake Placid. He’s made four straight Olympic teams and owns the highest individual finish for an American in the event after placing eighth at Sochi in 2014—and was just one missed target away from potentially standing on the podium with a bronze medal in hand.
But by early 2016, after two decades of competing, he was ready to retire. He and Erika were starting a family, with a baby due in June of that year, and the constant travel of the sport—World Cup events take place between November and March in western and northern Europe—would get in the way of that. “Me being an absentee father and Erika being a solo parent didn’t seem that appealing,” Bailey says.
An unexpected phone call changed all of that. As Bailey planned out his retirement, he was suddenly offered a job as the executive director of the Crosscut Mountain Sports Center in Bozeman, Montana, with a focus on creating a biathlon program and developing young athletes. Since Bailey didn’t have to commit full-time right away, he decided to keep competing through the 2018 Olympics, bringing his family along with him for his farewell tour.
Six months later, with Erika and new daughter Ophelia in tow (“Before eight months old, she had more than eight stamps in her passport,” he says), Bailey arrived in Austria for the 2017 IBU World Championships. One of the last men in the field, he put together the race of his life, hitting all 20 of his targets on the 20-kilometer course. After the final round of shooting, he took to his skis with four kilometers to go and, improbably, in first place.
“It was one of the most painful four kilometers of skiing I’ve ever done,” Bailey said. “I just kept telling myself that I’d come really close to a medal the last world championships there, and I was really disappointed because I knew how close I’d come. So I just kept telling myself, don’t blow this chance, you have to keep going.”
He started his last lap with a lead of just 6.4 seconds, which slipped to three seconds before he fell to dead even with Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic. As Bailey hit his final climb with an advantage of only one-tenth of a second, he saw Erika, with Ophelia strapped to her chest, there to cheer him on.
“She was running for the 40 feet or so next to me, and she was just yelling, ‘You’re winning, you’re winning, you’re winning,’” he said.
With 800 meters to go and barely any daylight between his time and Moravec’s, Bailey surged to the finish line. He crossed it as the new world champion, with a winning time just 3.3 seconds ahead of the Czech skier—as slim a margin as imaginable in a 12-mile, 50-minute race. Once he saw his name in first place on the leaderboard, he dropped to his knees and let out a scream.
The title wasn’t just unprecedented; it also qualified Bailey for PyeongChang, making him the first American to secure a spot on Team USA. As such, the last year has been relatively stress-free for him, split between training at home and his final season of World Cup events. But the task ahead of him is massive: Carve out a podium space amid a crowded field full of contenders, including Moravec, Norwegian prodigy Johannes Thingnes Bø, and Frenchman Martin Fourcade, an eleven-time world champion and the defending gold medalist in the 20-kilometer race.
“We have probably 40 nations that are competitive to the point where they can put an athlete on the podium,” Bailey says. “It’s a really tough field, and biathlon is a humbling sport. You can be at the top of the world one day and 60th the next.”
"So far this year, we have had 12 different men on the podium, and about 30 that have a realistic chance to be there," adds Nilsson.
If Bailey can find a way to a medal, though, he won’t simply have earned a place in the record books. A top-three finish for him or anyone else on Team USA could help significantly increase biathlon’s exposure in the United States. Plans are in place to hold two World Cup events in North America in 2019; an American medalist would lend legitimacy to the sport and potentially fuel its future growth at home.
Whatever happens, though, this Olympics will be Bailey’s last. Once his races are run, he’ll remove his skis and head into retirement, where he’ll begin training the next class of U.S. biathletes. And while it’s unlikely that, even with a medal, Bailey will suddenly find fame on this side of the Atlantic, he might be able to help create something truly rare: an American biathlon fanbase, with athletes following the sport from race to race, eager to pick up skis and rifles and make their own history.