Team USA's Lowell Bailey never planned for his biathlon career to end (and continue) quite like this
The U.S. Biathlon team arrives at the Olympic Games in PyeongChang with something unique for a U.S. team – a reigning world champion. Last season, at 35, Lowell Bailey won the first world championship title ever for the U.S. The historic win came roughly a year after Bailey considered hanging up his skis and rifle, but an impromptu meeting between his wife Erika and a colleague at work, visiting the Adirondacks from Montana, would put Lowell back on the starting line for another year with an opportunity to qualify for his fourth Olympic Games.
Prior to the 2015-16 biathlon season, Bailey made the decision to walk away from elite competition. He and his wife Erika, who married in the summer of 2015, were making plans to start a family and launch a grass-fed cattle ranching business as a post-biathlon plan to support themselves, but transitioning into the real world workforce after a 25-year biathlete career – which included three trips to the Olympics – has its challenges.
“It’s not the same as a 35-year-old quitting their job at one company and deciding to move to another. In a lot of cases you don’t have a skill set that other people do, so it’s a very scary situation," Bailey explained to NBCOlympics.com.
“All of my peer group has been working in their various careers for 15 years by now and I have to start over, essentially, from scratch.”
But the Baileys felt like they had found the answer to their financial future in a plan to continue the nearly 30-year farming history of Erika’s family, while following their passion for health, nutrition, as well as locally-grown and raised food.
The catalyst for their post-biathlon plan was the 500-acre family farm Erika’s mother and father owned adjacent to Lake Placid. It was first used to grow seed potatoes. Later, it functioned as a ranch with a herd of 100 bison. The bison were sold off the year before the Baileys were set to take over the vacant wide-open space; a perfect home for a new herd of cattle.
Everything was going as planned in the summer of 2015. Lowell was training for the upcoming season, in July the couple were married in front of friends and family in Lake Placid, and all the while the plan to buy their first heads of cattle continued to take shape in the form of a business model required by the bank to secure financing.
The life the Baileys had been planning for themselves advanced even further when that fall they found out Erika was pregnant with their first child, due in June 2016.
By November, Lowell was on a plane headed for Sweden to begin his season. Even as the tour forged on, he continued to formalize the ranching plan by meeting with lending agencies when he returned to the States.
Four months into his final season and roughly a month before his scheduled curtain call at the 2016 World Championships, Lowell was contacted by Erika with a message that would turn their meticulously-planned future upside down.
One day at work with the Adirondack chapter of The Nature Conservancy, Erika was approached by Eric Love, a Conservancy employee from Montana. Love was in New York to take part in board meetings.
Upon learning Erika Bailey was wife to Lowell Bailey – the three-time Olympic biathlete – Love asked for the opportunity to speak with Lowell.
“He just said, ‘Hey, I wanted to introduce myself. I know your husband is a biathlete, and my two kids are biathletes, and I started a biathlon club in Montana. We’re building a biathlon center that we want to be the next world-class site in the United States, and I’d love to talk to your husband and get his thoughts on the whole thing,’” Erika remembered in an interview with NBCOlympics.com.
Recognizing the opportunity for Lowell to potentially stay involved in biathlon well after retiring from competition, Erika passed on the surprise message to her husband. Phone conversations between Love and Lowell started up while Lowell was on the road at World Cup events in Canada and the U.S.
What began as Eric Love’s search for an expert critique of his project quickly transitioned into making Bailey an offer to join the Crosscut team in Bozeman, Montana as an executive director and board member with the Bridger Biathlon Club.
“It piqued my interested, but I was nowhere near the idea that we would commit to moving to Montana and embark on this entirely new direction,” Lowell said.
Everyone at U.S. Biathlon had figured Lowell was set to retire after world championships, but when he arrived in Oslo in March he said he felt like he was in “limbo.”
“I had told my staff and people I have worked with for a couple decades, in some cases, ‘I’m retiring this year.’ Then all of a sudden by world championships I was taking a little step back saying, ‘Hey guys, sooo…maybe hold on a little bit because I actually have no idea where we’re headed, and I won’t know until April when we head out to Bozeman,’” Lowell said.
In April, with the 2015-16 season finished, Lowell and Erika went out West (if anyone at home is keeping score, Erika was about seven months pregnant at this point). The trip was originally booked to serve as a meet-and-greet with ranchers and inspect cattle for their Lake Placid operation, but now, an updated itinerary had a scheduled stop in Bozeman, where the Baileys got a first-hand look at the ambitious vision for Crosscut Mountain Sports Center (CMSC).
Back in 2014, Eric Love and his partners with the Bridger Biathlon Club – which he had founded and where his two kids were active in the sport – offered to buy the adjacent 259-acre Crosscut Ranch and 276-acre Bohart Ranch to merge them into one expansive venue. From that, the idea of the CMSC was born.
The grand plan set out to create a home for casual and professional Nordic sport athletes in the U.S., and in the process, preserve two cross-country skiing venues which first opened in the 1980s. Though neither were ever big money makers back in the day, both helped to define Bozeman as a skiing community.
And if the people involved with the project allowed themselves to dream big enough, someday, they hoped Crosscut could be a place where new generations of U.S. Olympic biathletes could grow and thrive. (Already, CMSC serves as the home training venue for the U.S. Paralympic Nordic and Biathlon Team.)
Bridger Biathlon Club needed to accumulate money like snow accumulates in a blizzard. For the land alone, the goal was to raise $10 million by November 2017, along with another $8 million to build up infrastructure at the future venue, which would include a new lodge.
What they saw in Lowell was one of the most respected biathletes on the World Cup circuit. During the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he was elected to the International Biathlon Union’s Athletes Committee and in 2016 his fellow teammates put him on the board of directors for U.S. Biathlon.
Bailey's influence in the sport, reputation of unyielding integrity, along with his potential to qualify for his fourth Olympic Games in 2018, were all assets recognized by the visionaries at Bridger Biathlon Club. If they brought Bailey on board, perhaps new donors would follow, helping them achieve their fundraising goals – not to mention the wealth of biathlon knowledge Bailey had from his years of elite competition.
It was, in essence, the perfect second career for the retiring Bailey.
“That trip was sort of where we decided, ‘Yeah, we can put our cattle plans on hold for a little bit and see what life might look like if we did biathlon for another year, and then moved to Montana, and worked with Crosscut,’” Erika said. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t miss out on what might be the only opportunity like this.”
So that May, with his staff at U.S. Biathlon fully retained and anticipating the birth of his first child, Lowell started splitting his days between biathlon training sessions and hunting down capital for Crosscut.
Shortly after embarking on this new mission, Lowell realized the usual stresses of an athlete at his level were no longer there. Recalling his thoughts at the time, he said the result of agreeing to team up with Crosscut allowed him to avoid the pressures which, as he puts it, often “dominate the psyche” of athletes new to international competition.
“I didn’t have that internal pressure, mostly self-inflicted pressure. That internal dialogue that every athlete goes through like, ‘I want to win,’ ‘I want to qualify for the Olympics,’ ‘I want to be on the national team,’ Bailey explained.
“All of those questions that constantly go through an athlete’s mind; I felt like I had already answered all of them.”
As June rolled around, five months before the start of the biathlon World Cup season, Lowell and Erika welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Ophelia. Lowell skipped a scheduled camp in Germany that summer in order to stay in Lake Placid to jump in to his new role as a father.
The Baileys, brave as ever, decided to try yet another kind of adventure during Lowell’s final World Cup tour. This year, Erika and Ophelia, just a few months old at the start, would join him on the road.
“When we decided that Lowell would continue doing biathlon for another year, what went along with it was that we were all going to stay together," Erika explained.
“He didn’t want to be away from Ophelia all winter and I didn’t want to be home with her alone all winter and we just didn’t want to be apart. I think we were just ready to spend more time together.”
With venues on the World Cup spread out in often remote sections of Europe, there were a lot of nights in hotels, a few plane rides, and a lot of driving. That sometimes meant the whole family had to pile into the team van as it headed up to races.
“We had no idea how it was going to turn out, living in a hotel," Lowell said.
“We started going on the road when she was 2 months old. She was incredible. She was at, I think, every race. It was great to have them there.”
The most indelible moment for the biathlon-World-Cup-touring Baileys came at the 2017 World Championships in February, just one year before the 2018 Olympics. In Hochfilzen, Austria, Lowell would ski and shoot through the race of his life, but not until some very important dad duties were attended to.
“We were taking Ophelia out of her car seat, getting Lowell’s race bag, changing clothes a little bit in the parking lot, and I think I just lifted her up and said, ‘Oh, I think we need to change her diaper,’" Erika said.
“He’s a nice guy and didn’t leave me standing there with a dirty diaper alone.”
In full race gear, Lowell helped Erika change Ophelia before heading over to the race cabin.
Patience was needed across the board on this race day. Bailey was about to race the 20km individual, which has an interval start with one biathlete leaving the gate at a time. Bailey’s bib number, which indicated his starting position, was #100 out of 102 racers. He watched as the top of the leaderboard became cluttered the names of biathlon’s best. But in the 20km individual race, it isn’t over until the last racer crosses the finish line.
When he finally entered the starting gate, he remembers reciting one of his favorite inspirational quotes.
“I just repeated the Theodore Roosevelt quote that I often tell myself as I prepare for a race: ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’”
Once on the course, Bailey was skiing fast and shooting straight. His skis, Bailey would later reveal, were shipped an hour north to Ruhpolding, Germany from Hochfilzen to be worked on the night before the race. The previous night, U.S. Biathlon’s high-performance director Bernd Eisenbichler and the U.S. service crew had a breakthrough in reading the snow in Austria.
On his fourth and final trip to the shooting range, Bailey hit each of his five remaining targets, shooting clean in the race – a perfect 20-for-20.
Watching from the course, Erika said her “heart about stopped” as Lowell skied back onto the course and the clock showed him 6.4 seconds ahead of the current leader, Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic.
Bailey’s teammates and coaches were scattered along the trail edge throughout the final loop to cheer him to the finish. Erika, with Ophelia bundled up and snuggly attached to her mother’s chest in a baby carrier, waited at the top of the second to last climb. In her excitement she nearly set off running for the finish line, knowing Lowell would, at the very least, wind up somewhere on the podium.
“I was standing next to Lowell’s sports psychologist, Sean McCann, and I said, ‘Sean, I gotta get down to the finish line!’ I was not thinking clearly. The finish line is too far to be running through deep snow with the baby strapped to my chest," Erika said.
“But Sean was like, ‘No. Stay. He needs you more here.’ It makes me tear up to even think about it. I’ll never forget Sean saying that.”
As Lowell approached the crest of the hill he was clinging to a sliver of a lead, less than a second ahead of Moravec, but he was winning. Erika was determined to be the one to tell him that.
When he approached the top of the hill, Erika ran with him, with Ophelia strapped in, screaming, “You’re winning! You’re winning! You’re winning!”
“I knew that if he heard me and heard my voice and heard me saying he was winning that it would touch him in a different way, and maybe it would seem in a way a little bit more real," Erika said.
“There’s tens of thousands of people screaming, so I had no idea if he would hear me but I screamed as loud as I could.”
Bailey entered the stadium with Russia’s Alexey Volkov, who was more than a minute off the lead. Bailey tucked himself into Volkov’s slipstream as he charged for the finish. The tightly-packed grandstand exploded with encouragement for the American. Lowell crossed the finish line just 3.3 seconds ahead of Moravec, winning his first world championship race – the first for any U.S. biathlete – in his 11th appearance at Worlds.
“As cliché as it sounds, that encouragement from Erika and the awareness that, Here’s my wife with my daughter and we’re at world championships and it’s now or never, truly. This is the moment that I have to summon everything in my body and get to the finish line as fast as possible. I think that helped me that last 800m to the finish,” Lowell remembered.
With the history-making successes of his 2016-17 season in the rearview mirror, and nearly two years removed from first agreeing to continue competing in biathlon while joining the Crosscut venture, Lowell is still feeling free of those pressure-filled expectations, even has he thinks about his last Olympic races in PyeongChang.
“I’m well aware of both the positive and negative effects of pressure, and what that can do for an athlete. I’ve lived on both sides, where I’ve been affected negatively by pressure and I’ve also felt the positive effects of not feeling pressure,” Lowell said.
And don’t think for a moment that Erika and Ophelia would miss out on Lowell’s final trip to the Olympics.
“Knowing that it’s his last year, we know that it’s going to be a huge challenge, but we’re excited to bring Ophelia to the Olympics and have these experiences together,” Erika said.
“Sometimes in the moment, when you’re experiencing horrible jetlag with a baby and all of the strange situations you find yourself in, it feels like a challenge. But at the end of the day I stop and I think how lucky we are to have this challenge. And how lucky we are to be on this trip together.”
After the flame in PyeongChang is extinguished, the Baileys will face their next challenge together as they plan to move to Montana and away from the one home both Lowell and Erika have known for the most of their lives.
“The hardest part for us is the idea that we’re leaving friends and family behind, but the excitement of being able to move to a great town like Bozeman, meet new friends in such a great community, but also be involved in a project that’s seeking to carry on the momentum that U.S. Biathlon has built over the last decade, that’s really exciting for me," Lowell said.
“There’s now 100 kids involved in their local biathlon program, and we’re part of that."
In early 2018, through bridge financing and philanthropic gifts, CMSC officially purchased Crosscut Ranch to complete their 533-acre acquisition dream.
There will be future financial needs and fundraising continues for money to cover the cost of the land purchase, with roughly $4 million due by the end of 2020.
Crosscut's leadership will simultaneously begin a campaign to raise capital for their grand undertaking to build a new lodge, a 30-stall biathlon shooting range – meeting the same standards seen at IBU World Cup venues across Europe – as well as paved roller ski trails. Everything Bailey hopes to have when he begins his work on the next crop of Olympic biathletes, which he's willing to bet will happen sooner than later.
"Maybe not in the next Olympics, but probably the Olympics after that, there will be Olympic biathletes coming out of Bozeman."
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