The night turned bitterly cold, a hard wind blowing across the biathlon course at the 2018 Winter Olympics, and the best Lowell Bailey could manage was 33rd place.
“I just didn’t have it in the legs,” Bailey said after the 10-kilometer sprint. “I hoped for better.”
To make matters worse, the veteran American racer did not have his wife and daughter waiting outside the stadium because the trip to Pyeongchang had proved too costly and difficult.
It mattered to Bailey because, unlike a lot of Olympians, he normally travels with his family, even if that has meant extra luggage and changing diapers and occasionally waking to nighttime cries.
“Every athlete has to find their balance,” he said.
Erika and little Ophelia play a very real part in the career of the first world champion in U.S. biathlon history, a man who might still win the country’s first Olympic medal in the sport when he races again in the 20-kilometer individual on Thursday.
That’s because every time Bailey clicks into his skis and slings a rifle across his back, the 36-year-old is driven by the memory of a grueling hill in Austria.
Exhaustion had all but consumed him on that climb in February 2017, the biggest day of his life slipping away. Then Erika appeared beside the course, slogging up the hill, carrying Ophelia in a sling across her chest. He remembers her voice rising above the rumble of the crowed.
“You’re winning,” she had called out. “You’re winning.”
Something about biathlon has always felt distinctly foreign to Americans.
The sport requires adrenaline to charge around a long, hilly cross-country track. After each lap, racers must stop and immediately calm themselves to shoot at a distant target. Every miss amounts to added time.
As a young man, Bailey steadily climbed the ranks of a national program that could never quite keep pace with Germany or France or the Scandinavian countries.
After Bailey’s first Olympics, the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, U.S. Biathlon officials hired Per Nilsson to overhaul the team. The Swede challenged his new charges to increase their practice load by hundreds of hours a year.
“We knew our guys had the capacity,” said Max Cobb, the U.S. Biathlon president and chief executive. “They also had the desire.”
Slowly, the Americans began to improve — all of them, it seemed, except Bailey.
“I plateaued for a long time,” he said.
He had some respectable results along the way, and some more trips to the Olympics, but also days when he considered quitting. By 2016, he was married to Erika and looking toward a new life.
Her family owned property near their home in Lake Placid, N.Y.; it seemed like a good spot to raise a family and try cattle ranching. Bailey said: “I was going to pull the plug” on biathlon.
It was Erika — in a way — who kept him going.
She was approached by a man who worked for the same environmental group that she did. The man wanted to talk to her husband about plans to build a biathlon training center in Montana.
The idea intrigued Erika, who was pregnant at the time. She thought it sounded like a good way for Lowell to stay connected to the sport he loved.
This is how Lowell puts it: “There were watershed points in my career where you could go one way or the other.”
There are points where you grit your teeth. The rewards always outweigh the challenges.
Word spread around the course at the 2017 world championships in Hochfilzen, Austria. The American had shot well on the range and was headed into the last lap of the 20-kilometer race with a slight lead.
That winter, the Baileys had put their ranching plans on the back burner. Lowell wanted to help start the Montana training center. He also wanted to race another season and bring his family along.
“I got to watch Ophelia grow up in a really amazing stage of life,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine missing out.”
Something changed inside him. Gone was the constant pressure to ski faster and shoot truer.
“You’re left with the ability to focus on the process,” he said. “The results actually get better.”
But as he exited the range to ski the final kilometers of the race in Hochfilzen, his legs grew weary and his lead dwindled.
Erika had a credential that allowed her to walk the course and, from where she stood on the big hill, she could see the finish line beyond a snowy field. Her first instinct was to hurry in that direction.
“I wanted to give him a big hug when he got there,” she said.
It was probably a bad idea, given that she might not have made it across the field carrying a baby. A U.S. team staff member gave her another reason to stay.
“He needs you more here,” she recalled him saying.
If you ask Bailey about that day, tears well in his eyes.
Struggling up the hill, he kept his head bowed, focused on the next stride and the stride after that. It was as if he could feel the seconds leaking away.
Erika’s voice shook him from his gloom.
“You’re winning,” she yelled.
From the corner of his eye, he spotted her running with Ophelia’s head peeking out the top of the sling.
I have to do this, he remembers thinking. I can’t get this far and squander the opportunity.
It’s hard sitting on the couch. It’s almost harder, almost more nerve-racking, watching from home than being at the races.
There is a reason Bailey feels optimistic about the 20-kilometer race in Pyeongchang, even after his disappointing performance at the shorter distance.
“Things can change quickly,” he said.
On that day at the world championships, when his wife called out, it was like a switch flicked inside him. He charged over the hill, rebuilding his lead, heading for a historic victory.
“I knew that he wanted it so badly,” Erika said. “I knew he would do everything in his power.”
The win convinced him to stick around and try for his fourth Olympic Games. If traveling with Ophelia was a little tougher this season — she’s walking and talking and eating solid food — so be it.
“There are points where you grit your teeth,” he said. “The rewards always outweigh the challenges.”
The family planned to be together at these, his last Olympics, but realized it would be tricky. The athletes village does not allow wives or children; renting a nearby apartment would have been expensive and logistically cumbersome.
Also, Erika is pregnant again and facing a 20-week ultrasound.
“That was sort of the tipping point,” she said.
So she stayed home and, with the time difference between New York and South Korea, had to get up early to watch a live stream of his sprint on Sunday.
“It’s hard sitting on the couch,” she said by telephone afterward. “It’s almost harder, almost more nerve-racking, watching from home than being at the races.”
Lowell points out that they still get to video chat. And it won’t be long until he’s back with them.
As for Thursday’s race, he will need to find the speed that has eluded him at times this season.
“I just have to stay positive,” he said. “And hope for the best.”
Maybe Erika and Ophelia can help.
They will be in his thoughts as he stands at the starting line. The memory of them, of that day, will push him.
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