Lowell Bailey: Sustained Competitive Excellence

S4 Ep3 - Lowell Bailey
Tom Kelly: [00:00:00] It's pre-season time for sure here at Soldier Hollow. I'm with Lowell Bailey, the high performance director for US Biathlon. And Lowell, welcome to heartbeat.

Lowell Bailey: [00:00:08] Great to be here. Thanks, Tom.

Tom Kelly: [00:00:10] Beautiful fall colors. We're recording this in mid-October at the Soldier Hollow camp. And it is gorgeous out here. I know you live in Lake Placid. It's pretty back there, but this is nice. And a little bit of snow up on the ridgelines.

Lowell Bailey: [00:00:23] Yeah, yeah. No, it's Utah this time of year is – it's a great mix of all the seasons [00:00:30] all at once it seems.

Tom Kelly: [00:00:31] Yeah. This is a pretty important camp.

Lowell Bailey: [00:00:33] Yeah. We've been doing this camp for decades now. And the reason we haven't revised anything really is it's such a great time of year to be in Utah for our last dryland training camp. And really the importance of it is it's really the final, uh, the final training [00:01:00] block before we get into just the fine tuning section of the season, which is really that lead up on the snow camp in Scandinavia. So this is the last US based camp. It's the culmination of a ton of hard work by the athletes starting in May and also mixed in as some, some team qualifications as well.

Tom Kelly: [00:01:26] I want to talk a little bit about Utah because recently US Biathlon [00:01:30] announced that it would move its headquarters here, still keeping its training center at Lake Placid for the national team and junior team up in Bozeman. But how important is that to have a footprint like that here in Utah?

Lowell Bailey: [00:01:42] I think it's hugely important for the organization. Um, you know, we're expanding pretty at a pretty rapid pace these days. There's a lot of new clubs coming online. And, um, you know, our, our organizational [00:02:00] priorities or, or objectives are really about building, among other things, building our clubs and building our outreach. And, um, we've really had a pretty good presence now in the northeast for, for a long time, some good venues there. And, you know, in the West, there's also great venues, great clubs. And so this just adds to all the groundwork that they've laid over the [00:02:30] years and puts, you know, USBA puts their presence out here on the West Coast.

Tom Kelly: [00:02:36] You've been involved in the sport for many years as an athlete and now a coach and a high performance director. Do you sense this kind of burgeoning of the sport around the country, within the clubs, and kind of filtering up to the top?

Lowell Bailey: [00:02:52] Yeah, I mean, that is our hope that the club participation is increasing. We're seeing that now. We're seeing new clubs [00:03:00] come online. We're seeing growth in participation at existing clubs. And you know, I think a lot of that credit goes to the, you know, the club organizers, volunteers and also with US Biathlon. You know we've put resources and personnel dedicated to that purpose of helping clubs as they continue to grow.

Tom Kelly: [00:03:26] We're going to talk more about that when we get to the strategic plan for 2030. [00:03:30] Let's kind of look back over the summer. We're here. It's the precipice of the season coming up very soon here at Soldier Hollow for the final camp. But you've had a whole season of preparation at Lake Placid and other locations. So give us a little sense of what the team has been up to over the last five months or so since the season ended.

Lowell Bailey: [00:03:51] Yeah, I think, you know, many, many listeners out there know what the rigors of, of biathlon [00:04:00] training is. For those that don't, it's pretty much year round, with 3 or 4 weeks off at the end of the season to recharge. So, um, towards the tail end of April, the team gets going again. Our first camp this year was in Bend, Oregon, and that was on snow. It's a great opportunity to get some, you know, high volume. So a lot of hours in a great place at that time of year. Great skiing conditions. And so that [00:04:30] was the kick off in May. And then we really focused on quality training in Lake Placid. For the majority of the summer. We had several training camps there. One of the big focuses this year has been to increase our physiological testing. And so in partnership with Montana State University and their physiology department led by Dr. [00:05:00] Jim Becker, we were able to do more testing than we've ever done, quite honestly, and has really led to some breakthrough knowledge with our team, with our training planning. So really, the summer was a lot of a lot of training in the East. Of course, we had our what's come to be an annual event with the Jericho [00:05:30] races, summer summer races in Jericho and and now, you know, now we're in Utah for the last camp and pretty soon we'll be over. Were in Vuokatti, Finland for the preparation camp.

Tom Kelly: [00:05:45] Let's go back to the physiological testing. One of the real benefits of that testing comes with continuity. And is this something now, as we lead up to 2030, as a part of your strategic plan, this is going to be a continuum. Yeah.

Lowell Bailey: [00:05:59] So and [00:06:00] I think we'll talk a little bit more about the strategic plan. But one of the facets of it was, you know, if you have the bold aspirations to go out and win the first Olympic medal for the sport of biathlon, if that's your organizational goal, you should be tracking progress over time. And as we sort of took a step back a couple of years ago and looked at, you know, what are our strengths, what are our weaknesses, one of the places we identified for improvement [00:06:30] was really recording performance data. And so part of that is the physiological testing. And huge, huge thanks to MSU and Jim Becker for not only providing, you know, really, really high quality testing, the testing that we need, but also providing really original thought in how we might improve the testing, how we might bring in new tests to [00:07:00] look at different variables and happy to go into that further. I could spend an hour just talking about that, but I'll leave it there.

Tom Kelly: [00:07:07] We should probably talk to him at some point, because absolutely. This is such a fascinating area, and I had a lot of exposure to it in my career, but it is a real difference maker. Let's go back though, to last season. I want to have you recap a little bit and we'll then we'll look into the future. But you had some interesting things from last year's results. You had some emerging athletes. So give us a few highlights from the season past. [00:07:30]

Lowell Bailey: [00:07:30] Yeah. You know last season was really you know every season seems like a new a new thing this season as we go in, I'm excited about all of the work that the team has done over the last 6 or 8 months. But last season, looking back, we had a lot of great indicators of future, future success to come, but also some of our athletes [00:08:00] that, you know, have been in the pipeline for a long time, had some of their best, had some of their best results. I'm thinking of Sean Doherty, who, you know, he's still fairly young for the sport, but he's been around for a long time. And he had really, you know, one of his best seasons, if not his best season last year. High mark with an 11th place in in Annecy, France. Um and [00:08:30] definitely, you know, left him hungry even though he had one of his best seasons. I think he realized I think we all realized that that's just, you know, tip of the iceberg. I think if we talk about sort of step away from the veteran side and look at emerging athletes, you know, you have to talk about Maxime Germain's bronze medal at world at Junior World Championships. Um, also his now teammate [00:09:00] Campbell Wright, who was then competing for New Zealand, Campbell won that race as well.

Lowell Bailey: [00:09:05] So, you know, and Campbell trained with the national team throughout last year and was by all intents and purposes a national team member throughout last season and now is a national team member. Um, so are some young athletes that continue to post some impressive results and they did last season. But what's really exciting is there's a whole group [00:09:30] of that generation of athletes that's training together daily, pushing each other daily, and that type of sort of critical mass is so important in raising the bar of the whole team. Um, and on the women's side, there was some really interesting and exciting results on the, um, we'll call it talent transfer [00:10:00] side of things. So we have in biathlon, since it's a sport that involves cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship, um, what you see across really the whole international scene is cross country. Skiers at an elite level will make that jump. And what we saw last year was, um, Margie Freed from the Craftsbury Green Racing project. Um, she chose to kind of stick her [00:10:30] neck out and try biathlon. She didn't have a whole lot of experience up to that point, really jumping in with both feet. And she jumped into our trials in December and. And, uh, and qualified for our IBU Cup team and then went on, I think it was her maybe fifth or sixth career biathlon race ever.

Lowell Bailey: [00:10:49] She was posted a 19th place, which was our American top finish on the IBU Cup last year and I think, more importantly, posted a second, [00:11:00] second fastest course time and and did that several times where she had top five course times. And in biathlon, you know right now the international field is really, really competitive. Races are won by half a second and ski speed is just so important. Um, you know, it goes without saying that you have to shoot well, but [00:11:30] shooting, you know, it's my opinion that that shooting can be taken up in a much shorter time than it is to learn how to cross-country ski at an elite level. So the ski speed aspect of the sport is, is just so important. Um, so anyway, looking back at last season, just a lot of new, new faces, a lot of exciting results [00:12:00] coming from the younger generations. And then also, you have to say veterans. Deedra Irwin. It deserves mentioning with her 20th place at World Championships leading the team there. That left her, I think, coming off the historic seventh place in Beijing. I know Deidra wanted more and I know that that's fueled her throughout this past training season. She's [00:12:30] hungry for more of those top level results.

Tom Kelly: [00:12:34] Yeah. It's interesting how that becomes a stepping stone and how vital those results are. Let's take a look at the season ahead. And before we get into the season itself, you had touched on a little bit of your pre pre season training that you'll do over in Vuokatti. But the IBU World Cup opens November 25th in Östersund, the IBU Cup December 1st in Kontiolahti. What will the athletes be doing [00:13:00] in the couple of weeks leading up to those openers?

Lowell Bailey: [00:13:03] So actually we are changing our lead up schedule a little bit this year or I should say pretty significantly. And the big significant change is we're bringing our IBU Cup field and our World Cup team, both teams together in Europe. Typically this time of year in Utah, we'll have the trials and we'll [00:13:30] generally pick most of the World Cup team in IBU Cup team at that point, and then they'll go off and be on those two tours separately this year. We're changing our selection criteria a bit, and we'll have both groups of athletes at one training camp in Vuokatti, Finland, on snow starting November 6th. So we're increasing the amount of snow leading into the season [00:14:00] or on snow time, that is. And we're also bringing both tours together, which I think is going to be great for the athletes. It's always tough for athletes to travel over to the foreign countries and know that in the cases of a World Cup athlete, you're on the road for, you know, 4 or 5 months. So I think it's going to help with that competitive drive, but also just the camaraderie of having, you know, in [00:14:30] this case, 18 athletes there for a large two week camp.

Tom Kelly: [00:14:34] Cool. And then the season gets underway. And there's a lot of big events this year. You have the Youth Olympic Games coming up in in South Korea, you have World Championships in Nové Mesto, you have a World Cup coming back to the US in Utah and also World Cup up in Canada. So as you look at the season, I know it's a continuum, but there certainly are those high points. And how do you try to balance that in your plan?

Lowell Bailey: [00:14:59] That's a [00:15:00] great question. I think, you know, one of our strategies from the coaching side of things is, you know, you have to be close to your best at all times, really. You know, your best can strike at any moment. And one of the interesting things about biathlon is there's really quite a lot of chances throughout a season. You know, you start with, [00:15:30] you know, with Östersund in November and you're competing all the way through March and in that time you've got 30 some odd chances to, to be at your best and really, you know, a podium at the first World Cup or a podium at the last World Cup. In my mind, they're equally impressive. Of course, World Championships is the focus every year and [00:16:00] a home World Cup holds a special place. I also have seen it does seem that. It's hard to quantify why it is, but there does seem to be a home court advantage. We know the courses at Soldier Hollow so well, and having that hometown crowd is just such a boost for an athlete going out and competing, especially for World Cup athletes that are used to competing [00:16:30] in Europe. They're used to competing with, you know, crazy German fans and Austrian fans and Norwegian fans and, you know, being known entities for sure, but also playing second fiddle to, you know, the top Norwegians or the top Germans in terms of fan appreciation. So it's really nice for the athletes to come home, compete on home soil and, and have that home court advantage.

Tom Kelly: [00:16:58] For clubs who are listening to heartbeat [00:17:00] around the country. It's also an opportunity for them to come and see their heroes of the sport right there on the track.

Lowell Bailey: [00:17:06] Yeah, absolutely. I would encourage anyone that can get to Soldier Hollow for that World Cup. Come and spectate, come and cheer on team USA. It's it's going to be a great, great World Cup and just really, really inspiring for, you know, youth that are just getting into the sport or maybe haven't even tried the sport yet.

Tom Kelly: [00:17:29] I want to touch a little [00:17:30] bit more on the Youth Olympic Games in South Korea and Gangwon Province. I'm curious, are they using the same Olympic venue from Pyeongchang?

Lowell Bailey: [00:17:37] I believe they are, yeah. Much to my chagrin, that's sort of out of my department. So my colleague Tim Burke is managing that whole trip. So he's the guy to ask for all those details.

Tom Kelly: [00:17:52] We'll get him on and get a little bit more on that. Let's take a look before we take a quick show break. But just to a little bit of a look as to who to watch from the USA this [00:18:00] winter. You've talked about a number of them already, but any other notes that you'd like to make about the team that'll be out there this winter?

Lowell Bailey: [00:18:06] I think, you know, keeping an eye on this young generation that's just coming up, some of which are still juniors, some of which are young seniors. I think keeping an eye on those groups of athletes, they've trained really well throughout the season. Um, you know, in addition to Maxime Germaine, [00:18:30] Campbell Wright, if you look at that, that group you have. Vincent Bonacci, Bjorn Westervelt, Vasec Cervenka. There's a great group of young, young guys right now. And then I'm very interested to see, um, you know, there's on the women's side, it's a much more diverse group, I would say. So different backgrounds. [00:19:00] You have someone like Tara Geraghty-Moats, who's sort of a crossover athlete from Nordic combined, where she had a huge amount of success there. She's joined the National Guard. She's gone to basic training, so she hasn't had a lot of training this year. But you just really never know. Um, and then you have women like Margie Friede, perhaps some of the other talent transfer athletes that have just this summer [00:19:30] tried biathlon for the first time. We may see them squeak onto an IBU cup or maybe even a World Cup. So I think, you know, those are ones to watch. And then, of course, Deidra is hungry to top her seventh personal best. So watch out for her big season ahead.

Tom Kelly: [00:19:49] Yeah we're with Lowell Bailey the high performance director for US Biathlon. We'll take a quick break and we'll be right back on Heartbeat.

Tom Kelly: [00:19:57] We're back on Heartbeat today with Lowell Bailey, [00:20:00] the high performance director for US biathlon. We're at the Soldier Hollow camp, the season right ahead of us. Let's take a long look into the future all the way to 2030. And we've talked about this on the podcast before. And U.S biathlon has been forward thinking, forward looking and putting together a strategic plan that leads out to 2030 with some pretty aggressive goals for those who might not be familiar with it. Give us a little introduction to that strategic plan and why it's so important for a year that's still six seven [00:20:30] years away.

Lowell Bailey: [00:20:32] So the 2030 plan is really focused on what it takes to reach sustained competitive excellence as, as we've defined it. And so what does that mean sustained competitive excellence. It means winning the first ever Olympic medal for the sport of biathlon for for America, but also not [00:21:00] we've tried strategies before quite honestly that that were, you know, similar I mean that's what an NGB really every NGB has that north star of of Olympic success. I think what's different about this plan is it has an eye towards sustainability in terms of reaching that success, but then staying there. And so some of the sort of distinct differences are it's a multi pronged approach for the first time [00:21:30] ever. And by that I mean we're not just focusing on a single athlete or a single team. In some cases in the past we've identified talent at some point in our pipeline, whether that's junior, whether that's young senior, whether that's, you know, developed World Cup athlete. And we've said, oh, here's our chance. We're going to put all of our resources behind this athlete or this team. This plan is about taking a holistic look at performance and really looking at our entire [00:22:00] pipeline and trying to make it more robust year over year, to the point where success is inevitable. And we may not know where that success is coming from. It could come from a club athlete that's just coming up through a new club, could come from a talent transfer athlete that's at a very high world class level of cross country ski speed, and tries the sport through one of our programs. It could come from sort [00:22:30] of the traditional biathlon pipeline, which is to say, you know, an athlete that has started from a young age and really focused on biathlon and specialized on biathlon through their whole career. Um, so what we're trying to do is put resources in place to create a sound, robust pipeline. And, and that takes a lot of different shapes and forms.

Tom Kelly: [00:22:57] You know, one of the elements that has always [00:23:00] stood out to me, and I think because of its simplicity is the recruitment that you've talked about, the talent transfer. This is a really important part of this, isn't it?

Lowell Bailey: [00:23:09] Yeah. And, you know, it may be shrewd to say this, but this is not a new idea. This has been replicated by countless countries over the course of biathlon history. And so we know that it's a successful strategy. And I think more than that, you know, personally, I just feel [00:23:30] like biathlon is such a great sport from the athletes' side, from the athletes perspective, you know, cross country skiing has its own challenges. And then you introduce shooting. And I just feel like for an athlete that wants to devote their, their career, their, their athletic career to the pursuit of Olympic sport and Olympic excellence. Biathlon is such a great choice. It's just it's challenging [00:24:00] all the way through your career at every level. And it can be. It can be one of the most gratifying experiences for an athlete. So on one hand, it's an organizational strategy and an objective. On the other hand, I think it's just an awesome opportunity for individual athletes out there to, you know, take an opportunity and join the sport. And really, there's just so much potential there.

Tom Kelly: [00:24:29] When you [00:24:30] look at the whole blend of things that you have in this plan, it's really quite detailed. Are the athletes understanding this? Do they? Do they feel that they have a plan that they can sink their teeth into and they can stick with now over the next 6 or 7 years?

Lowell Bailey: [00:24:47] Yeah, I think we're building that backing and momentum. And you know, this plan didn't, didn't just get created [00:25:00] in a vacuum. It had a lot of stakeholders that contributed, including athlete representatives and also our board of directors. So really, um, you know, it's a group effort. Obviously at the end of the day, it's the athlete that's out there on the course that's, you know, that's out there racing. But as we all know, there's so much that goes into just getting, you know, competitive athletes to the start line at an Olympic Games.

Tom Kelly: [00:25:29] There's [00:25:30] a lot that goes into that. I know this is touching into Tim and John Ferry's area, but the expansion of clubs and the importance of that grass roots system, ultimately, that's where it all begins, right?

Lowell Bailey: [00:25:42] Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, to the point about sustainability, you know, is a ten year old that's coming into a new club going to medal in 2030. Not likely. However, we want to grow the clubs and it's part of our 2030 plan because [00:26:00] again sustained competitive excellence doesn't happen after 2030. If all we're doing is focusing on our top tier athletes. And I think, again, going back to what I originally said, this is the first time that USBA has had the capacity and I mean that in terms of resources, financial resources, personnel, athletes in the pipeline, it's the first time that we've had the ability [00:26:30] to go out and really give this level of quality to all levels of the pipeline, so we're upping the game in the high performance space. We're increasing athlete support, we're increasing resources at the top levels. So it's not to say we're shifting our focus down to recruitment, or we're shifting our focus down to club development or coach education. It's actually we're just putting attention on all [00:27:00] of the places where we see opportunity in the pipeline.

Tom Kelly: [00:27:03] As we reach the end. Lowell, you've had a really successful career. You came out of an amazing period in Lake Placid area where a lot of great athletes came out. You won a gold medal at the World Championships. That was seven years ago. You have been retired now as an athlete for five and a half years. And, you know, in that time, I mean, what's your perspective, what evolution have you seen both in the sport of biathlon itself and also how [00:27:30] it's adapted here in America?

Lowell Bailey: [00:27:34] Yeah, I think, you know, you learn a lot as an athlete. And I certainly feel like, um, you know, I, I felt like when I retired, I knew quite a bit about the sport, but I quickly learned I didn't know a whole lot, or at least it felt that way. And, you know, as I got into this role, you know, on the admin [00:28:00] side of things, I think one of the biggest things I realized is the vast amount of support that goes into supporting a national team or supporting a World Cup team or any international, any international team. But you just can't do it alone. And I mean that in terms of you can't do it alone as an athlete, you can't do it alone as an NGB. I spoke of Jim Becker's team from MSU. We [00:28:30] rely on so many different entities, whether that's sponsors, whether that's donors, Foundation members, USOPC, you know, it's really I'm not trying to sound cliche at all. It's really sincere, but it really is a team effort beyond just the NGB. So I think that's probably the one of the biggest things that I realized, because as an athlete, you you have [00:29:00] to be somewhat, um, sort of myopic in how you're approaching things. You have to focus on your own performance. And. As a as a team administrator. It's kind of the opposite. You have to focus on all the other stuff. And so that was probably the biggest learning curve for me, is just knowing how many entities are out there that are not only supporting you, your team, but also, [00:29:30] you know, they require coordination and it's a high, high degree of complexity.

Tom Kelly: [00:29:37] For someone like yourself who's had success as an athlete. You're having success now in the coaching and the high performance world. I know it's your job, but what motivates you has to go way beyond that. And what are the factors that really motivate you to do what you're doing right now?

Lowell Bailey: [00:29:57] I think, you know, there's a lot of a [00:30:00] lot of things. I'm routinely impressed at the passion that people put into this sport. You know, it starts with the athletes. And watching the passion that goes into their pursuits is really, really inspiring. But then also looking at, you know, every facet of the sport. You can you can find people that have, you know, [00:30:30] in some cases dedicated their whole lives to, to making the sport better in some way, shape or form and, you know, being able to participate in biathlon in, as the IBU, you know, as the IBU brands that the biathlon family is, it's a real privilege to be a part of that. And, and I think anyone that's been to a World Cup, you know, it's hard to define. But then when you go to [00:31:00] a World Cup, it's like, oh, okay, I understand what's great about this. Yeah.

Tom Kelly: [00:31:05] It was like me going to Antholz last year.

Lowell Bailey: [00:31:06] Yeah. Exactly. Yeah.

Tom Kelly: [00:31:08] Well, Lowell, thanks for this. We're going to close it out with our on target section. And I was just curious, when you're on your own time back in Lake Placid in the summertime, what's the fun thing for you to do outdoors?

Lowell Bailey: [00:31:21] Oh, that's a good question. You know, I think Lake Placid is such a great place to be outdoors in the summer. A lot of people probably think of it as a winter, a [00:31:30] winter place. But it's equally fun in the summer. So really, anything swimming at the lake with my kids, with my family, we grow a lot of things in our garden. So anything outdoors is good by me.

Tom Kelly: [00:31:47] What did you have a good crop of this summer?

Lowell Bailey: [00:31:51] Um, that's a good question. I think we had some late season tomatoes that came through that were quite, quite [00:32:00] good in October. Believe it or not.

Tom Kelly: [00:32:01] I'm thinking your growing season in Lake Placid is probably a little bit longer than it is out here in Utah.

Lowell Bailey: [00:32:07] Yeah, I can't say I know too much about the Utah growing season, but um, but yeah, we were fortunate this year and, and had a lot of, a lot of good things growing cool.

Tom Kelly: [00:32:21] Favorite restaurant in Lake Placid?

Lowell Bailey: [00:32:24] Oh, there's a lot. You know, I would have said Liquids and Solids, but they recently closed [00:32:30] down. So I would have to go with maybe Smoke Signals.

Tom Kelly: [00:32:37] Great. I need to get back to Lake Placid. New places. You've been coming out here enough. Do you have a favorite restaurant out here in Utah?

Lowell Bailey: [00:32:45] Oh, that's. That's also a great question. Um, you know, the Midway Mercantile, which is just down the street from, uh, from our residence here in Zermatt is a great place. We seem to end up there every year. [00:33:00] So I have to choose that one.

Tom Kelly: [00:33:02] That's fine. Last thing. Toughest thing you've done athletically yourself in the last year?

Lowell Bailey: [00:33:09] Unfortunately, it's not that impressive. I've. You'll have to ask our team general manager, Federico Fontana, if he's on another podcast, what his most challenging physical thing is because it's more impressive than mine. Mine would just be, uh, yeah. Just getting [00:33:30] out the door and finding the time to get a run in here. And there is really about all I can claim at this point.

Tom Kelly: [00:33:36] No marathons?

Lowell Bailey: [00:33:37] No marathons.

Tom Kelly: [00:33:38] No big bucket list. Okay.

Tom Kelly: [00:33:40] Sounds good. Lowell Bailey, thanks for joining us on Heartbeat. All the best this season.

Lowell Bailey: [00:33:45] Thanks, Tom. Great to be here.

Heartbeat: US Biathlon Podcast (c) US Biathlon