LAKE PLACID - Olympic biathlete Haley Hovey Johnson is a shining product of a Lake Placid winter sports movement which has, for many generations, routinely placed Adirondack residents on podiums around the world.
Johnson comes from a well-known local ski family - the Hoveys - and attended high school at Lake Placid's National Sports Academy. She lives at the Olympic Training Center on Old Military Road when she's not on the World Cup tour, and she is sponsored financially by Lake Placid and the state Olympic Regional Development Authority.
The Enterprise reached her via e-mail while she competed on the World Cup biathlon circuit in Europe.
On Wednesday, Johnson came in 45th in a World Cup race in Anterselva, Italy, which put her in 71st place overall in the World Cup standings. She recently claimed a career-best 21st-place finish in a World Cup race in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
She is one of three local athletes representing the U.S. in biathlon at Vancouver. (Paul Smiths' Tim Burke is, at press time, ranked No. 4 in the overall World Cup standings, and Lake Placid's Lowell Bailey, a veteran of the Torino Games along with Burke, also made the American team).
Johnson's story illustrates the best parts about growing up here as an athlete, and her success can be an inspiration to every kid tucking down Whiteface.
Johnson also realizes that the opportunities she enjoyed are out of reach for many young people in the Olympic region. She has started to use her renown to improve the accessibility and affordability of winter sports for children by working with the Maine Winter Sports Center, an organization dedicated to "re-establishing skiing as a lifestyle in Maine," where she helped kids learn how to ski and tried to show them how to deal with the sport's attendant costs.
Johnson expects to continue working in this vein after the Olympics. For starters, she plans to take a group of local fourth-graders she corresponds with out for a ski when she gets back to town.
ADE: How long has your family lived in the area? Do you have a lot of relatives who live around here?
HJ: I have a lot of family in Lake Placid, and often the joke is: Who am I not related to?
My dad's parents, the Johnsons, moved to Lake Placid shortly before the 1980 Olympics and, along with family, ran the children's store FarMor's Kids. (FarMor is Swedish for grandmother.)
I am not sure when my mom's side of the family first moved up to the Adirondacks, but both my grandfather and great-grandfather, Bill Hovey and Pop Hovey Sr., were influential in promoting both alpine and water skiing through the Lake Placid Club. My grandfather ran the Bill Hovey Ski School for a while too.
In addition to historical roots in the area, when I am in Placid I definitely feel like family, both immediate and extended, surrounds me. I have a lot of "cousins" within the Devlin family and have really enjoyed being able to live and train near all of them.
ADE: Do you still live in Lake Placid?
HJ: After spending time at Bates College in Maine and skiing for the Maine Winter Sports Center out of northern Maine, I have spent the past couple of years back in Lake Placid.
I live at the Olympic Training Center so that I can keep my career affordable, as well as have access to high-quality training facilities and the space to focus on biathlon. However, my fiance lives in Denver, and I spend as much time there as possible.
ADE: In Lake Placid, we have access to athletic facilities of the sort which are available to only a vanishingly small fraction of the country. What can and what should the town/community do to encourage young people to become involved in bobsledding, biathlon, etc.?
HJ: Or speedskating, luge, Nordic skiing and ski jumping.
That is a great question that many of us have been trying to figure out, because it could be such an asset for towns like Lake Placid.
After spending time with the Maine Winter Sports Center, whose mission is to re-establish skiing as a lifestyle in northern Maine, I wholly believe that communities can rally to make sports accessible to both young and old.
I get to visit a variety of different ski communities, and one thing that I have noticed is that there are always kids out skiing.
These communities have, of course, adapted to promoting sports to the tourists in their area, but there also seems to be a healthy accessibility for locals to easily get out and ski.
I do not know what the solution is, but having grown up in Lake Placid I do feel that improvements can be made for local sports enthusiasts as well as the valuable tourists that come to enjoy the Adirondacks.
ADE: How does Lake Placid compare to the towns that host World Cup events in Europe? I know that's a broad question, but is it roughly similar?
HJ: Most towns that host the World Cups are fairly similar to Lake Placid in size, if not even smaller. In places like Bled/Pokljuka, Slovenia or Hochfilzen, Austria, their venues are run by the military.
ADE: I know biathlon is very popular in Europe. How is a World Cup event different over there?
HJ: European biathlon World Cups don't even compare to the biathlon World Cups we've hosted in North America.
This current block of World Cups in Oberhof and Ruhpolding, Germany and Antholz, Italy will bring thousands and thousands of spectators to each race.
When Tim came across the line in second place in the men's mass start competition in Oberhof this past weekend to reclaim the leader's yellow bib and to match his best result ever, he entered a stadium of 25,000 fans cheering, singing, ringing all sorts of noise-makers and waving flags.
The courses are also lined with spectators, which adds to the excitement of the race, especially when a lone American flag appears.
... With the historic success that our men's team has had over the past two years, Europeans are very excited about rooting for our team.
We also have an international staff - our head coaches are Swedish and Italian, and the remainder of the staff is German. So, this year we've got a healthy number of Swedish, Italian and German fans behind us!
ADE: What are some of the most foreign things you've seen on the World Cup tour?
HJ: As an American, I get to do biathlon because I enjoy it. I have been able to, for the most part, afford this lifestyle, and I have a supportive national governing body behind me.
However, I am not sure if other athletes compete with such pleasure and without the pressure of needing to earn a living from results.
For many, being a sportsman is a way to a better life for themselves and their families, largely from a financial standpoint.
We often stay in the same hotels as Ukraine's team. During their country's civil unrest of the past two years, or the shutoff of gas from Russia during the coldest depths of winter, I wondered what it means for them to be an athlete, compared to us.
ADE: How about strangest or most eye-opening things you've seen in your World Cup travels?
HJ: One of the most eye-opening things that I've seen or experienced in my World Cup travels in the skill level of the best biathletes in the world. It is pretty neat to be able to see people master a difficult task with such grace and effortlessness.
ADE: We knew a lot of good athletes growing up in Lake Placid, and I'm sure you met some phenomenally talented people at NSA. What do you think set you apart from all the other young athletes in town and allowed you to achieve at the highest level?
HJ: I often look back to what got me here, and what helped me to make the important decisions along the way that enabled me to pursue athletics in addition to my academics while growing up in Lake Placid.
Honestly, I do not feel I was any different in character or nature from my peers.
However, there are two things that I know definitely have led to my career in biathlon and the rewards of its success: mentors and a passion for skiing.
I was very fortunate to have positively influential people around me growing up who either introduced me to skiing in its many forms, or provided me with encouragement to continue to follow my goals.
Also, I just love to ski, and I love to ski in the Adirondacks.
Through high school, a year abroad and college, and while skiing as an amateur, I was able to weave together an internal motivation to continue to be a ski racer with the help of the mentors and resources around me.
ADE: How important is persistence to your success?
HJ: Persistence is incredibly important. The ability to be diligent, motivated, enthusiastic and passionate about what one does is cultivated while being an athlete. All such forms of being persistent help you get out of bed and get back out to training and racing, no matter the difficulty or the result. When you stick to your goals, they eventually will come, in one form or the other.
ADE: What is your training routine like outside of the World Cup season?
HJ: We train from the end of April to the end of March, with the thick of our training season being in the summer time.
Lake Placid is a great place to train, and much of it I can do right from my door - running, road biking and rollerskiing.
We do a mix of endurance training throughout the year, which makes the mountains and lakes quite beneficial. In addition, we also spend a lot of time on the shooting range, either with regular shooting drills or in combination with rollerskiing or running at varying degrees of intensity.
Because our coaches are in Europe, we communicate largely online, and converge during training camps throughout the season in places like Sweden, Germany and Italy.
ADE: How has your training routine changed throughout your career?
HJ: At one point adding sheer quantity was most important, but as I am getting older, quality of training is paramount.
My training plan, which will total about 640 hours this year, is designed individually for me and tailored to my strengths and weaknesses at given points during the year. Working with professional, high-quality coaches has been key to making this transition.
ADE: Do you like to hike? What are you favorite places to exercise in the Adirondacks?
HJ: I really enjoy getting out into the Adirondacks, and it is not a bad day on the job when it includes summitting a high peak or paddling a lake. What's great about our training is that for a period you need to train in all different modes, which keeps our training varied and more fun. But one of my favorite parts about training right in Lake Placid is that there are numerous trail systems you can get to right from town, without having to drive far: the JackRabbit trail, the Peninsula trails, Henry's Woods and Heaven Hills trails, and the John Brown trails. We've got it pretty good.
ADE: When and why did you start going to NSA?
HJ: Attending NSA was a privilege for me, but I quickly found the close-knit community and the staff to be a perfect fit for me and a great way to be able to become a better skier at the same time.
After missing school at the Lake Placid middle school in the mornings during the winter to train with NSA, I started full time there in ninth grade.
It was at the end of that year that I realized that I was no longer enjoying alpine racing and met some great people who introduced me to Nordic skiing and biathlon.
ADE: Who were your best coaches at NSA?
HJ: My earth science teacher was the nordic coach at the time (Kris Cheney-Seymour, now an architect in Saranac Lake) and my dean of students was a '92 Olympian for nordic, and they helped me learn how to cross country ski.
In that same year, U.S. Biathlon was recruiting juniors, which paved the way for giving biathlon a try.
ADE: Could you have made it to the Olympics without attending NSA?
HJ: Attending a ski school wasn't necessary for me to have made it to the Olympic team, but had I not, I would not have met the same people and have had the key experiences, which shaped me as a person and as an athlete, and then enabled me to endure the years of training and the ups and downs of sports in order to make it this far.
ADE: What was the most helpful advice a coach gave you while you were in high school?
HJ: The best advice from a coach while in high school, and even now, is to keep things simple. This can come in many forms, but because of my nature and ability to make things more complicated and to take on more pressure than I need to, to be advised to keep it simple has always been helpful.
In a sport that is so mentally intensive, on top of being physically demanding, such ability is key.
ADE: Has your team gotten more funding recently?
HJ: Our U.S. Biathlon Development, Junior and Nationals teams have benefited tremendously from increased fundraising over the past few years, both from the U.S. Biathlon Association and the U.S. Olympic Committee. This support has helped to fund our travel, training camp, competitions and high-quality coaching expenses.
ADE: Have your coaches changed in the past few years?
HJ: My coaches have changed as I have moved up from the Development team to the National A team. Our most recent addition to the coaching staff is Armin Auchentaller, who is coming from coaching the Italian National Biathlon team.
ADE: You recently came in 21st at a World Cup race. What did you improve to finish No. 21 and what do you need to improve to get into the top 10?
HJ: Slowly but surely, I am moving from one level up to the next. Finishing 21st in the Individual was fantastic and a motivation that I definitely needed to demonstrate that I could be competitive at that next level.
The result helped affirm that my preparation and training are headed in the right direction. But, I also feel like there is a lot of work to be done to reach peak performance during the Olympic Games in February. Once I reach that level, it will only open the way to the next.
In the weeks preceding the Games I will spend a lot of time on increasing my ski speed and shooting consistency during races.
ADE: I've heard that Lake Placid is your primary sponsor. What does that mean?
HJ: My primary financial sponsor is Lake Placid and that is managed through ORDA.
What is neat about this relationship is that they also sponsor other elite athletes in the area, so together it represents the area's Olympic athletes.
Quite often you will see resort towns sponsor high-profile athletes to benefit their exposure and advertising.
ADE: Who else sponsors you?
HJ: Other than ORDA, the remainder of my sponsors are product sponsors who provide their products, helping offset the costs of training and travel.
In exchange, they can use my name and photos to help advertise their products and companies.
I have a group of local supporters like Green Goddess Natural Foods and Placid Balanced Bodyworks, and a few in Vermont like Surefoot footbeds from Kilington and Food Science of Vermont (vitamins) in Essex Junction. Others are from Colorado, like Teko Socks and Mix1 from Boulder.
Collectively, they have helped keep my career sustainable. Some are as new as this fall, and others I have worked with for almost six years. It has been great to work with all of them and it has helped develop the professional side of what I do.
Another facet of my support, which has been tremendous, is the Uihlein-Ironman Sports Fund, which is a fund available for local athletes to help with the mounting costs of equipment and travel necessary for competing in their sports. The fund is run through Adirondack Community Trust (www.generousact.org).
ADE: Were you part of a ski team in college? How did that work?
HJ: I skied (cross country) for Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, which is a Division I ski program.
However, due to some peripheral circumstances I decided to put school on hold and return to biathlon.
ADE: What did you study at college?
HJ: I had begun an Environmental Studies degree and have dabbled in a few art classes since leaving Bates, but now I am focusing solely on biathlon.
When I retire, I will return back to school and look forward to the next challenge.
I do not think I will continue my environmental degree, but will probably head more in the direction of education and art.
ADE: What are your hobbies? What do you do for fun?
HJ: While on the road, I enjoy reading and knitting to relax, and when we are in a new place, getting out to know more about the region we are racing in. I enjoy traveling and getting to see the world.
ADE: Do you work?
HJ: Biathlon is a full-time job for me with all of its training, traveling and working on sponsorships. But, up until the past few years I worked various jobs on the side, and one that I have continued is creating handmade greeting cards that I sell at the Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid.
ADE: You went to St. Agnes, right? What are some of your favorite memories from there?
HJ: I definitely enjoyed St. Agnes. I lived right up the road and could always walk to school.
But what I enjoyed the most was returning. Last year I connected with the St. Agnes sixth-grade class with class visits and through my blog (www.comeskiwithme.blogspot.
com/). I got to relive Author's Night (each student writes a book) and sixth-grade graduation with them.
ADE: How has Tim Burke's success influenced you? Have you known each other since childhood or high school?
HJ: I first started skiing with Tim and Lowell in high school through NYSEF Nordic. It has been really neat to watch their different approaches to biathlon over the years.
With Tim, especially, it has been neat to see him mature into a world-class elite athlete.
I am often training with Tim and Lowell, because this year I was the only woman on the A Team with them.
We have the same coach, and I joined them during training camps in Vancouver, Lake Placid, Europe and Utah this year.