The upcoming World Cup biathlon season looks hopeful for three athletes from the Tri-Lakes region.
Annelies Cook of Saranac Lake is coming off her first full year at the World Cup level, Tim Burke of Paul Smiths has been a top biathlete for a few years now, and Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid is fresh off his best year ever.
The World Cup season starts later this month in Sweden. Burke and Bailey will start on the World Cup tour, as they have in recent years, while Cook needs to compete in an IBU Cup race to qualify for the World Cup first.
Tim Burke of Paul Smiths prepares to shoot during a warm-up session for the men’s 10-kilometer sprint of the Biathlon World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany, in March.
(AP Photo — Matthias Schrader)
Bailey looks especially primed for a big year after finishing last year ranked No. 14 in the World Cup standings. He finished in the top 10 on seven occasions.
"That was by far my career best. Previous to that, I think I had been maybe in the top 50 in the overall rankings," Bailey said.
Bailey said his goal is to build off last year's results, be consistent and get on the podium.
"Hopefully, our relay team can ... get on the podium because we've been really close in the past," he said. "I think we're at a point now where we can make that step."
Bailey said a big reason for his success last season was the way he approached training heading into the season. The system wasn't necessarily new, but he felt he was better able to embrace it and approach it with a more mature outlook. A big part of the change was learning to relax during the downtime, which allowed him to be fresh when he needed to be.
"I think what it's allowed me to do is to be focused and 100 percent present in all the workouts," he said.
As for Burke, he finished a solid 20th in the World Cup rankings last season, including nine top 10 finishes. Burke came on strong last season after having surgery on both legs in spring 2011. The surgery was to repair compartment syndrome in both shins.
"My number-one goal would be to get back to the podium," Burke said. "I was really close to doing that last year with fourth, sixth and a lot of top-10 finishes, but I didn't quite get there. So I feel like I've made the changes I need to make, and the improvements, and hopefully I'll be able to get back there this season."
Burke said he spent a lot of the offseason focusing on two areas: shooting and skate-skiing technique.
"It's something I hadn't done in a few years," Burke said about working on his skiing form. "I felt like I had gotten a little complacent there and found some areas where I could make some improvements and I worked really, really hard on those all year. And I feel like I've been able to make some good improvements there technically.
"The second area was in my standing shooting, and I did kind of a similar thing. I went through and made some changes in my equipment, changes in rifle stock to get it to hopefully fit me a little better, be a little more comfortable and spent a lot of time putting lead down-range. I feel like that definitely helped a lot and so far in my practice and tests, I've been doing better than I have in the past."
Both men said one thing they are looking forward to this season is visiting Sochi, Russia, where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held. Neither has ever competed there because the venues were created specifically for the upcoming Games.
"I try to not to pick and choose which competitions are more important or less important, but I am definitely looking forward to World Championships," Bailey said. "That's always a really exciting time. And I'm really looking forward to the World Cup in Sochi this year - the pre-Olympic World Cup - because it's a chance to check out the Olympic venue a year before the Olympics, and it's a totally different part of the world than where we're used to going.
"I mean, we go to Russia almost every year for World Cup; it's in central Siberia, so that's more what people think of as a winter climate. But Sochi on the other hand, as a lot of people know, it's kind of Mediterranean city. So I'm really interested to see how biathlon fits into that environment. I'm looking forward to that. I'm looking forward to the World Championships in the Czech (Republic), and you know, you can't help but be excited about the World Cup open in Sweden. So it's a big high point in my year."
As for Cook, she spent much of last season adjusting to a higher level of competition and to life on the road. That in itself was a huge change for her, figuring out what do with her down time.
"You race and it's really exciting, but there's also all this quiet time while you're waiting to race," Cook said. "You don't train as much, so you kind of have to figure out how to occupy yourself in a meaningful way."
This year, she anticipates she'll be able to adapt to that much easier, having done it already. As for competing against top athletes, Cook said she had to overcome some mental obstacles there, too.
"At first, I felt intimidated by athletes. Someone would pass me and I'd say, 'Oh well, she's probably just faster than me,' and I realized that that was a bad way to think and I kind of had to figure out how to approach each race so that I would race hard to do the best race I could do and see where that got me, instead of getting immediately intimidated and thinking that I couldn't keep up with the people around me," Cook said. "So that was really big for me. I felt like by the end of the year, I had built up my confidence and I had figured some tricks to play in my brain while I was racing so I could actually go out and race hard."
Heading into this season, Cook focused on her technique like Bailey and Burke did, but she also made sure she took advantage of being in the Adirondacks. That meant spending time with friends and family, which she said is important because she's on the road so much in the winter. What she really enjoyed doing with friends was going on backcountry adventures. She did things like hiking a slide on Lower Wolf Jaw Mountain and paddlboarding the Seven Carries canoe route in the St. Regis Canoe Area.
"That was a fun adventure, although carrying a paddleboard for a long time is not that easy," she said. "My head is much too pointy to carry it on my head."
Looking ahead to the season, Cook said she's excited for the mixed relay events, where she saw some success last season in mid-February as part of the team. Sara Studebaker, Jay Hakkinen, Cook and Burke teamed up to finish sixth in the World Cup biathlon event in Kontiolahti, Finland.
"I grew up chasing Tim around and kind of idolizing those guys, so getting to be on a team with him and tag off to him was really fun," Cook said.