She’ll never forget the experience, because the Olympics exist for those moments. For athletes to get to those two-plus weeks with the world watching, a lifetime of work so often put in behind the scenes until the brightest lights of network TV flick on and suddenly you’re there, an Olympian, representing your country. Last February, in the bitter cold of a South Korean winter, Clare Egan competed in her first Olympics with USA Biathlon. She competed with the letters “USA” painted onto her left cheek.
Egan helped the U.S. to a 13th-place finish in the women’s biathlon relay event in Pyeongchang last year. While she’ll always hold such a unique memory dear, it’s what’s transpired in the year since that has Egan performing better than ever, feeling better than ever, having as she put it, more fun than ever before.
“I feel very liberated having the Olympics behind me and it’s just kind of allowed me to do my best rather than meeting some minimum standard for qualification or whatever,” Egan said this week. “That’s been really helpful.”
At 31, Egan is off to the her best World Cup start in her young biathlon career. She finished sixth at a World Cup event in Slovenia to end 2018 and has since has six top-15 finishes in various World Cup stops worldwide. This week, however, is something special. This week, Egan and her American teammates are on home soil. For the first time since the 2002 Olympics, an international biathlon competition returns to Soldier Hollow Resort in Midway as the 2019 BMW Biathlon World Cup stop makes its way to the Heber Valley.
Egan has as much momentum as any U.S. biathlete at the moment. What changed, she explained, is new coach, Armin Auchentaller, who took over in May after coaching the Swiss women’s biathlon team for several years. His immediate impact was implementing detailed camps, whereas before, the athletes were part of a day-to-day resident training program. For Egan, she’s now found a way to perfect the balance between focus and training and recovery and rest.
“I knew I had something more to give at the end of last year,” she said, “and that was what was behind my decision to continue competing.”
In the lead-up to the 2018 Games, coaches and sports psychologists told Egan to not focus on the necessary criteria to qualify for the Olympics, or once there, what it could take to have an impressive overall performance. All of which, Egan explained, runs counter to the brain of an athlete, whose determining factors in success are making the team, trying to improve and eventually start racking up results.
This year, it’s all coming together. And she’s hoping for more.
2019 BMW BIATHLON WORLD CUP
At Soldier Hollow Nordic Center
February 14-17, general admission is free
Thursday: Sprint races starting at 11:15 a.m.
Friday: Sprint races starting at 11:15 a.m.
Saturday: Double-header pursuits at 10:05 a.m. and 2:05 p.m.
Sunday: Single mixed relay and mixed relay at 10:10 a.m. and 2:05 p.m.
Egan, a former cross-country runner turned cross-country skier, transitioned to biathlon when she was 25. She had no experience with a rifle, let alone skiing miles and miles with one strapped to her back. Considered one of the fastest skiers on the biathlon World Cup, Egan said she’s still learning how to compartmentalize the physical demands of the skiing portion of her sport with the psychology behind firing at the target and, well, being on target.
“Anyone who has done running or competed in a race can relate to it, how bad you want it, to dig deep and that has a direct correlation to your success,” she said. “It has an inverse success to your shooting. Suddenly, you’re really trying to hit the target. You have to let go of it.”
A tough task when you’re pushing your body to its limits against the best athletes in the world, trying to slow your heart rate down, trying to slow your breathing down and shift focus from such a macro level to a micro one.
Egan’s had experience at Soldier Hollow, too. As a cross-country skier, she’s competing at national and world championships as a senior and junior athlete. The biathlon team has had fall-based camps there, where they trained on roller skis, too. As is the case during these very rare opportunities when they compete in the U.S., the accompanying pressure of competing at home is part of the territory, Egan said.
“It’s worth it,” she said. “We’re really psyched.”