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With international staff, U.S. Biathlon sees 1st Olympic medal within reach

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By: Getty Images By: Getty Images
By: Tom Dougherty

When Bernd Eisenbichler took over as the U.S Biathlon’s high performance director in 2007 as part of sweeping changes throughout the program after the 2006 Torino Games, he believed a culture change was needed if it was ever going to win an Olympic medal.

U.S. Biathlon, in 2006, was well behind its European counterparts, and a quick glance at the all-time Olympic medal count confirmed that let alone that biathlon has historically been engraved in European culture, whereas, in the U.S., it wasn’t.

“I saw a couple of things that I wanted to see different,” Eisenbichler said. “I saw opportunities because I saw the athletes were really motivated and the athletes were also really talented. I didn’t feel like this was done. I felt there was a lot of opportunities.”

Eisenbichler set out to establish a new American way, and it all started with professionalism and structure — not the athletes. With his leadership, U.S. biathlon set out to create its own culture and shift it from an individual focus to a team approach.

Now, 11 years later, his vision developed, his standing in U.S. Biathlon elevated — he’s now the chief of sport — Eisenbichler believes the 2018 PyeongChang Games is a new beginning and expectations of the U.S. competing for its first biathlon medal are real.

“We will see the strongest American biathlon team ever going into the Games,” he said. “It’s absolutely clear our goal is to win the first American biathlon medal. We will have a chance every single race. I am absolutely certain and sure we will get this medal.”

An interesting element of U.S. biathlon that’s changed over the past decade is its international influence on its coaching staff. The German-born Eisenbichler is one of seven international coaches on the coaching staff, and that’s by design too.

Per Nilsson, head coach of the U.S. national team head coach, is Swedish, as is Jonas Johansson, the men’s coach. Jonne Kahkonen, the women’s coach, is Finnish. Algis Shalna is Lithuania, and Vladimir Cervenka hails from the Czech Republic, both regional coaches. The head development coach, Jean Paquet, is Canadian.

When Eisenbichler assumed control, his dream was to build an American system that not only had European influences but also its own unique blend, and he didn’t want that pull coming from just his own experiences growing up in Germany.

The advantages of a coaching staff with international flavor are threefold, according to U.S. Biathlon president Max Cobb, with the most important leg being Eisenbichler.

Another leg was being able to offer opportunities to European coaches that they weren't able to find at home because of the entrenched biathlon culture in Europe. 

"We were able to give some people who, for whatever reason, didn't have a chance to work within their own national system to be able to come and be a part of ours," Cobb said. "We were able to offer people a chance to be more innovative, be more creative and put some of their ideas to work. I think they found that really, really appealing."

The final piece, Cobb said, is the athletes.

Cobb believes the biathletes made strong impressions on the coaches the U.S. has hired since 2006, and they’re why some of the coaches have stuck around for so long.

"If you can get the team to buy into something — they went all in," Nilsson said. "I felt that was easier in a different federation than your home. That's one of the things I admire about the American athletes is that they're open-minded and have the courage to try something new."

One of the athletes is Joanne Reid, the daughter of 1980 bronze-medalist speed skater Beth Heiden Reid and niece of five-time gold-medalist Eric Heiden. Despite an Olympic bloodline, Reid's journey to PyeongChang is unique.

Reid has been a biathlete for just two-and-a-half years and did not have any technique coaching until she was 23, when she arrived at U.S. Biathlon.

The 25-year-old Reid didn't have any formal coaching during her junior and collegiate years, and the U.S. Biathlon coaches accelerated her development.

"They do get this collective knowledge of all of the pieces of different beliefs that come from those different countries," Reid said. "Bernd has that German biathlon perspective. But he's also open to bringing in coaches who have a perspective from different countries and different training philosophies and different technique philosophies."

While U.S. Biathlon’s expectations are higher than ever and the professionalism standard Eisenbichler set out for accomplished, the program still doesn’t have the funding European biathlon programs have.

“It's the never-ending struggle for us," Cobb said.

Still, Cobb said the U.S. Olympic Committee has consistently delivered what he believes are the appropriate resources for building an Olympic-medal winning program. According to Eisenbichler, the budget is enough to now allow the U.S. to compete.

Lowell Bailey, Tim Burke and Sean Doherty and Susan Dunklee are the names to watch in PyeongChang, with the first biathlon race, the women’s 7.5 km sprint, being Saturday.

“We are the economic underdogs in the space that we occupy,” Cobb said, “and that’s been really challenging for us. The reality of biathlon is that it’s so unpredictable.

“It’s going to come down to that magic of having the right training, the right mental state and focus and confidence on that given day.”

Interviews conducted by NBCOlympics.com’s Nathan Clark.

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