Cape Elizabeth Olympian returns to biathlon World Cup circuit

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Clare Egan of Cape Elizabeth reaches for her rifle in preparation of the standing shooting stage of a 7.5-kilometer sprint on Nov. 29 in Kontiolahti, Finland. Egan shot a perfect 10 for 10 – her first penalty-free World Cup sprint since 2017 – and finished 27th in a field of 104. NordicFocus photo

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Prior to plopping down for a transatlantic flight last month, Clare Egan pulled on her mask and pulled out her trusty disinfecting wipes to clean elbow rests and tray tables.

The only unusual aspect of her well-rehearsed routine was that other passengers did likewise.

“I’ve been wearing masks while traveling for my whole (professional) athletic career, so eight years or so,” said Egan, a 2018 Olympic biathlete who grew up in Cape Elizabeth. “What’s great is that now everyone else is wearing them, too. It’s about protecting you, but it’s more about protecting others.”

Egan, 33, spoke by phone last week – and while wearing a mask – from the hallway of a hotel in eastern Finland on the eve of her third race of the International Biathlon Union’s World Cup season. Like nearly everything else, biathlon has made adjustments because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Athletes and support staff must follow more stringent safety protocols. Spectators have yet to be allowed back to any World Cup venues. Testing for COVID-19 occurs regularly.

In order to cut down on travel, the IBU eliminated stops in Sweden, France and Ruhpolding, Germany, by consolidating the first six Cup events into three venues, staying at each for two weeks rather than one.

Early results from Egan are mixed. Her shooting has improved but her ski speed is lagging. She cleaned all 10 targets in a 7.5-kilometer sprint race (the most common event on tour) for the first time since 2017 but wound up 27th of 104 competitors, more than a minute and a half behind the winner.

She also hit 18 of 20 in a four-stage 15K individual race and placed 35th. On Thursday, she hit 9 of 10 in another 7.5K sprint and placed 48th – just shy of earning World Cup points, but good enough to qualify for a 10K pursuit on Sunday.

With roughly 50 women finishing within 75 seconds of first place in a typical sprint race, she said achieving a top result requires not only fast skiing but quick and near-perfect shooting.

“In other words, the level is high and the margins slim,” she said. “I’m hoping to work my way into better skiing shape while keeping my hit percentage at the top of the scoreboard.”

Clare Egan gets ready to shoot during the women’s 4x6K relay at the IBU World Biathlon Championships in Oestersund, Sweden, in March 2019. Robert Henriksson/TT via AP

Egan’s overall world ranking of 43rd remains the best among U.S. women, with Joanne Reid at 49th and Susan Dunklee at 53rd.

“Her shooting was really impressive and a little quicker than she had been last season,” said Max Cobb, president and CEO of US Biathlon. “It’s really early yet … so I’m not concerned at all about that (ski speed). I’m happy to see the progress she made on the shooting front.”

Indeed, Egan’s shooting success rate has risen over the past three seasons from 74 to 81 to a team-best 83 percent last season. She entered the weekend with a 92.5 percent rate she said is “unlikely to stay that high but it’s certainly a great start and reflects actual improvement.”

One of the subtle technical tweaks Egan made over the summer was to take advantage of a technical rule change that, combined with her long torso, allowed her to assume a more relaxed position while shooting from a standing position. Now when she rests her left elbow on her left hip, she can do so without sticking her hip out so far.

“I feel more natural,” she said. “And what’s more natural is always best when you’re really tired. It’s hard when you’re really tired to do really weird positions.”

As a last-minute entrant in an urban rollerski biathlon competition in Wiesbaden, Germany, in late September, Clare Egan, right was delighted to take third place, about half a minute behind winner Julia Simon (2) of France. Simon cleaned all five shooting stages, while Egan required two spare rounds. NordicFocus photo

Egan’s overall world ranking of 43rd is the best among U.S. women, with Joanne Reid at 49th and Susan Dunklee at 53rd.

“Her shooting was really impressive and a little quicker than she had been last season,” said Max Cobb, president and CEO of US Biathlon. “It’s really early yet … so I’m not concerned at all about that (ski speed). I’m happy to see the progress she made on the shooting front.”

Indeed, Egan’s shooting success rate has risen over the past three seasons from 74 to 81 to a team-best 83 percent last season. She entered the weekend with a 92.5 percent rate she said is “unlikely to stay that high, but it’s certainly a great start and reflects actual improvement.”

One of the subtle technical tweaks Egan made over the summer was to take advantage of a technical rule change that, combined with her long torso, allowed her to assume a more relaxed position while shooting from a standing position. Now when she rests her left elbow on her left hip, she can do so without sticking her hip out so far.

“I feel more natural,” she said. “And what’s more natural is always best when you’re really tired. It’s hard when yoåu’re really tired to do really weird positions.”

Egan began the season last weekend with two races in Kontiolahti, Finland, and remained there through this weekend for three more, including a relay on Saturday. Up next is Hochfilzen, Austria, then a break for Christmas, followed by two weeks in Oberhof, Germany.

Except for the World Championships – which consume most of February in Pokljuka, Slovenia – the remaining World Cup events are each scheduled for one week and wrap up in late March in Norway.

“There IS less travel but it doesn’t really feel any different,” Egan said. “I’m still on the road for five months, but doing mostly two-week stints instead of one-week stints. The big picture remains the same.”

It’s a picture that seems increasingly likely to include a second trip to the Olympics. The Beijing Games are only 14 months away and Egan could punch her ticket this winter with a top-six finish in Slovenia, a pair of top-12 World Cup placements, or by finishing the season ranked among the world’s top 30 women.

She finished the 2018-19 season at 18th, the top ranking of any U.S. woman, but slipped to 42nd last season, which was cut short by a flu bug days before the whole tour shut down because of the coronavirus. Having already considered retiring from the sport following the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, Egan did not want to leave on a sour note last spring.

“I was really sad thinking about that,” she said. “I was hoping it wouldn’t end like that. I guess there was the other thing, that it was not a particularly hot time to enter the job market in May 2020. When everything is unstable, it didn’t feel like a good time to add more instability.”

So she kept at it. Because she had been tested for COVID before leaving Europe, the New York State Department of Health required her to quarantine for 14 days upon returning to her home in Lake Placid. That meant her boyfriend, Erik, had to move out of their apartment and quarantine separately in a nearby motel.

Clare Egan competes at the women’s 15 km individual competition at the biathlon World Cup in Pokljuka, Slovenia, in January. AP Photo/Darko Bandic

Not until later in the spring did Egan ease back into biathlon training. She said the nearly three-month break was physically and mentally beneficial. Instead of the usual National Team training camps, Egan worked out locally with U.S. Biathlon teammates Maddie Phaneuf and Chloe Levins and communicated by phone or text with their coach, Armin Auchentaller, who lives in Italy.

Twice over the summer, Egan visited Maine, staying in a cottage across the street in Cape Elizabeth from her childhood home and staying socially distant from her parents for a few days before getting a negative test result for COVID. She was able to spend time with her 92-year-old grandmother in Falmouth, conversing through a window, “which is sad but way better than nothing,” Egan said. “We wanted to be extremely careful around her.”

Now more than halfway through her four-year term as chair of the IBU Athletes’ Committee, Egan parlayed a planned in-person board meeting into her own European training camp for much of September. She was able to work with Auchentaller in Italy and train with some of the top European biathletes. She even won prize money by finishing third as a last-minute entrant in an urban roller-biathlon race in Germany.

The U.S. Biathlon team finally gathered as a group in October in Craftsbury, Vermont, without Auchentaller. Spending Thanksgiving in a Finnish hotel without family and without a traditional feast was not ideal, but Egan understands it’s a requirement of her job. Her only close contact is her roommate, Phaneuf, so they have their own table for meals and otherwise can be together without a mask only in their hotel room.

Egan had a taste of performing without fans in the Czech Republic last winter as COVID-19 was beginning to spread, and it made her realize how much joy she derives from an appreciative audience.

Musical theater came before competitive athletics while Egan was growing up, and the pandemic made her understand more clearly that professional athletes fall under the broader category of entertainers.

“I’m not this purist athlete who competes because I love racing the clock and recording my heart rate,” she said. “One of the reasons I love doing this is entertaining our fans. It’s sad not to be able to wave to them. It means a lot when I hear from people on social media. So watch biathlon and let me know!”

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