KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - The U.S. men's and women's biathlon teams, including locals Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey and Annelies Cook, took part in their first official training sessions Wednesday at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center.
The venue will host its first Winter Olympic race Saturday, a men's 10-kilometer sprint. The first women's race is the 7.5k sprint on Sunday. Biathlon combines cross-country skiing and target shooting.
Burke, a Paul Smiths native who lives in Lake Placid, said he has been nursing a sinus infection that affected his pre-Olympic training in Italy, but he said he's now on the mend.
Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid smiles as he prepares to head out on a training run Wednesday at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
Photo by Chris Knight
"Obviously that wasn't ideal," Burke said. "It was a little frustrating. I had to take a lot more time off than I normally would. Now I feel a lot better. I'm more rested than I've ever been coming into a championship, and maybe that will be to my advantage."
Burke and Bailey, both 32 and both three-time Olympians, are seen as the U.S.'s best hope for claiming its first-ever Olympic medal in biathlon. Burke has found the World Cup podium six times in his career, most recently in November when he won a bronze medal in a sprint race in Sweden. Is an Olympic podium a possibility?
"It's definitely a possibility, but it's also a possibility for 40 other guys in the field," Burke said. "When we start these races, I'll be competing against 100 other guys. There's quite a few who on the right day can make it to the podium. It's just a matter of putting it together on race day."
The men's and women's biathlon teams arrived in Sochi late Sunday. Although Wednesday was the first "official" pre-Olympic, Bailey said both teams have been training every day and getting re-acquainted with the Sochi course, which they've only competed once before.
"It's absolutely one of the most challenging courses on the World Cup circuit," said Bailey of Lake Placid. "It's got a few really tough, long, extended climbs, but it's skiable. It's got transitions. It's not completely ridiculous. Nevertheless, it's going to be a challenging course."
"I feel good," Bailey added. "I had some good races leading into Sochi and had a good training camp in Italy before this. I think momentum in biathlon is really important. It's always nice to go into the Olympics having had some of your best races."
Cook said the women's biathlon course has changed from when she skied here last year. That's when the 29-year-old from Saranac Lake had the top two finishes in her World Cup career: 14th in the 15-kilometer individual race and 18th in a 7.5k sprint.
"They changed (the course) a little bit," Cook said. "Last year, the downhills were pretty scary and risky, I think. The course is easier now. There aren't as many big climbs.
"At first, I didn't know whether I was disappointed about that because normally I'm better at flatter courses, but last year I did so well here I wasn't sure how I felt about it. We did a pre-race today, and I guess it doesn't really matter that they changed it. When you go hard, it's hard."
Cook battled back from shin injuries during the first half of this season. She said she's feeling healthy now. She spent the three weeks before her first Olympics training in Antholz, Italy, where she said she focused on improving her shooting.
"I've had some bad shooting and kind of surprising shooting with prone (laying down), so I've been working mostly on position stuff and making sure it's consistent, so I don't get these weird misses and don't know why they're happening," Cook said. "I think a lot of it was working on the confidence. When you shoot poorly, your confidence takes a dip. Sometimes all it takes is one good race and good shooting to bring it back up."
There have been no complaints about the conditions or the weather here in Krasnaya Polyana. While there's no snow on the ground in Gorki Village, down in the valley, there's plenty in the mountain venues like the Laura Center. Daytime temperatures have averaged in the 20s, and the last three days have been sunny and clear.
"It's been really nice here since we got here," Cook said. "Every time you go outside it's like, 'Oh, it's so great.' Pretty much everywhere you go there's beautiful vistas. In any direction, there's a gorgeous mountain."
The U.S. women's team includes three other athletes who've lived in Lake Placid while training: Hannah Dreissigacker of Morrisville, Vt., Susan Dunklee of Barton, Vt. and Sarah Studebaker of Boise, Idaho. Lanny Barnes of Colorado, whose twin sister Tracy gave up her Olympic spot to her sister, rounds out the women's team.
Also on the U.S. men's team are Russell Currier of Stockholm, Maine, and Leif Nordgren, of St. Croix, Minn., both of whom have trained in Lake Placid, and Sean Doherty of Center Conway, New Hampshire.
The Laura Center is located on the crest and slopes of the Psekhako Mountain Ridge, about 4 to 10 miles northeast of the Krasnaya Polyana village.
It's a "two in one" venue, hosting both cross-country skiing and biathlon. It has two separate stadiums, each with a capacity of 7,500, with their own start and finish zones, two separate course systems for skiing and biathlon with a total length of 15k, a shooting area and athletes' warm-up and competition zones.
The highest point of the ski track reaches about 1,500 meters or 4,900 feet. For comparison's sake, that's nearly the summit elevation of Whiteface Mountain.
The Laura Center is also home to what Russian Olympic organizers say is one of the world's longest ski lifts at 3,838 meters, or roughly 12,500 feet. It can carry up to 3,000 people per hour.
Roughly a quarter of all medals in this Winter Olympics will be awarded at the Laura Center: 23 sets (11 in biathlon and 12 in cross-country skiing).