KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia - One of Lowell Bailey's coaches, Muck Bauer, was screaming at him in German as he rounded the corner and started up the hill to begin his fifth and final lap.
"He speaks pretty much only German," Bailey said. "I only got a little of it. I heard 'Top 10.' I knew it was a good race at that point."
It was more than a good race for the 32-year-old from Lake Placid. It was one for the record books.
Lake Placid's Lowell Bailey pushes across the finish line to a U.S. record eighth place finish in the men's 20-kilometer individual biathlon Feb. 13, 2014 at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. (Photo - Competitive Image/Paul Phillips)
Bailey put down the best individual finish in U.S. Olympic biathlon history Thursday night by placing eighth in the men's individual 20-kilometer event at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center. He missed just one shot out of 20 and covered the course in 50:57.4, only 1:25.7 off the winning pace of gold medalist Martin Fourcade of France, who posted a time of 49:31.7. The silver medal went to Germany's Erik Lesser in 49:43.9, while Evgeniy Garanichev of Russia won the bronze in 50:06.2.
Bailey's strong finish provided a healthy dose of redemption for the veteran of the World Cup biathlon circuit, who entered the games riding one of his best seasons to date but started this Olympics with a pair of frustrating performances. Bailey took 36th in the 10-kilometer sprint and 38th in the 12.5 pursuit.
"I was pretty disappointed, maybe the most disappointed I had ever been after the pursuit," Bailey said. "Most of it was mental. You spend your whole life working for something and to see it fall apart in a matter of 35 minutes. It can really beat you down if you don't sort of step back and gain some perspective."
That's exactly what Bailey did following the pursuit race, with the help of his coaches and his mom, Elizabeth Bailey, who traveled to Sochi to see him compete in his third Olympic games.
"They kind of helped me wake up the next day and say, 'OK. Those are two races. They're just two races out of hundreds and hundreds that I've done.'
"The first person I saw after the (pursuit) was my mom," he said. "I realized, here's the reason I'm here, essentially. She's living in this tiny little house with like 10 people down in the valley, and she came 4,000 miles just to see me race. When you think about that, and how many people besides her have worked so hard even to just get me to the starting line, it made me appreciate the fact that I'm here and this is happening."
In the two days between the pursuit and Thursday night's race, Bailey said he and the rest of the team spent time working on the fundamentals, tried to keep as relaxed as possible and made some technical adjustments.
"We really tried to adjust the climbing technique because the hills, when it's so warm like this, you get so deep," Bailey said. "We've trained a lot on 'World Cup' conditions, really hard-packed (snow), and it's a different style. You have to distribute the power and change the way you ski a little bit in these slower, deeper conditions. I definitely thought about that a lot in the race and tried to adjust my technique for that."
The previous Olympic best finish for a U.S. biathlete came in 2010 when Jeremy Teela placed 9th in the 10-k sprint. In the previous two Olympics, Bailey finished 57th (Vancouver) and 27th (Torino) in the 20-k individual. He's never found the podium in World Cup-level competition, although he's recorded more than a half dozen top 10 finishes.
What if Bailey didn't miss that one shot Thursday night, which added a 1-minute penalty to his time? Could he have become the first U.S. biathlete to medal at an Olympics?
Asked that question, Bailey looked up at the scoreboard, saw his time and did the math.
"I was 1:25 (back), so yeah, it would have been a bronze medal," he said.
Still, Bailey said he has no regrets.
"No one's perfect," he said. "It's a really hard sport to be perfect in. I shot above average today and skied with the top guys in the world. Today, this was the best race I was capable of."
Tim Burke, Bailey's teammate and roommate at these games, congratulated his friend for his solid finish.
"That's awesome. I'm really happy for Lowell," he said. "That's a great performance."
Burke, a Paul Smiths native who lives in Lake Placid, completed the course in 54:21.2, placing 44th. He missed four of 20 shots, which added four minutes onto his time.
"I knew it was going to be a tough 20k here," Burke said. "It's such a challenging course. After my first two races here, I felt pretty awful and I was pretty conservative out of the start. I wanted to make sure I didn't die at the end. The skiing, ironically, turned out to be OK today. It was the shooting that didn't come through."
There were two other Americans in the Thursday night's race. Russell Currier of Stockholm, Maine, was 50th in 55:07.5, and Leif Nordgren of Marine on St. Croix, Minn. was 83rd with a time of 58:47.6.
As for Bailey, he was enjoying his moment in the spotlight Thursday night. He did several TV interviews and talked with one group of reporters for 15 minutes after the race. Meanwhile, his Facebook wall was lighting up with congratulatory messages, many of them from people back in Lake Placid.
Bailey also said he's sure the students in his father's sixth-grade class at Lake Placid Middle School were watching the race on TV.
"When you're out there on your skis, it's painful. It's 50 minutes of just pain and you're in your own world," he said. "Then afterwards you think, 'Wow, there were people thousands of miles away, classrooms of kids that were watching that. It kind of blows your mind, you know."
Asked what it will be like when he sees his mom after the race, Bailey said it will likely be emotional.
"There will be some tears on her part," he said. "There might be some tears on my part."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.