United States Team Preview

As we start the 2022-2023 biathlon season and the next 4 year Olympics cycle we find a US Biathlon team that is in a definite moment of change. Gone are mainstays of the last several seasons Clare Egan, Susan Dunklee, and Leif Nordgren. Egan and Dunklee especially had some of the most impressive results of any US biathlete not just in recent history but ever. Combine that with the 2018 retirements of Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke and that’s all of the recent US biathlon World Championship medalists (not to mention all recent podium finishers in any race) have retired and. The good news is almost all are still intricately involved in the biathlon community.

The noted trivia that any US winter sports fan can undoubtedly tell you is that the only sport the United States has failed to win an Olympic medal in is biathlon. We’re only reminded of that about 12 times during every Winter Olympics. That doesn’t mean the USA has had no success in biathlon but it does speak to the fact that it has been limited in scope. And now with these retirements we are largely turning to a new generation of biathletes to take the United States to the next level. As an American though, I can say that I have full faith and trust in Coach Auchentaller and his team to continue that growth!

Just a note before we get started. Team USA is a little bit different than just about every other team we will talk about. Because there is not major biathlon tradition in the United States (yet) there aren’t a lot of athletes that come up through Juniors ranks. Instead you see a lot of athletes transition in later in their careers. For more on this we talked at length about this with Coach Auchentaller on an episode of the Penalty Loop Podcast this summer. It also makes this particular exercise difficult to do because athletes suddenly appear with little prior history. Also the team breakdowns don’t quite fall as a senior team, a developmental team, and a Junior team. This is going to be the “least complete” of any of these previews and for that I apologize. It’s just a tough team to get information on.

Men

Quota: 4 athletes to start

The men enter this season almost intact from last year. Leif Nordgren did retire after the Olympics but the other major players return for more action. Also there are some really intriguing guys coming up that may start to make an impact over the next couple of years.

Sean Doherty (27)

One of the advantages of being on a team like USA is that there are going to be starts available for athletes that show they deserve them. At age 27 Doherty already has 190 career World Cup races including 130 individual events. He’s been a busy man!

The last couple of years haven’t quite been as successful for Doherty as when he was racing alongside the likes of Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey. Maybe wearing the mantle of team leader was a little heavy at such a young age? Regardless as we enter a new Olympic cycle Sean Doherty doesn’t have to wear it alone as he has Jake
Brown and Paul Schommer lining up beside him.

Over the last five years Sean Doherty has shown how good he can be. Back in the 2018-2019 season he finished ranked 25th overall. That season he was a consistent presence in the top 25 and even scored a career high finish of 10th. He was skiing well with course time ranks in the 30s nearly every time he lined up. He was shooting in the mid to upper 80 percent range on a regular basis. Everything was clicking along.

The last few years the results haven’t quite been there. The ski form slipped and his course time ranks were down where he had more in the 50s than the 30s. Shooting slipped off dramatically as well as his season shooting percentages slipped down from a career high 85% in 2018-2019 down to 76% last year.

If you want a reason for optimism though look back at the end of last season. He started the season slow but by mid season he had found his form again. The ski ranks we’re back up to the 30s and 20s even showing potential to be even faster than he was at his peak. Doherty very well could primed for a rebound campaign.

Jake Brown (30)

Over the last four seasons as he is hitting the peak of his biathlon career he has been performing better and better every year. He went from an overall finish of 100th in 2018-2019 up to 47th and 49th the last two years. Really not bad at all.

Over that time he’s relied on broad based improvement to nearly every aspect of his performance. Skiing improved up so that over the last two seasons he is consistently been in the top 30s of course time ranks. Certainly high enough to be putting yourself in the mix. More recently he’s been seeing some slight improvement with his shooting as well. The last two seasons his overall shooting percentages are up from 74.5% to 76% and last year to 79%. That’s been at the same time as he’s dropped his shooting times a total of 4 seconds from about 36.8 to 32.5.

He’s starting to get to the point where he can really get into the battles for top 20 finishes. Looking at his career trajectory the skiing seems to have leveled off and at age 30 that’s to a surprise. The shooting though keeps improving and there is no reason to think that should stop. I might be being optimistic but I think a top 30 overall finish is within reach. His career high of 12th could definitely be in danger.

Paul Schommer (30)

Before we dive into Paul Schommer’s career and outlook we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that he is currently dealing with a knee injury. It appears to be a cartilage injury and he’s trying to avoid surgery. Right now it sounds like it might be a few weeks before we see him back on the World Cup and if it ends up being surgery then it might be next season.

Obviously we don’t want injuries for anybody, but part of what makes that so tough is that Schommer has seen a serious rise in performance over the last two seasons. In 2020-2021 his overall rank was 98th. Last season that jumped all the way up to 41st. Before last year his career best was 33rd. Last year he not only shattered that with a 9th place Individual race in Antholz but had 5 other races better than 33rd as well.

Schommer’s improved week in and week out performance was primarily the result of improved shooting. His total shooting percentage jumped from 76% to 84.4% with 9 point jumps seen in both standing and prone shooting. He also saw a rise in his ski form as well with average course time rank coming up from 68 to to 51.

With the injury it is hard to know what we will see. In theory he should be able to continue his improved shooting. However it will undoubtedly hurt his skiing. At age 30 he’s certainly not too old to get it back again. It’s just a real shame because Paul Schommer looked an athlete entirely on the rise. Hopefully this will just be a little pause.

Developing Talent

From here we get into the athletes who have far less experience, especially on the World Cup level. Even still there is plenty of talent and potential in this next group. As I mentioned before Team USA does things just a little differently so while other nations I tended to have a middle group or two and then juniors, from US biathlon they are all together.

Vaclav Cervenka (23)

First up is Vaclav Cervenka. At just 23 years old he gets the opportunity to start the season on the World Cup where he not surprisingly has very little experience to date. However he has seen definite improvement on the IBU Cup over the last three seasons. When he started on the IBU Cup he was consistently finishing near the bottom of the lists. Last year though he saw a definite jump up to the standings. Instead of finishing places in the 60-80 range he bumped up to the 30s to 50s. Of course that’s not a sure sign of a future superstar but for a 22 year old it’s a great sign that improvements are coming.

Speaking of those improvements, so far he’s seen most of his growth in his skiing. That isn’t entirely surprising as just based on his age, with proper training he should be seeing improved ski speed and form. Ski ranks last year made it up to the 20s-50s. Shooting meanwhile is up a fair bit too with a total shooting percentage up from about 74% to 80%. It was across the board shooting improvements as well. Total shooting time remained steady around 30-31 seconds.

If Cervenka were to be continuing on the IBU Cup I would expect to see him continue his growth and maybe start to see some consistent top 20 finishes. With a jump to the World Cup it will definitely be a learning experience.

Maxime Germain (21)

The World Cup team for US biathlon only gets younger from there with 21 year old Maxime Germain. Normally a 21 year old would be Juniors or IBU Cup unless they were an absolute super star in the making. Germain may end up being a star, you never want to say never, but he’s making the World Cup start in Kontiolahti with just 2 prior World Cup races and 2 IBU Cup races. In fact he only has 17 Juniors races!

He does have some Juniors successes including a bronze at Youth Worlds in 2020. Last year in Juniors he raced Euros and Worlds and had a high finish of 15. He did have three top 20s though. He has shown good ski speed with almost all top 25s in course ranks last year on the Juniors. Shooting meanwhile was inconsistent and averaged out around 75%. He was a pretty dang fast shooter though with several sub 30 second shooting averages. While not fast by World Cup standards it was top 20 for Juniors.

That’s what we know about Maxime Germain. We’ll know a lot more in a few weeks when he has increased his World Cup and IBU Cup experience exponentially. Regardless this is a year of growth and adjustment for Germain.

Vincent Bonacci (22)

Vincent Bonacci is yet another very young American. He’s going to be starting out just on the IBU Cup which is a pretty good place for more growth. And if he can have another year of improvement like last year he could end up in a pretty good place!

The last two years he’s spent time both on Juniors and IBU Cup racing. On both levels he showed a significant jump in performance. On Juniors he went from 30s to 50s up to 20s to 30s. On the IBU Cup he made a bigger leap up from near the bottom to finishes in the 40s. Ski ranks came up significantly on both levels. Looking primarily at the IBU Cup as it’s where he is racing this year he went from course time ranks below 100 routinely up to 50’s. Shooting remained around the same on the IBU Cup between 75-80% but showed a significant drop on the Juniors level.

This year, like the two above him, this is going to be about growth. Continued improvements on the skis. Solidify the shooting over 80%. He’s already shown the ability to finish in he 40’s so he could get himself into the 20’s with the right improvements.

Scott Lacy (31)

On the other end of the age spectrum is Scott Lacy. About 10 years older than the three men above him on this list he’s going to be competing right alongside them and will hopefully be able to help them grow as international competitors. Scott Lacy is one of the fascinating stories on this team and highlights how unusual this team is compared to some of the others. Lacy was a cross country skier who retired from FIS Cross Country skiing at the age of 22. At 28 years old he started up again and started competing in biathlon. Last year he made the IBU Cup roster and made his IBU debut. Scott Lacy exemplifies racing for the pure enjoyment of the competition.

His first year of biathlon proved to be as much about experience as anything else. He did set a career best of 27th and had another 40th place finish. Based on his FIS history you might expect high ski ranks but he did have 6 years off. He also did shoot fairly well all things considered. He averaged 71.5% but he really performed better than that. He had couple of bad races that dragged that down. Otherwise he might have been mid to high 70’s. Not great but not horribly considering he just started.

What do we expect from Lacy? It’s hard to know. He’s clearly in this for the love of the sport. At 31 it’s hard to project how much ski strength there is left in the legs. We can hope that the shooting improves though. As I said before the biggest thing he might add is his history of international competition and being able to help mentor the young men.

Luke Brown (27)

27 year old Luke Brown is a relative gray beard amongst this very young group of developing American men. He doesn’t appear amongst the first 4 to get a start on the IBU Cup but he does remain on the roster so we’ll leave him on our list as well.

Over the last three seasons he’s seen some mixed successes. Normally he can be found finishing anywhere between 40-80. However at the end of last season he was starting to get a little more consistent in the 40-50s.

Over those three seasons his ski performance has largely remained the same. He made a bit of a jump between his first two years but basically no change the last two years where he has averaged course time ranks generally around 30’s. Pretty solid overall. Shooting is what is holding him back though. This is a major Achilles heal. Last year was his best overall year of shooting and he finished at 63.3% overall.

If and when we see Brown this year we should expect him to be in similar if not better ski form as he is hitting peak performance age. Watch that shooting closely. If he can find the shooting form, and I mean really find it he can be pretty good on the IBU level and maybe even on the World Cup. It needs to be a big jump though. Fingers crossed we see Luke Brown this year and he’s knocking down those targets!

Eli Nielson (23)

Eli Nielsen is listed to start this year on the IBU Cup. This is fascinating because while he is on the National Guard team he doesn’t appear to have raced in an IBU associated race in three seasons. I would be utterly lying if I said I had any idea what to expect. You can look up his Juniors racing and honestly the performances weren’t all that great. I’m sure he did something in training and test events to earn the spot. I cannot wait to see how he does!

Nikolas Burkhart (21)

Nikolas Burkhart isn’t officially listed on the US Biathlon rosters at least as far as I could tell but he gets the nod for the last IBU Cup start. He did race in 6 solo races as a Junior last year. The performances were a little consistent to say the least. He finished in the 60’s and very race except for one when he finished 48th. Ski ranks were usually 50-60s and shooting percentages usually low to mid 70s. Shooting times could stand improvement with the average shooting percentage being in the high 30s and even the 40s. As with Neilsen you know that Coach Auchentaller as well as the developmental group under Tim Burke have seen something. I can’t wait to see it too!

Wesley Campbell (18)

On a team of generally pretty young men Wesley Campbell is a true Junior level athlete. He’s had two years of racing and all 12 races including all 9 solo races have been on the Junior level. He did definitely show some development from year to year. He went from a high finish of 40th to having 4 of 6 races higher than 40th including a career high 19th. If you’re an American fan you have to love seeing his ski ranks. Last year at Youth Worlds he goes 14, 6, and 7. Of course that means that the shooting wasn’t as good. It is absolutely difficult to bring that forward to the higher levels but it’s a great place to start. The goal this year is easy. You want to see Campbell continue to build on that ski form and find his way on he range. Coming off a year with an total hit rate of 61.1% you want to see that jump up to the 70-75% range. If he can do that I’ll definitely start to get excited.

Bjorn Westervelt (21)

To round out the men of Team USA we have Bjorn Westervelt, a 21 year with a name meant for biathlon. He does have three races on the IBU Cup but we’ll be focusing on his Juniors level races for this exercise. In 2019-2020 at the Youth Worlds he flashed potential with finishes of 32, 9, and 27. While he hasn’t been able to break that personal best yet this past year he did return to the top 30 for the first time since then.

Westervelt is a guy who so far seems to be either in contention for a top 25 or well down the finishing ranks. His performances seem to rely entirely on his rifle. His skiing has really been getting better over the last few years. Last year at Junior Worlds he even had a course time rank of 9th in the Pursuit. The shooting is entirely inconsistent. In the last 3 years he has eight races and in four of those events he shot worse than 60%. If he shot 70% or above he was locked into a top 30.

It’s easy to know what we want to see from Westervelt. Like Campbell we want to see improving shooting with maintained skiing. If you check in on the Juniors this year just give a glance for these two Americans. With their skiing they could be a factor in the Juniors this season if they can get comfortable on the range.

Women

Quota: 5 Athletes to Start

This year the United States women get to line up 5 women on the start for Sprints and Individual races. It gives them one more woman a chance to compete against the best every weekend. It gives the team one more chance to get into the Pursuit. If you are building a program like Team USA is trying to do this cannot be underestimated. And with Clare Egan and Susan Dunklee retiring it leaves open basically spots every weekend. What a great gift to leave the team!

World Cup Leaders

Entering the year Joanne Reid and Deedra Irwin take on the mantle of being the leaders of the senior level for the women of US Biathlon. It’s going to be a bit of extra pressure but I really like their make up and I’m high on their potential this year.

Joanne Reid (30)

With the retirements of Egan and Dunklee, Joanne “Firesteel” Reid becomes the most experienced woman on the roster and the de facto leader of the squad. She is coming off a season in which her overall year end rank was just 80th, a far cry from her best season in 2018-2019 when she finished 48th overall. However looking at the individual results you could see her starting to build momentum as the season went on. While she started he season with three straight races under 80th, after that she was consistently in the 40’s with even a few into the 20s and 30s. That was her best stretch of consistent racing since that career beat season in 2018-2019. It maybe didn’t have the highest finishes but the consistency was back.

Reid definitely relies on her skiing potential to keep her in the races. She has been regularly finishing year end in the mid 50s in ski rank. For perspective that puts her around Jessica Jislová, Karelian Knotten, and the Gasparin sisters. The variable then becomes the shooting. As the season went on last year it became much more consistently into the 80’s which accounted for the better finishes. However look at those splits. She is WAY better prone shooting than standing shooting. And that’s been a new development over the last three seasons.

What do we expect to see from Reid this year? We’ll truthfully it may all depend on her standing shooting. If she can shoot 75% or better standing then there is no reason she can’t be a top 40 overall biathlete. Look at those other names she was around with her skiing? She is fast enough that she doesn’t have to be amazing on the range. If she’s sub 70% standing though she is going to struggle to consistently score points. She just isn’t fast enough to overcome those sorts of struggles. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for her this year when she comes on for her standing shooting!

Deedra Irwin (30)

Deedra Irwin continues her remarkable career this season now as one of undisputed leaders of Team USA. Like many of the members of US Biathlon Irwin transitioned into biathlon from cross country skiing well into her career. Last year, about her 5th in the sport, she really came into her own. The absolute highlight of the year was her 7th place finish in the Individual race at the Beijing Olympic Games setting the new standard for a US Biathlon at the Olympics. She followed that up with a 14th place finish in the Sprint in Otepaeae for a new World Cup personal best. Overall she finished 58th on the year and that was after a relatively slow start.

Deedra Irwin, entering her third year on the World Cup, had primarily been known for her skiing. And she has been getting better and better in that aspect. Last year she started out with course time ranks in the 50-70’s. By the end of the year she was finishing with anywhere from 20th to 40th in terms of ski times.

Her shooting made a big time leap last year too. She went from a 75% shooter to 85% overall including 91.9% prone shooting. That included improving her shooting times by nearly a second as well.

Irwin’s statistics are getting into a range where she could really be dangerous. If she can ski consistently in the mid 30’s in terms of course time, and pair that with maybe 85-88% overall shooting that’s a recipe for success. For example last year Mona Brorsson finished the year ranked 31st overall in skiing and shot 87% for the season. She ended the year ranked #16 overall. If you want to think of a ceiling for Deedra Irwin that’s about what she would be trying to replicate. Honestly that isn’t completely impossible and I would LOVE to see it.

World Cup Contenders

After those two obviously locked in we have a large group of women looking to lock up World Cup slots. With three spots remaining there are definitely opportunities available!

Kelsey Dickinson (29)

Kelsey Dickinson has primarily been an IBU Cup stalwart with no World Cup starts before this season. On the IBU Cup her success has been a little inconsistent. Leading into last year her average finishes had been trending downward from the 40s down to the 60s. About midway through the year though it seems like something clicked. After the European Championships she suddenly started having great success and ended the year with six straight top 25s including two 10th place finishes tying each other for her 3rd best finishes ever. So what clicked?

All season long her ski ranks had been trending upwards. She started the year in the 50s-70s but by the end of the year her course time ranks were into the 20s-30s. A huge leap. Meanwhile her shooting maintained steady usually in the mid to low 80s. Her season average was just 78.5% but was held back by a couple of very bad shooting days early in the season.

What should we expect to see from Dickinson this season? That totally depends. Was that a true breakthrough last season? If so, skiing that well with ski speed that would translate to IBU course times in the in the 20s-30s and shooting in the mid/low 80’s could make for a fairly solid season. We would be looking at something like what Deedra Irwin did this past season.

Chloe Levins (24)

After reportedly having a very strong training camp Chloe Levins will be joining the World Cup squad to start the season. She’s going to be returning to the team after a bit of a lost season. Levins contracted COVID in 2021 and struggled to return to full recovery. As a result she was held out for all but one race last year.

Prior to that she spent the 2020-2021 season on the IBU Cup, only raced Junior Worlds in 2020 and split between Juniors and IBU Cup the few two years before that. With the intermittent racing the last few seasons and the expected growth in a 24 year old athlete that makes it really difficult to make projections for this season.

Looking back at her 10 IBU Cup races from 2020-2021 you can see the potential starting to coming out. She set a career high 19th as well as a 22nd. She also had several finishes in the 30s-40s. In a bit of a change from some of her compatriots Levins’ success was primarily he result of her shooting. That season she had five of ten races shooting 90% or better. Meanwhile her ski ranks were more likely to be 40s-60s.

If you look back to her Juniors racing the only difference is that she was a little bit better skiing relative to the field. Course time ranks on the Junior Circuit were more likely to be teens to 30s. However her shooting was still exceptional. She 90% in 11 of her last 14 Juniors races.

It really does sound like she might be all the way back from her COVID related medical concerns. If that is the case she has very high ski potential if you take the Juniors racing as her potential. Regardless as a nearly 90% shooter she doesn’t need to be that fast. Jessica Jislová’s season ending skiing was in the 50’s with similar shooting numbers. She ended up 17th overall. No I don’t expect her to be 17th overall this season. However I do think that top 20 overall on the World Cup is her career potential. For this season let’s just let her get used to racing again. If it’s a great year all the better.

Tara Geragty-Moats (29)

At 29 years old you might think that Tara Geraghty-Moats has many years of racing behind her. And she does, just not all in biathlon. Now on her 3rd sport, Geraghty-Moats has just four years of biathlon experience with the IBU. However the majority of those happened nearly a decade ago when she was a Junior. She left the sport for a few years and entered into ski jumping and then Nordic Combined. In that she had tremendous success winning the 2018-2019 Continental Cup and won a Nordic Combined World Cup event in December of 2020.

Now she is back to biathlon. She started competing again in the middle of last season. After a bit of a slow start she ended up with a solid back end of the season finishing in the 40s-50s season very race for her last 7 events. Not surprisingly with her background skiing led the way. She ranked from the 20s-40s for each of those last races. Also not surprisingly the shooting wasn’t spectacular. She broke 80% just once all season.

Looking ahead it will be fascinating to see what we get from Geraghty-Moats this season. Skiing should continue to be solid. However looking back to her Juniors racing she was never known as a sharp shooter. If she’s is going to find success with the rifle it will take significant effort. It will also likely take away from her skiing work. However we’ll be watching her with fascination.

Amanda Kautzer (24)

With Amanda Kautzer we have yet another American athlete with a non traditional career path. Kautzer raced several years of a Juniors ending in 2016-2017. Her next biathlon racing didn’t occur until last season when she started on the IBU Cup again mid season.

After a rather hefty break she didn’t have immediate success. She didn’t embarrass herself either though. She had a high finish of 28th her first weekend back and had several more finishes in the 40s and 50s. We don’t have a whole lot to go off of here with just 11 races but that’s never stopped us before. Shooting was wildly inconsistent. One weekend she had just a couple of misses the whole weekend. She also had a 4/10 Sprint race. Overall though she was most commonly around 70%. Skiing rank she settled out most consistently in the 40-60 range.

Once again it’s hard to make much of a prediction based off of what we have right now. She is oniony 24 so she has plenty of potential for growth. She could definitely see some improvement in her skiing over the next several years. And it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see the shooting start to get a little more locked in as well. Let’s watch and keep our fingers crossed.

Mikayla Maier (36)

You thought we were done with the unusual stories for Team USA? Clearly you haven’t been paying attention. Mikayla Maier is 36 and yet one of the least experienced on the roster, at least as far the IBU goes. She made her IBU debut two seasons ago when she ran 6 races on the IBU Cup. Before then and since then she has been racing with her club team which also happens to include Vincent Bonacci, Luke Brown, and Scott Lacy and she’s had decent success.

On the IBU Cup she had a best finish of 57th. She was in the lower portion of the field in regards to ski speed. Her average shooting was right around 60%. She is clearly still out there racing because she loves it. Hopefully she goes out and lives it up every race she gets this year!

Jacquelyn Garso (23)

23 year old Garso has limited experience in IBU associated races this far. She has 3 Juniors races and 9 IBU cup races. Of those 12 races just two came last season. So far in her young IBU Cup career she has generally finished in the lower portion of the field with most finishes 80 or below. It’s been a combination of factors with limited success in both skiing and shooting. Garso is just 23 though so plenty of opportunity to grow and develop over the next few seasons.

Ariana Woods (23)

Ariana Woods has 12 Juniors level races in her career scattered between 2015-2016 and the 2020-2021 season. This year will be her first IBU Cup action. Juniors finishes were usually 50s-70s. Once again, this season is about aiming for growth all around.

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