It’s my last night in the RV. In all I’ve spent 20 days and nights inside this little house on wheels. And every night, except this one sleep has come at no cost. But tonight there’s something on my mind. I’m only one race away from accomplishing something that no one else in United States Biathlon has ever accomplished. Something I’ve never even come close to accomplishing. It is something however that I’ve dreamed of for years and have rehearsed in my head many times before. I’m so mentally practiced that this should come easy to me. It should be easy to accomplish. But it isn’t. And it won’t be.
Yesterday I “cleaned” my 3rd race in a row. “Cleaning” is a termed used to describe a race in which the athlete hits all their targets, either 10 for 10 or 20 for 20, shooting 100%. Cleaning 2 races in a row is not entirely uncommon. Cleaning 3 races in a row is quite a feat, but doing it in 4 is something entirely different. For every race you clean the pressure mounts and those little targets you are shooting at, only seem to get smaller and harder to hit. Adrenaline kicks in and your muscles start to shake.
I know what awaits me out on the course today. I have a target on my back the size of an American flag. Yesterday I won the race. It was a German Cup race and I was lucky enough to beat all of the Germans (as well as a Canadian, some Brits and a Norwegian). But not without a price. Today they’ll be gunning for me. It’s a mass start and this race is a head to head brawl on the tracks. There’s no solo trip around the tracks, or solitary bout at the range. You are fighting head –to-head the whole race. Clawing your way up the hills, fighting for position, and shooting as fast and as accurately as possible to gain an advantage in the range.
So, why does sleep allude me? Is it the target on my back? Is it the fear and apprehension of going into battle? Or the unknown opportunity to achieve a dream? I ponder this for a second, and then realize it’s none of these. I’m excited. That’s it and that’s all. I wish the race were right now. Walk up to the start, set your skis down, yell “battle”, and begin. So, with excitement running through my veins I close my eyes and think “bring it on Deutschland” and fall asleep.
Several hours later, I’m lined up at the start line. I’m surrounded by the black, red and gold of the German suits. Everyone is breathing hard and fidgeting as we await the gun that will signal the start of the race. Thoughts are running through my head like a freight train. My eyes feeling like I’m reading a book at warp speed while I try to interpret all the thoughts in my head. Then suddenly a “bang”. I lean on my poles and my skis rocket forward. Any thoughts that were in my head are now gone. I look a head of me and see the track and a sea of girls. Poles and skis are everywhere. Girls are jockeying for position. I get in behind a couple of Germans and try to focus on relaxing.
The hills in Ruhpolding are steep and the descents are unnerving. Already after the first loop my legs are screaming. We climb to the top of a steep hill and descend down around a corner that does a 180 to the left. I hear a sound and look back to see a girl go skidding on her stomach down off the side of the trail. I look back ahead again as the range comes into view. We ski around a corner and you can hear the roar of the crowd as we approach the range. I close my eyes and think “just breath”, which kind of makes me laugh as I’m struggling for breath and my heart is pounding over180 beats per minute. I take one big deep breath and open my eyes. It’s almost as if a switch went off in my brain. There are no thoughts of the crowd. No thoughts of the competitors around me, or the pressure of reaching my goal. I’m in autopilot now.
I ski into the range and up to a shooting point. I’m quickly down on my knees and slinging my gun off my back. Then I lay down, take a deep breath and squeeze off the trigger. I take five shots and five targets fall. I’m then back on my feet and skiing out of the range. I look around and am accompanied by 3 other German’s. They’ve “cleaned” the shooting stage too. And I smile to myself as I know this is going to be a race until the end.
We jockey for position and fight on the hills. Up and down we go, changing leads, and fighting back and forth. We race into the range and come to a screeching halt on the shooting points. The crowd is now completely animated as it’s turning into a battle. Once again I shoot five shots, and five more targets fall. Once again I’m accompanied by the same 3 Germans, each hitting all of their targets as well.
We battle again on the skis. I drop in behind the other girls as I know the real battle is just about to start, and that’s the standing shooting. The standing stages are the last two bouts in the range and are by far the hardest. You’re getting more tired as you’ve already raced close to 5 miles and the standing position is more difficult than prone. We once again ski into the range and up to the shooting point. I drop my poles on the mat and sling my gun off my back. I take aim. The first 4 shots go down easy and then, right before the last shot a thought sneaks into my head. This thought is my enemy. It’s worse than any competitor, and makes a race more difficult than any hill we have to climb. It’s uncertainty and doubt. It’s the thing that keeps most people from accomplishing what they are capable of achieving. All it took was a split second and my focus is shattered. I hear the crowd, the sound of the shots from the other girls around me. I can feel the ache of my legs and the pounding of my heart in my chest.
For just a split second panic creeps in. I feel my legs tense and as I look down my barrel the target is dancing around everywhere. Hitting this target seems like trying to . It’s almost impossible. Almost.
Then I close my eyes. Take a deep breath. A sense of calm washes over me as I think, “It’s just one target. I’ve done this thousands of times in training. I’m ready for this.” It’s why we train. It’s why we study for that test or prepare so much for that presentation. So that when the time comes we are ready. And can do it without hesitation. So, with that my eyes open and the shot is there. I squeeze the trigger and before the target even falls my gun is on my back and I’m skiing out of the range. I know it was a hit.
The last stage took victim two of the German girls. One is out ahead of me and the other two are skiing off their penalty loops from missed targets. I race hard over the loop and back into the range for the final standing stage. Out of nowhere a German girl races up beside me. She was able to ski off her penalty loop and was stronger over the loop on her skis and caught me just before the range. We come into the range together and the crowd is going wild. I look down to the first shooting point, where the German girl in first place is shooting. She has 3 more targets to go as we ski into the points next to her. Our presence must have broken her concentration because she missed her last two shots, opening the door for myself and the other German. We both quickly get into position.
Now the pressure is on. Not only am I shooting for a goal of cleaning 4 races, but for the win as well. This time however, my focus doesn’t waver and the five targets fall without hesitation. The girl I’m shooting with also hits her five and now it becomes a ski race. We both battle hard over the last loop, but in the end the girl was too fast for me and I finished second.
Now it’s race over and I’m heading back to the States. I accomplished my goal of cleaning 4 races in a row and am leaving Europe after avoiding the penalty loop (an extra 150 meter loop skied by athletes for each target missed). I learned a lot during this trip especially that your faith in your dreams cannot waiver, especially in the uncertainty of a battle. And with that I turn the RV north to drive back to Munich and prepare for the next battle, whenever that will come.