Lowell Bailey returned to Maine on Tuesday.
He came back, in part, to celebrate his unprecedented World Championship gold medal – the first for a U.S. biathlete – last month in Austria. He also returned to pay homage to Outdoor Sport Institute, the outfit known as the Maine Winter Sports Center when Bailey, fresh out of the University of Vermont, hunkered down in Fort Kent with eight other budding biathletes, all of them harboring the dream of making an Olympic team.
That was 12 years ago, at a critical point in Bailey’s nascent career, and OSI provided the bridge between promising collegiate athlete and national team member.
“You have to understand,” Bailey said, “if that bridge isn’t there, that chasm is too great to navigate on your own. You just can’t do it.”
Bailey spoke Tuesday at the Press Hotel, at a press conference to announce a partnership between OSI and Auto Europe, an international car rental company based in Portland with a chief executive officer, Imad Khalidi, who lives in Cape Elizabeth.
The partnership will provide financial and vehicular (while in Europe) support for OSI’s Biathlon Development Program, which over 17 years has produced 15 Olympians, including Bailey.
Andy Shepard, CEO of OSI, declined to put a dollar figure on the sponsorship but said it will provide “an opportunity for kids from Maine for generations to come to chase down the same dreams as Lowell did.”
Bailey, 35, figured his dreams of athletic glory were done after three Olympic cycles. He grew up in Lake Placid, New York, married his high school sweetheart in 2015 and prepared for the arrival of a baby girl last June.
Last winter, 2015-16, was to be his last. He and Erika, his wife, mapped out a plan to transform the bison ranch developed by her parents (who started out as potato farmers) into an operation for grass-fed cattle. They lined up $300,000 in financing.
“We were ready to jump in with both feet,” Bailey said. “We didn’t want to spend six months a year apart, especially with Ophelia on the way. I didn’t want to be a father who wasn’t around and she didn’t want to be a mother who didn’t have a husband around.”
A call from Montana gave them pause. A group called Crosscut Mountain Sports Center wanted to become something of a Western OSI by building a world-class biathlon program and a community outdoor recreation area in Bozeman. Bailey would run the place.
It sounded like a dream job. And yet, the Baileys already had a plan in place. Lowell took last winter as something of a farewell tour after two decades of competition.
At each stop on the World Cup circuit, he soaked in the atmosphere, telling himself, “This is the last time I’m going to be on this venue.”
Goodbye Antholtz, Italy. Goodbye Ruhpolding, Germany. Goodbye Oslo, Norway.
You may remember Bailey as the guy who forgot to load all his bullets for a World Cup race in Fort Kent in 2011, costing him a spot in the pursuit field the following day. His mother, who lives in Brunswick, had already started driving back home the next morning, when a spot opened up and Bailey, as an alternate, not only joined the field but finished ninth, then a career best.
Or perhaps you remember the split bullet that failed to drop the target at the Sochi Olympics, giving Bailey eighth place instead of a bronze medal. Biathlon is the only Winter Olympic sport in which the United States has never medaled.
At season’s end, Bailey told his coaches he needed three weeks to consider whether to become a cattle rancher or continue his biathlon career for two more seasons. He and Erika flew to Bozeman. They met with the Crosscut folks.
“They had a passion,” Bailey said. “They had a vision that was really similar to what OSI has done. I had this inkling that maybe we can do in the West what OSI has done in Maine, because there’s nothing that rivals what OSI has done.”
The Baileys put aside their ranching plans. They joined the Crosscut team, working to raise money to buy the 500 acres so that, after the 2018 season, Lowell will retire and help break ground in Bozeman.
However, the 2016-17 biathlon season would be different. The Baileys – Lowell, Erika and baby Ophelia – would travel the circuit together.
Which is how, two hours before the 20-kilometer individual race at the World Championships was due to start in Hochfilzen, Austria, Bailey found himself, clad in full racing gear, standing in the parking lot, assisting Erika with a diaper change.
“This was an outfit changer,” Lowell said. “I was holding (Ophelia), naked, while Erika was mopping her down with baby wipes.”
Prerace jitters? Sorry, no time for that. By the time he started focusing on the race, Bailey said he felt refreshed. It was a common theme throughout the season.
“I felt so comfortable and positive about where our life was, as a family, that I had the attitude: Whatever happens in biathlon, it’s going to be OK,” he said. “At the end of the day, if I win or if I lose, I’m going to go home and we’re going to be a family and Ophelia’s still going to smile at us and she’s not going to know the difference either way.”
Wearing bib No. 100, Bailey was next to last on the course. Reigning Olympic champion Martin Fourcade of France had already finished, hitting 18 of 20 targets, and seemed the likely winner until Ondrej Moravec of Czech Republic moved into first.
Cody Johnson, a 19-year-old OSI athlete from Fort Kent, was in the middle of training at the Junior World Championships in the Czech Republic when news came of Bailey’s race. Earlier in the week, Bailey had placed fourth in the 10K sprint and sixth in pursuit, so hopes were high.
On the shooting range in Nova Mesto, Johnson and his teammates huddled around a coach’s tablet, which showed not the live feed but timing updates. They could see Bailey had cleaned all 20 targets.
He had a 6-second lead on Moravec’s time and four kilometers remaining, one final loop. His lead dwindled to 3 seconds. Then a tenth of a second. U.S. coaches, staff members and teammates screamed encouragement from trailside at every corner.
As he reached the crest of the final hill, there was Erika running alongside the trail with Ophelia in a front-carrier.
“She was yelling, ”You’re winning! You’re winning! You’re winning!’ ” Bailey said, his voice dropping to a hushed whisper. “I’ll remember that moment the rest of the my life. I can see exactly how the snow looked. I remember exactly what the light was like. Because that was the moment when I told myself, internally, ‘You have to win this for them. You have to do this. Failure is not an option.’ ”
Hugging tight on the inside of the final turn, through a tunnel and into the stadium, Bailey thrust a ski across the line, looked around for a scoreboard visible to athletes, and saw he had won by 3.3 seconds.
He let loose a guttural scream and hugged U.S. Biathlon Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler, a wax technician when Bailey first joined the national team.
“People ask what was going through my mind,” Bailey said. “There’s no way to describe it. It was 20 years of work boiled down to a few seconds, and the realization that it was all worth it.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or