Clare Egan thought she heard her coach yell “Fifty-fifth place!” from trailside Saturday at the International Biathlon Union World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland.

Now, 55th doesn’t sound all that great, so some perspective is in order.

First, the field in this 7.5-kilometer sprint consisted of 106 women – from 31 countries – who are among the best in the world.

Second, Egan grew up in Cape Elizabeth and only took up biathlon in earnest last winter after getting a taste of it the previous season. Her first World Cup race was six weeks ago.

So 55th would have been an impressive showing for a 27-year-old rookie, particularly considering that the top 60 qualified for Sunday’s 10k pursuit race.

“Usually, if your miss four targets (of 10) in a World Cup race, there’s no chance – unless you’re the fastest skier in the field – to make the pursuit race,” Egan said by phone from a restaurant in Finland on Monday evening.


Turns out Egan had it wrong. She misheard her coach. What he was yelling was not 55th, but 35th.

“I absolutely did not believe that until I crossed the finish line and looked at the live timing on the big screen,” Egan said. “I wish someone had taken a picture of my face when I saw that.”

Egan wound up 40th overall – good enough to score her first World Cup point – and ahead of her three more experienced United States teammates. In Sunday’s pursuit, Egan dropped back to 52nd and teammate Susan Dunklee improved to 34th.

The championships continue Wednesday for Egan with a 15k individual race that includes four shooting stages and on Friday with a 4x6k relay.

“We are all impressed with her rapid progress,” said Max Cobb, the president and CEO of U.S. Biathlon, whose headquarters are located in New Gloucester. “Clare, for whatever reason, seems to really have good aptitude (for shooting) and she has very good physical capacity for the skiing side. You put those two things together and you can see some really rapid progress.”

Biathlon is the curious sport that weaves rifle marksmanship between bouts of cross-country skiing. Egan’s background is in distance running and Nordic skiing. In high school, she was on a state championship cross country team and won individual state titles in the 300-meter hurdles and 400-meter dash.


Her college, Wellesley, did not have a Nordic ski program so she started one and trained in nearby Weston, Massachussetts. With a year of NCAA eligibility remaining because of a junior year spent studying in languages in Europe, Egan competed for the University of New Hampshire while completing the requirements for a master’s degree in linguistics.

In 2011 Egan moved to Vermont to join the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, a cross-country skiing development program whose members include Dunklee and fellow U.S. Olympic biathlete Hanna Dreissigacker. At the end of Egan’s second season with Craftsbury, she ventured into biathlon with the guidance of Algis Shalna, a development coach for U.S. Biathlon who won Olympic gold as an athlete representing Lithuania.

After one race, she was hooked.

“Biathlon is very different from any other sport I’ve done,” she said. “The shooting is much more similar to free throws (in basketball) or putting in golf than it is to running. The more pressure you put on yourself to succeed, the less likely you are to achieve it.”

Imagine sprinting up the fairway to the green before stroking the putt, and you start to appreciate the challenges faced by biathletes attempting to hit targets the size of silver dollars (from their bellies) or saucers (while standing) at a distance of 50 meters with a .22-caliber rifle after racing through snow-covered trails on skate skis.

Wednesday’s individual race includes four five-target shooting stages – prone, standing, prone, standing. The penalty for each missed target is one minute added to her time.


Earlier this winter, at an Italian IBU Cup sprint (one level below the World Cup circuit), Egan hit all 10 targets. In biathlon parlance, that’s called shooting clean. Her best at any level had been 8 of 10 targets, and the clean shooting (in only her second IBU Cup race) lifted her to a 32nd-place finish that met the qualification standard for the World Cup.

“That was THE turning point,” Egan said. “If I had not done that, I might have been sent home (before getting the opportunity to compete in ensuing World Cup races in Italy and Norway). It was a biathlon miracle, and biathlon miracles do happen.”

The only other biathletes who grew up in Maine and went on to score World Cup points were Walt Shepard of Yarmouth and Russell Currier of Stockholm. Shepard retired from the sport five years ago at age 27. Currier, 27, is a 2014 Olympian who continues to plug away.

“There are no shortcuts if you want to make it to the top level,” said Jonne Kahkonen, a native Finn who is one of Egan’s national-team coaches. “We just want to give her the chance to see the international level and not put too many expectations on her.”

After the world championships, Egan is scheduled to fly to California to compete in the U.S. Nationals before calling it a season. The next winter Olympics are three years away in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Egan’s goal is not only to make that Olympic team, but to be competitive in the one winter sport in which the United States has yet to medal.

“We’re seeing athletes reaching their peak in cross country skiing in their early 30s,” said Cobb, the head of U.S. Biathlon. “So there’s no question she still has some time to develop into a really solid competitor. She’s demonstrated that she’s a candidate for the Olympic Team in 2018. It wouldn’t surprise anybody if she were to achieve that.”


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