Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Some Thoughts Part II


Another cold and dark not so late morning in Ostersund, SWE for the December WC
          For all the worthwhile parts that make up the modern life of an aspriring biathlete in this country there are some noteable downsides to the deal. Explaining them was never my style. It wasn't worth the time and it would only stand to kick up a storm of awkward relations with the community I was stuck in. Before I elaborate, know that I had no regrets going down the biathlon path and could go on for pages with positive memories and life lessons. There are a few people involved that always believed in me and were on my side through it all, but this is not the topic- not this time. If I was talented and motivated this could be a heads-up, warning or even a call to change. But that's not really for me. Realistically this just another rant, some bitter matters that I've always wanted to shout about. When you spend enough time with the same group of people you get to know each other too well. When you spend enough time fighting your way to top of an organization you get a slice of how cruel the world can be. In most situations, I would say this is fickle and you're better off focusing on things that actually matter, but I'm not competing anymore and am no longer tethered to the keeping my opinions to myself obligation. It seems like a good enough reason to share a small piece of them with you. I'm not sure where to begin.
           Whether you're trying to make it in nordic or biathlon I suggest having two parents that are both full time doctors. These sports are not cheap and don't leave much room for a job (side note: many so called Olympic sports do, biathlon is, however an actually demanding sport and doesn't leave time or energy for a job and normal life, other so called sports feel like a joke to me at this point). The parental financial help was always a common route for the upper middle class level of support. It always made my jaw drop when I heard the tuition costs the juniors I raced against were paying to attend the private ski academies, a phenomenon of the east it seemed. All that for teenagers who didn't strike me as all that motivated to begin with. I never went on much of a vacation during April. I simply didn't understand how any of the others were able to make it happen. Plane tickets and hotel room cost were out of the question. Seriously! None of you had jobs! Where did that extra money come from if not from your parents!? If it weren't for the timing that I nailed with Maine Winter Sports Center and USBA my career would have ended years ago. There was actually a point when a coach suggested that I give Solleftia (one of the top ski schools in Sweden) a go for a year after high school. After asking the right people it came down to a few thousand dollars to make a year in Sweden happen. I mentioned this to my parents and it was shut down due to the finances in matter of minutes. So, if you're coming from a lower middle class starting point never mind the cliquey condescending nature of the rich kids, just be prepared to work in a fragile make or break financial situation for most (if not all) of your career. It's cringe-worthy knowing that some of the athletes I've shared teams with actually make donations to themselves in a roundabout way to reduce their tax burdens. I can even count on one hand the number of years that I've generated enough income to file for taxes. That level is a whole different planet that I can only imagine.
          There are plenty of well-off trust fund kids that do not fit the negative description that I'm giving them. They are very dear friends of mine that I would have never met were it not for this crazy sport. To be fair, if you're willing to find a way to make that much money and raise children to spend it on that's technically fair game. Just don't let them turn into some of the oblivious whiny snobs I've come to know.
           It's scary what money can do to some people. Biathlon is not a pro sport. Even the Euro athletes don't exactly have their own private jets. Still, some of the upper job positions in this community rake in a lot at the end of the fiscal year. When a non-profit organization cuts coaching staff budgets and Christmas bonuses while the CEO claims about quarter of million a year, it makes you wonder what everyone is really after.
         Then there are the resources being flaunted for needless reasons. Anyone can complain about the company they work for spending the budget in the wrong direction. It's not an original complaint and most of it is highly subjective. So here's this: It makes me cringe when athletes on the stipend plan have their extra bag fees reimbursed while the non supported athletes trying to fight their way to the top get an abrupt "no" (though often when you send an email with a question like that you just won't get a reply at all.) The money that is spent on fancy dinners for the "in crowd" could cover a lot of extra bag fees and even hotel room costs. What is the reason USBA exists in the first place? Is it to fund the top end or is it to fund the up and comers so they can someday replace our top athletes and reach the podium too? The mission statement is not transparent. To be fair, the top level athletes might deserve the support, as they have worked for (or in some cases stumbled into) their success. Still, this capitalistic structuring is an ineffective pain in the ass when you have $300 added to your personal travel expense for one flight for a career that generates no income (for you anyways, not so much the ones making the decision in charge of you.)

        In an attempt to leave the age-old money topic on a positive note I will say that one of the best parts of the nordic and biathlon world is that you can't buy your way to fast skis. You can when you're a U16, and the ski school kids sure did have better gear than I did, but it wasn't long after that the gear cost less and less and got faster and faster while no amount of bribing could save them. When I was hanging on for one more year to see if another Olympics was possible, the state of Maine as a whole came through and helped my cause to prove that not everyone is hoarding strictly for themselves.
         The community that I come to know all to well merits a lot of thought. Again, I've met a lot of inspirational people and worked with organizations with the mostly right intent. Not a lot of people can say that. However, mostly doesn't cover all of it.  After all these years, the ins and outs, the haves and have nots, the good old boy's club of USBA has become clear to me. There, I said it. I hope the in-crowd enjoyed their staff retreat of back country skiing in Norway this spring. I could always sense an ulterior motive behind team naming and support levels. It was very much possible to be on the team without actually feeling like you're on the team. I've been on both sides of the ICC discretionary decisions. From having the upper hand and feeling as though USBA wanted me to succeed, to being phased out and indirectly told to retire. The ICC is basically the firing squad of team naming. When you realize the staff of the biathlon and nordic world is comprised of primarily failed former athletes and successful athletes where neither have ever seen the middle ground, you question if they even care about your part in the goal of the team. You're left to wonder what went on during that conference meeting to decide your fate. The members make the call and still get a paycheck at the end of the day and the athletes get whatever. Fer luck next year" if you're lucky. I stopped getting those follow-ups in the past few years.
         Lies and half truths, anything to end the meeting and get back to supporting the new team focus. You might think that the new team focus and development would start in May when the new training season begins, and that the best athletes of the year are rewarded throughout the season with the starting spots. Well not for me. In February, after making damn well sure that I was in shape for the off-chance that I got a start spot, I was told the focus for a new team of developing athletes had already begun, and therefore in the interest of “development” I was denied any starts in the last trimester of world cups.  Want another example while we're at it? When I was told that Rossignol Europe didn't have any room for me, was I not supposed to notice or piece together the obvious when another US athlete on our team was fully outfitted with Rossi skis from scratch? You could have just told me the truth and I would have thought better of you.
         Team dynamics is another interesting one. From what I've heard we get along much better than some NGB teams. Still, hearing a few athletes in particular tear apart another for overly judgmental reasons behind their back always made me wonder what terrible things they must have said about me when I wasn't around. Hell, sometimes they were so eager, the conversation had to end abruptly when I walked over. It was to the point that you had to buy into their hobbies to have any chance of knowing the in-crowd beyond the conversations of fake personalities. There's nothing like having a team sports psychologist tell you that you're the blunt end of jokes on the men's team. Maybe some of it I deserved because I stopped caring and decided to just be my weird self. Most of it was residual enough to not pick up on the snide remarks and indirect insults immediately, but those little bits and pieces add up. When you're designated team mental punching bag you can only smile and pretend to go along with it for so long.
           On more than one occasion, I had to mention the difficulty of training during August because of the trial races. The races were always so crucial to racing during the winter. I was always in that grey area between the WC team and no team. In the past few years of racing, I had so little racing that wasn't a make or break race day. In a sport that's all over the place for consistency I always had the confidence to believe I belonged on the team, but was still always in constant fear of full failure. There were athletes that had nothing to lose and athletes that were safely on the A team. The perpetual A-team never had much of chance to race on the bubble of team naming. Most of them were never really throttled from the top to bottom level of support. The lack of humility because of this was clear. There are athletes that will scoff at this when they hear me complain about the non A-team support. But their point of view becomes narrow when they have never been lower than having their life spoon fed to them by the NGB. Seems a bit one-sided to me. Maybe the best solution would have been to just have better results. Then I could have been ignorant to my lessers like my peers. But that's not how the sport works. Only one person can win and from there the rest are left to fend on their own.
         There are results within results. No two racing fields have the same depth of competition as each other. Again, coming from years of experience there are athletes that have what look like impressive results on paper, but leave me with no inspiration or admiration when I remember their so called work ethic that past year. From athletes that are more in love with the sound of their own voice and talking about training than they are actually training, to athletes that are too cool to put in a hard effort at US nationals. Since I was booted out of a WC start spot (for questionable aforementioned reasons), I was reduced to email information regarding support for US National Champs. I was grateful to have a small amount of support. While others were venting frustration about the same amount of support not being enough. To further pour salt in the wound these were the athletes taking in more in month from the stipend then I was getting for the US nationals trip reimbursement. All that and you're a too cool primadonna to try much harder than training speed during the races? Get over yourself. What a great example for the youths that showed up to watch you race. I wish those were the only two examples I had, but that's far from the case. I've seen too many pseudo professional athletes walk around on the trails and half ass every corner they can only to walk onto teams. I never took July off to go smoke pot and skip training and still have a considerably successful racing season. Maybe I wasn't talented enough or maybe the field I was racing against wasn't as forgiving. When I was on the stipend I was making enough to relax. An apartment in Lake Placid was feasible. But knowing how cruel and competitive racing on the men's WC field is, I saved as much as I could and used it to support myself when the income dropped back to $0. Needless to say, I never took any of it for granted.  I busted my ass regardless of the help.
         This was all just a bitter rant from someone who has seen a lot of different sides of biathlon. There is much much more to be said. Some things could be a lot better and others are much better than they used to be, and I was lucky to have timed my career as well as I did. There was a touch to it all that was diminishing the last four years. I stopped feeling welcome at the OTC or a part of the team when I did make it. I couldn't help but feel like I was a crack in a plan set in stone for the Pyeongchang team. What a punch to the face it must have been when I secured the last spot.  All of this is really a first world problem more than anything.  For so long, I refrained from even hinting at this frustrations like I am now. The whole time banking on this update to my tiny stupid blog about the little things. This took me a long time to finally complete. It was exhausting to put it together and I thought about saying screw it several times. But it needed to be said, and I don't think much will come of my rant, but I feel a little better now. So there you have it. If nothing else, I hope this was entertaining to read.
Antholz... I will miss Antholz more than most race venues. 

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