Note: This is part of an interview series dealing with the sport of biathlon which plays a central role in my novel Bolt Action Remedy.
Clare Egan in on the U.S. Biathlon team and is striving to compete in the 2018 Winter Games. She can ski, shoot, and is undoubtedly tougher than 99% of us. Her website is https://clareegan.wordpress.com/
Tell us a little bit about where you are in your career. You have the 2018 Winter Olympics in your sights, correct? You were a great athlete coming out of high school and seemed to develop a focus on cross-country skiing in 2011. At what point did a rifle get added to the mix and why the change to biathlon?
I am relatively young in biathlon years, having learned to shoot for the first time in 2013 and started training in earnest for biathlon in 2014. But I already had a decade of cross-country experience behind me, including 3 years of post-collegiate, full-time, professional racing. I knew I could ski fast enough to be a successful biathlete, so when US Biathlon Coach Algis Shalna offered to teach me to shoot, I said yes right away. He’s a Lithuanian-born Olympic Gold medalist (USSR Biathlon Relay) who was the US National team head coach for many years before “retiring” to a smaller role as a regional development coach and recruiter. Now, at 29 years old, I’m in my peak physical shape and the 2018 Olympics are likely to be my only shot.
In preparation for this interview, I was reading your blog in hopes of finding some common ground to discuss. I found… well, nearly nothing. I’d almost given up on that approach until I saw some photos on your page. So… HOW COOL IS BLED, SLOVENIA???!!! I had the pleasure of going there when I was working for the Secret Service and I think it may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited.
Bled is one of my favorite stops on the World Cup circuit. We are currently in Antholz, Italy, which is also right up there. The entire region of South Tyrol is really special.
I’m a runner. During a distance race, I’m lucky if I can grab a cup of water and actually hit my mouth. Biathletes are skiing and pausing to shoot with incredible accuracy. How much of this ability is mental and how much is physical?
I was a runner before I was a skier and I continued to run competitively throughout college. Cross-country ski racing and distance running are very similar sports both mentally and physically. Shooting, on the other hand, is unlike anything I had ever done before. It is much more akin to kicking a field goal. You must develop the skill and then repeat it over and over again thousands of times so that under pressure you can repeat the same process, no matter what.
There are physical abilities that take time to master. For me, the prone position came rather easily, though not naturally– it is counter-intuitive so I owe it to my excellent coach. Why counter-intuitive? Lesson number one: Do not try to hit the target. You can’t rely on your muscles to hold perfectly still, especially in the middle of a race. So you have to align your body in such a way that when everything is relaxed you are on the target. This is called your natural point of aim. If your natural point of aim is on the bulls-eye and you do a proper trigger squeeze, then you will hit every time. The same concept applies to the standing position. For me, standing has always been a greater challenge. My “hold” simply is not that stable. Algis said, “How do you think you get better at standing with a rifle? By standing with a rifle!” I do a lot of standing with my rifle pointing at the wall.
Other than those physical abilities, there is an enormous mental aspect. Just consider one the body’s most common natural reactions to nervousness – shaking. You can’t shake and hit! Nor can you get distracted and hit. The target is too small for that. So staying calm and focused is paramount. I am in awe any time I see the race leader arrive on point 1 for his/her final stage, with “everything to lose”, and somehow they maintain their cool and hit 5 for 5. Having the right attitude makes all the difference. “I have everything to lose” does not work, because it puts you on the defensive, and can give rise to distraction and nervousness (shaking!). You have to see each shot as an opportunity rather than a penalty. The only way to hit is 100% focus on the process. There’s nothing like this in running, that’s for sure! We have an excellent sports psychologist from the US Olympic Committee.
As most biathlons are outside the U.S., your travel schedule must be challenging. Any travel nightmares you’ve encountered on the way to or from competition?
Yes. Too many to name. Most recently, trying to return to Europe after Christmas break, my teammate and I were not allowed to fly because we had our firearms. OF COURSE we travel with our firearms all the time (they are checked in locked cases), and we had done all the necessary paper work. But the airline employees had no idea what they were doing and simply would not allow us to check in. We had to fly a different day on a different airline.
Another challenge which often goes overlooked is our racing schedule. Our season requires us to live in hotels, mostly in Europe, from November through the end of March. Imagine you and a handful of your coworkers sleeping, eating, and working together every day for 5 months………..
Also related to travel: How do you kill time while sitting on planes or waiting around airports? Are you a big reader? If so, what kinds of books do you typically read?
I am not a big reader. Though I do read a lot of news every day. I enjoy staying up on worldwide current events. I am a big language-learner and I am currently working on Korean. I speak Spanish, Italian, French, German, and a little Bulgarian and Korean. I also enjoy playing music and singing duets.
What are your short and long-term biathlon goals?
To go to the Olympics and win the US’ first biathlon medal (we have a good shot in the mixed relay!)
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, a Thriller Award finalist which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
Former Pittsburgh narcotics detective Trevor Galloway has been hired to look into the year-old homicide of a prominent businessman who was gunned down on his estate in Central Pennsylvania. When Galloway arrives, he determines the murder could have only been committed by someone extremely skilled in two areas: Skiing and shooting. He believes the assailant should not be too difficult to identify given the great amount of skill and athleticism needed to pull off the attack. When he discovers the victim’s property is next door to a biathlon training camp, the situation becomes significantly more complicated.
Galloway makes plenty of enemies as he sifts through stories about lucrative land deals, possible drug connections, and uncovers evidence suggesting the homicide may have been elaborate suicide. As he attempts to navigate through an unfamiliar rural landscape, he does his best not to succumb to an old drug addiction, or become confused by one of his occasional hallucinations. Oh, and a Pittsburgh drug gang enforcer known as The Lithuanian—if he’s even real—is tracking Galloway and wants to take his eyes. Galloway would rather keep those.
In Bolt Action Remedy, the typically quiet streets of Washaway Township, Pennsylvania become the epicenter of a mystery involving elite athletes and old grudges. For Galloway, the problems keep piling up and somebody out there believes problems should be dealt with by employing the most permanent of remedies.
Cyprus Keller wants a future.
Jackson Channing has a past.
Robert Chalk has a rifle and a mission. Kill Cyprus Keller and anyone who gets in his way.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
Finalist – 2014 International Thriller Writers Awards – Best First Novel
Named one of the BEST BOOKS of 2013 by Suspense Magazine!
Top Ten Books of the Year – Authors on the Air
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology