MOIECIU, Romania — Even before last weekend, Center Conway’s Sean Doherty had already had a phenomenal biathlon season, finishing as high as 17th place in a race in the men’s World Cup circuit, where he is competing as part of the U.S. Biathlon men’s team. The 20-year-old Doherty took a break from the men’s circuit to compete in his final year of eligibility at the Junior World Championships, which wrapped up Sunday at the Cheile Gradistei ski area in Romania.
Doherty made the best of the trip.
On Saturday, he became the most decorated junior biathlete in the history of the sport, winning the ninth medal of his junior career and his second at this year’s world championships. The race, a 10-kilometer sprint, saw him finishing second to Austria’s Felix Leitner. Doherty’s silver medal came on the heels of his bronze the day before in the 15k individual race.
This set the stage for Sunday’s 12.5k Pursuit race, where Doherty started in second place, 12 seconds after Leitner. Doherty would be going for an unprecedented 10th junior medal.
Starting so close to the leader, did it have an impact on his race day strategy?
“It can be tempting to just try to turn on the speed and catch up right away,” Sean said an email. “In a pursuit, it is more important than ever to race your own race and keep a very high level of focus on executing your own plan. If I had just gone for it out of the gate, that would have been playing to his hand, not mine. The controlled approach is what it takes to win a pursuit.”
Sean Doherty fires a perfect fourth round during Sunday’s 12.5K Pursuit race, which he won. (COURTESY U.S. BIATHLON)
Doherty stuck to his plan, staying within 10 seconds of Leitner for the first lap as they headed into the first of four shooting stages. In biathlon, each stage of shooting consists of five targets. Each missed target in a pursuit race results in an additional penalty loop of 150 meters of additional skiing. A bad day of shooting can result in a time penalty from which even the best skier cannot recover. Both Leitner and Sean shot clean in the first stage, hitting all five targets.
Doherty gained more ground on the second lap, and both skiers headed into the shooting range for the second stage almost together. Doherty missed a single shot, while Leitner again shot clean. This gave him a lead of 21 seconds heading into the third lap of skiing. Working to regain ground, Doherty knew it would be critical for him to shoot well. Leitner missed two shots in the third stage, giving the Kennett High graduate the opportunity to capitalize. Doherty missed only a single shot, which meant he headed into the fourth lap in the lead.
“My teammate shortly before the range told me, ‘Come on, Sean, show him some standing shooting,'” said Doherty.
“I knew that this was the opportunity for me to take the lead, but I had to stay focused in order to capitalize on it. As I took over the lead, I was excited to be in control, but there was still one more stage to come so I was not celebrating yet.”
Doherty shot clean on the fourth trip to the range, with Leitner missing one shot.
Doherty knew the race was his.
“When I cleaned the final standing, I knew that I had the race locked up. The last lap was in its own way surreal.” he noted.
Doherty won in a time of 36:01.1, waving an American flag that had been handed to him near the finish line. Leitner ended up finishing in third place, behind Russian Nikita Porshnev, who missed only a single shot over the four shooting stages.
In an interview with Faster Skier, Doherty said, “I really couldn’t have imagined a better ending, really. This is the perfect end to my junior career.”
A lot of hard work has gone into Doherty’s accomplishments. Talk to anyone in the biathlon or Nordic skiing community, and they talk about his amazing work ethic as much as his talent. They also remark about how humble and down to earth he is. An employee at Great Glen Trails (one of Doherty’s sponsors) remarked, “When he comes home, it’s always great to see him. He’s ‘just Sean’ with no pretentions. He is such a great role model for younger athletes in the area.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by Max Cobb, president and CEO of the U.S. Biathlon board.
“Sean’s performance this week has been tremendous, a clear demonstration of all his hard work and the support of his family friends and the team!” Cobb said. “He has established a trajectory in this, the most demanding endurance sport, that outshines some of the current World Cup stars with his record-breaking 10 medals as a youth (U19) and junior (U21).
Cobb continued: “The future is impossible to know, but Sean’s on the right track, and that’s very exciting, both for the World Cup in Presque Isle, Maine, next week, the World Champs in Oslo in March and the Olympics in 2018. It could not happen to a nicer guy!”
Doherty is back home in the Mount Washington Valley, getting some rest before joining the men’s World Cup circuit. His next race will take place at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, the only U.S. stop on this year’s World Cup, and which will give New Englanders a chance to see the best in the world compete in four days of races. For fans interested in attending the event, the races take place Feb. 11-14 (biathlonmaine.com).
“I am really looking forward to the World Cup coming up in Maine,” Doherty said. “It will be great to have a home event, of sorts. I am feeling strong, and I think the team is as well.”
Asked how it felt to be the most decorated athlete in junior biathlon history, Doherty shared his feelings but made sure to give thanks for all of the great support.
“It feels great to achieve such a large accomplishment,” he said. “I am very happy to have my name in the record books. I hope people can understand the thousands of hours that culminated in these results. And also that records are meant to be broken. I would also like to say a huge thank you to all of my coaches, wax techs and teammates on this trip. It was a great team to be a part of.”
For more information on the sport of biathlon, check out usbiathlon.org. For locals in the valley looking to try the sport or learn more, they can visit Jackson Biathlon at www.jacksonbiathlon.org. Most of the World Cup races are also webcast live at www.eurovisionsports.tv/ibu/, where you can cheer on Doherty most weeks between now and mid-March.