People in and around Lowell Bailey's hometown of Lake Placid have seen him come close to being the best in the world over and over again in more than 20 years of international biathlon competition. To see him have a "perfect race," as a former coach put it, and win a World Championship gold medal Thursday was overwhelming to those closest to his career.
"There's probably only a handful of people who know how hard he's worked to come to this moment," his father George Bailey said. "It's a little emotional because of that, because of the years and years of saying, 'I can't come to your event tonight because I've got to train.' He never varied for 20 years in his approach to training."
Lowell Bailey was born in North Carolina, moved to Old Forge as a preschooler and has lived in Lake Placid ever since he was 10 years old. He and Tim Burke of Paul Smiths have raced against each other and followed the same path up the nordic ski circuit since they were 6 years old. Burke's silver medal in 2013 tied Joshua Thompson's 1987 result as the best ever for an American in a World Championship - until Bailey bested it Thursday
A teenaged Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid, left, and Tim Burke of Paul Smiths smile at their first international biathlon race in the mid 1990s in Torsby, Sweden. Their coach at the time, Kris Cheney-Seymour, keeps this photo on the wall of his office at the Mount Vane Hoevenberg Cross-Country Ski Center outside Lake Placid.
(Photo provided — Kris Cheney-Seymour)
"Now there's only one left to accomplish: the one in the Olympics," said Kris Cheney-Seymour, Bailey and Burke's former coach. No U.S. biathlete has ever won an Olympic medal.
Cheney-Seymour, who grew up in Saranac Lake, helped convert Bailey and other local skiers to biathlon in their early teens. The first class of local young biathletes consisted of Bailey, Burke, Haley Johnson of Lake Placid, Annelies Cook of Saranac Lake and Katie Demong of Vermontville. All became Olympic biathletes except Demong, although her older brother Bill was an Olympic gold medalist in nordic combined.
Now Cheney-Seymour lives near Bloomingdale and runs the state-owned nordic ski center at Mount Van Hoevenberg. Because he's busy preparing for upcoming races, he wasn't watching Thursday's biathlon World Championship race live, figuring he'd catch the replay - until fellow Olympic venue manager Tony Carlino called him and told him to jump on the internet and watch biathlon immediately. He was just in time to catch the end, with Bailey crossing the finish line victorious.
The 15 minutes or so between then and talking to the Enterprise "I've pretty much spent sitting in my office crying," he said.
"I had the same emotion as when Bill Demong won his Olympic gold. I was totally overwhelmed with tears of joy - with Lowell, who never gave up who always persevered, who never let go of his dreams and kept pushing toward the singular goal he's had since he was a teenager.
"I'm proud of him," he added as he choked back more tears, "what it means for our country, for our community at Mount Van Hoevenberg and for every kid who had a dream as a cross-country skier."
Bailey was in eighth grade when Cheney-Seymour became his coach, continuing with him through high school and then again for three years in northern Maine in the 2000s.
Since then, Bailey, 35, has competed in three Olympics and this week qualified for his fourth, the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea - the first American to do so. But international competition is brutally tough. His best Olympic result was eight place in the 2014 individual, and he has made the podium only once before in top-tier competition, a silver medal in a 2014 World Cup-level sprint.
"For Lowell, he's had so many times in his career that he has almost found this moment, and on this day he had a perfect race ... and was faster than everyone else. And for him - it's an incredible gift for Lowell Bailey and his coaches and people involved and his process and his time and his development in biathlon, but it's an incredible gift for the nordic community of the United States, for his home, for the children who look up and admire him. Lowell has always been gracious with his time with the kids of Lake Placid and Saranac Lake."
Bailey has often come to ski and speak with kids at Lake Placid Elementary School and Dewey Mountain Recreation Center in Saranac Lake, among other places. He now has a young daughter of his own.
"I know Lowell as someone who cares deeply about his sport and his community and the future of biathlon," Cheney-Seymour said. "Today he helped fuel a new generation of biathletes to feel like they could do it."
Bailey's father, a now-retired Lake Placid teacher, watched the race on his computer at his home in Paul Smiths.
"They weren't covering him on the main feed, so I checked the data after the second shoot, and I saw he had shot clean for the first two," George Bailey said. "At that moment I thought, 'OK, He's on track. He's having a good day, and he knows that if he has a great day, he can get on the podium.'"
Lowell was being covered by the main Eurovision feed when he shot for the fourth time, but that's when George Bailey said his computer screen froze.
"I thought, 'You know, it's probably not a good thing I'm watching this," he said. "The screen unfroze about a minute later, and I thought he must've missed one because they weren't following him. Then I checked the data and said, 'No. He shot clean.' Once the announcers realized he was in contention for the gold medal, they were following him and it was very exciting."
George said he cheered as his son crossed the finished line.
"It's just a wonderful thing. It's history making," he said.
"I don't think I'm going to be able to sit still all day. I'm going to go out and ski. I think that's a way to celebrate in the most appropriate way I can."
Lowell almost hung up his rifle and skis after some disappointing performances in recent years, his dad noted.
"After a couple of seasons of sort of erratic things, I think he felt like, 'Well, the odds are long, and I'm not getting younger,'" George said.
Lowell had planned on last season being his final one, but an unexpected job offer at a biathlon center in Bozeman, Montana, changed that plan. The offer came with the stipulation that if he competes through the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, there would be a job waiting for him after that season.
"Once he decided he was going to keep skiing, the level of commitment he has put into it, I think it went to 110 percent in the last couple years," George said. "How hard he's worked and trained and focused is definitely part of the story."
Lowell had already punched his ticket to his fourth Olympic Winter Games when he placed sixth in Sunday's 12.5-kilometer pursuit. His fourth-place Saturday was Team USA's best finish in the 10-kilometer sprint in World Championships history.
"He's been knocking on the door the last number of seasons," George said. "I've just watched him steadily improve his shooting. The few that slipped away, I just had that funny feeling that he wasn't going to let that happen too many times in a row."
Lowell shared the podium in Austria today with his wife Erika and their seven-month-old daughter Ophelia. They have a home in Lake Placid.
George said his son owes his success to the Adirondacks as a whole.
"If you love winter and you love snow, I can't think of any other place where you'll get the support of the community and have the opportunities he's had," he said. "The other thing is, we grew up as a family skiing for fun. For him, skiing isn't just something you do as a sport. It's a way of life. I think a lot of the joy and passion he has for skiing comes from being a kid on skis with his family. It isn't just the last few years or the people around him now, it's really the whole Adirondack Park."