"Sometimes when you wait a long time for something, it makes it that much sweeter," 2010 Olympic champion Billy Demong told us Friday in a phone interview. The Vermontville native, who now lives in Utah, was talking about Lake Placid's own Lowell Bailey.
That quote pretty much sums it up. As local people know, Bailey is a steady, hard-working type who for more than 20 years has been pounding away at biathlon, a sport in which Americans have never done super-well - until now.
Through all those years, he and teammate Tim Burke of Paul Smiths consistently pushed the boundaries of how well Americans could do against biathlon's European rulers. But it's been hard, and they're getting older. Both men are now 35 and married, and Bailey became a father last year. He had even decided to retire after last season, but then a job offer in Montana required him to pursue a fourth Olympics.
Photo provided — U.S. Biathlon/Nordic Focus
Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid celebrates after winning first place in the World Championship individual biathlon event Feb. 16 in Hochfilzen, Austria.
He decided to double down: If he was in it, he would be in it to win it more than ever before. Maybe it was having his family by his side - his wife and daughter went on tour with him - but somehow this season he's been able to ratchet his performance up to a level no American has ever achieved before.
In the last few weeks, Bailey has won a World Championship gold medal, a U.S. first, and a World Cup silver in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on the course that will host next year's Olympics - a course he has said he particularly dislikes (although he praised its improvements last week). In both races he bested Martin Fourcade of France, the best in the world. Bailey has been in the top 10 in each of his last eight races, including two in which he carried his relay team. He's placed in the top 10 in half of his 24 races this season, and he's currently ranked ninth overall with three more race series to go.
He's certainly paid his dues. That doesn't mean the world owes him a gold medal, and he knows it. In a profile on the International Biathlon Union website, he's quoted as saying, "You cannot base your life on, 'Did I place in the top 10 today, or did I win an Olympic medal?' The second you start doing that results-based fulfillment, you will be disappointed."
Nevertheless, to see him earn that gold - and in the World Championships, no less - swelled our hearts almost to bursting.
It went past the bursting point for some who have known him longer. Demong told us he didn't cry when he won his gold or silver medals in nordic combined at the 2010 Olympics, but he did tear up when Lowell won that World Championship on Feb. 16.
"That's what makes sports special," Demong said. "Even when you're a fan of a team, you're like, 'I've been a fan of these guys for 30 years, and they finally won the world championship ... and you can recall what went into it."
Kris Cheney-Seymour, who once coached Bailey, Burke and Demong, said he cried at that moment, too.
"Lowell Bailey is such a fantastic example what can happen when you set your goals, you follow your dreams, and you never give up," Cheney-Seymour told us Tuesday. "Lowell continued to chase after his dreams when there was no particular evidence that he could have them in a sport that has been dominated by Europeans for so long. Not only has Lowell inspired an entire nation of nordic skiers and been celebrated as a true sportsman in the sport of biathlon; he has also inspired the next generation of athletes to believe that they can achieve their dreams and goals. They have the ability to follow in his footsteps."
Chris Morris of Saranac Lake also knows how long and hard Bailey has worked and waited. He was a young biathlete with Burke and Bailey in the 1990s and is thrilled to see Bailey's one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach pay off.
"He's always just had really good perspective on life and just plugging away at things," Morris said.
"He's genuine. He's practical. He's realistic," said Demong, who at 36 is a year older than Bailey but retired from competitive skiing three years ago. "And he is definitely super-steady, doesn't get real bent out of shape.
"He's one of my best friends," Demong added. "It's super-cliche to say it couldn't happen to better guy, but it couldn't happen to a better guy."
When we talked to Demong, he was in Finland with the U.S. nordic ski team, for which he works as executive director. Now the biathletes are in Finland, preparing for another World Cup series this week.
It's not just Bailey who's doing well. Susan Dunklee of Vermont stands in 11th place and is doing better than any American woman ever has in this sport. But while some are riding the crest of a wave, others are in the trough. Burke, whose 2013 World Championships silver tied a U.S. record, battled health issues this season and is now back home watching the rest of it on TV.
As we said, it's not an easy sport - and that makes Bailey's latent success all the more remarkable. Like the Cubs and Red Sox breaking their curses, like Rudy sacking the quarterback, like maple syrup at the end of winter, it is all the sweeter for the wait. It lifts our spirits as we wade through the fearful bluster of today's politics. This is sports at its best.
While the U.S. Biathlon team's headquarters are in Maine, its athletes and coaches live and train in Lake Placid, so like luge, bobsled and skeleton, this is a home team for us. Let's cheer them all on through the end of their season on March 19 in Norway, but let's give a special burst of pride for our hometown guy, Lowell Bailey.