SOCHI, RUSSIA – Some people cry when they find out they have made the Olympic team. Others call everyone they know, or dance, or whoop and holler.
On the day Leif Nordgren got that wonderful news, his irritation over a poor race at a World Cup biathlon in France prevented him from feeling any of those emotions.
“I was not happy at all,” said Nord-gren, of Marine on St. Croix. “I was really psyched to be named to the team, but I was so disappointed in that race and in the way my season had gone to that point. It took me a few days to realize that I had been named to the team, and there was still a lot of racing left to do this season.”
Nordgren, 24, has had a similar experience in Sochi. The youngest member of the U.S. biathlon team — and a first-time Olympian — has enjoyed everything about the Winter Games other than his results. He has finished 45th, 53rd and 83rd in three races so far, with one anticipated start remaining in the men’s 4x7.5-kilometer relay on Saturday.
The graduate of Forest Lake High School was able to embrace his place on the Olympic team after seeing how excited his family was. His brother Kirk is in Sochi to support him, making good on a promise he made a few years ago. That has helped Nordgren see the bigger picture beyond his results.
“I’m actually pretty disappointed with the way the races have gone,” Nordgren said. “I pinched a nerve in my back on the last loop of the sprint race [Feb. 8]. And in the pursuit race [Feb. 10], I had a pretty dismal shooting race, even though my skiing was a lot better.
“But the overall experience has been really cool. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Nordgren, who has lived and trained for the past four years in Lake Placid, N.Y., is among five men on the U.S. biathlon team competing in Sochi. The Americans never have won an Olympic medal in the sport, which is popular in Europe — particularly in Russia — but little-known in the United States. Biathlon combines cross-country ski racing with target shooting.
Born in Colorado, Nordgren began cross-country skiing at a young age. His father, Carl, is originally from North St. Paul, and he passed his love of winter sports to his children.
The family moved to Minnesota when Leif was 10. His sister Sonne got involved with biathlon when she was part of the cross-country ski team at Stillwater High School, and Leif picked it up from her when he was a senior in high school and a member of Forest Lake’s cross-country team.
A relative latecomer to the sport, Nordgren quickly showed an aptitude for it. In December 2006, his father suggested that he might make the U.S. team for the junior world championships if he put in some serious target practice. Nordgren spent a couple of weekends at a shooting range in Elk River and qualified for the team, which allowed him to get his first taste of competing in Europe at the age of 17.
For the next two years, Nordgren trained with the U.S. junior team at its base in Grand Rapids, Minn., with coach Vladimir Cervenka. He made occasional trips to Europe, but he knew he needed to spend more time there to move up the ladder.
“If you really want to develop as an athlete, you have to come to Europe,” he said. “That’s where the higher level of racing is. I was going for two or three weeks every winter, but in those two or three weeks, you can see those higher-level athletes. That’s really good motivation for training in the summer months.”
Nordgren won a bronze medal in the 10K pursuit at the junior world championships in 2008. By the time he was 21, he was racing in the sport’s top tier, the World Cup circuit in Europe.
Over the past three seasons, Nordgren has earned six top-20 finishes at the world championships, including a career-best sixth in the 4x7.5K relay in 2011. He finished last season ranked third in the U.S. and anticipated that would be good enough to get him to Sochi.
His best results this season are in the relay, with a sixth- and an eighth-place finish in two World Cup events.
His biggest challenge is accurate shooting, which has held him back in two of his three Olympic races so far. He is hoping for better results in the relay, and the U.S. team has gained steam with two historic performances.
Lowell Bailey finished eighth in the men’s 20K individual last Thursday, the best Olympic result ever for an American in an individual event, and Susan Dunklee’s 12th place in the 12.5K mass start Monday was the best Olympic result ever for a U.S. woman.