She was doing well until her first stop at the range. Erin Yungblut laid down, aimed, and clicked into the wind on her first shot.
Biathlon is a devastating sport, mentally. Somewhere in her head, there was that little excruciating voice. She knew that the top guns out there probably didn’t miss at prone. You miss again, you’re cooked, says the Voice. You have to be able to overcome that as you’re getting up, throwing your rifle back on your back and start pushing your body again.
Back at the range for standing, everything fell apart. Erin missed three. Day’s over. She skied to the finish line, no more voice in her head, focus tucked behind into a shell, a complete sense of emptiness. She hung over her poles and tried to collect herself. A disastrous 81st place in the Open European Championships 7,5 km Sprint. So much effort, so much work, so little results.
As she raised her head, her backstore companions were coming in. Couple Croatians, a Brazilian, a Mongolian.
Then tears of frustration popped. When you race with your heart on your sleeve, and focus so hard on a result that slips away, it’s hard to hold the emotion back.
It’s never easy to talk about the tough days, but Erin Yungblut is not one to back away. She agreed to answer a few uneasy questions.
SP- Was there anybody to «greet» you at the finish line, a coach or teammate?
EY- Our tour coach Jacqueline (Akerman) came over to the pen while I was collecting my warmups and gave me a hug. We both knew it wasn’t the performance the team had expected (for the day overall; the Canadians really struggled).
SP- Was today (Friday) your most difficult race of the season mentally?
EY- Yes, even with poor performances earlier this month today was still the most difficult mentally. I am finally starting to feel healthy again and with each passing day a little more speed and strength are coming back (after bouts of illness this winter and injury this summer). Though I felt ready to perform to my very best today, and was focused, I fell apart when things started to go downhill. I missed my first prone shot after clicking into the wind and then it died; I clicked back out and hit the rest.
Then I knew I had to be absolutely perfect the rest of the race to make the Pursuit, and though I executed my plan on the tracks – skiing at the very top of my speed and technical abilities right now, and coming into the range recovered for standing – the plan backfired. I was shaky and had a weirdly low heart rate for standing, and could not control my rifle. Instead of waiting and forcing myself to really slow down, I blasted off my shots and got out of there. I pushed hard to the line, but it’s tough when you know how badly you are doing, and my technical focus fell apart and I was no longer skiing smart on the last lap.
SP- You pick up your skis, only a handful of girls out of 89 pass the line after you, what went through your head?
EY- Anger at myself for letting my shooting fall apart just because things didn’t go exactly to my race plan, and plain old disappointment and embarrassment for posting yet another poor result.
SP- Did you do your cool down alone? How did you feel then?
EY- Yes I normally cool down alone to debrief after a race; I needed what my teammates and I call a “glasses-down cool down.” I got ready to mentally learn from my mistakes and then prepare to let the disappointment go… I’ve learned the hard way that beating yourself up for days on end really takes a toll over the course of a season.
SP- How was the debriefing with the coaches?
EY- I talked with the coaches and wax techs about the race and what went wrong, as well as giving feedback on the course and skis. Overall the whole Canadian team was very frustrated with both the Sprint and Individual races here, so trying to put a semi-optimistic spin on things and what I could immediately learn from the race (and the standing shooting in particular, as well as my ski technique) was the main focus.
SP- You worked and trained hard through illnesses and physical setbacks, and there are no tangible results yet. How frustrating is that?
EY- I am now halfway through my fifth winter of racing in Europe. I have been in this sport for 6 years. My first and second winters, as a first and second year Junior, I posted some solid results on the IBU Cup and at Junior OECH (though I never quite pulled it together for world juniors). The past two years as a senior, and now this year, I have faced some tough breaks in terms of illness and injury. I’m not making excuses, though.
The women’s field overall in biathlon has also improved immensely during this short period of time… My first year in Europe, I posted top-20’s on the IBU Cup, as well as two years ago as a first-year senior… but now I would be extremely happy to reach that result again this year, as the field is so much deeper and more competitive that a top-20 is much, much harder to achieve. It is incredibly frustrating to work so hard and feel like you have literally no results to your name to speak of… I mean, good time trials, training camps, relay legs… these kinds of things don’t exactly qualify you for carding or national team status.
My passion for this sport is not dampened by poor results, but it really is hard to feel like you are underperforming and not racing the way you are capable of. Knowing that even on your best day, a perfect performance for your current capabilities, would still not get the numerical result you dream of, is an even tougher pill to swallow.
SP- How do you plan to bounce back?
EY- I don’t think I would still be in this sport if I wasn’t good at bouncing back. One of my favourite quotes is “I can deal with disappointment, but I can’t deal with regret.” When you aren’t super pleased with 90% of your races, you MUST have a good comeback plan! I have already analyzed my standing shooting here, and come up with a plan to deal with the downhill range approach (historically, all of my worst standing shootings in races have happened with ranges that have an easy approach/full recovery before the range).
I am still working day by day to regain my full health and energy by eating well, resting well, and watching my physiological signs such as heart rates and thyroid markers to make sure I don’t get sick again. I am looking ahead to the races later in the season and planning to sharpen my speed and technique by then, and focus on the little goals each session to improve my form and tactics.
So life goes on. Erin has another 10 or so races before the end of the season. With all the medical issues she’s been through, she’ll try to manage a couple of decent results but for now, it’s not what matters. For now, she just wants to feel healthy and fast racing again.
Good news is, she’s not alone. There’s a whole community of teammates, coaches, support staff, family and fans and friends with her on her journey.
Best news is, the fire in her heart is still burning.