Lowell Bailey and Susan Dunklee lead a U.S. biathlon team poised to break through

The vision of a first-ever U.S. Olympic medal in biathlon is "a really exciting thing to internalize and believe,'' Susan Dunklee says. "A victory like that does not belong to just one individual, especially in our organization.'' Nicolas Armer for ESPN

The last loop will be brutal. Lowell Bailey knows that when he shoulders his gun and pushes off from the shooting range after hitting the last five targets to go 20-for-20 at the 2017 biathlon world championships in Hochfilzen, Austria. He's leading the race, his lungs and legs are burning, and he is on the verge of what once seemed unattainable.

The snow he's flying over on this February day is packed down and groomed, but in a larger sense, there are no tracks ahead of him. Biathlon is the last frontier, the only winter sport in which the United States has never won an Olympic medal or a world title.

His body crosses into the red zone. He is maxing out and losing time. His seven-second gap evaporates. The men he's dueling went off ahead of him in staggered starts and are already past the finish line, watching his progress on the digital clock.

Then he spots his wife, Erika, with their 8-month-old daughter in a sling on her chest. She has stationed herself on the crest of the biggest hill he has left to climb. As he hammers up and over the incline, she runs parallel with him, one arm keeping the baby from bouncing. Even with the fans going nuts behind the barriers, he hears her.

"She just kept saying, 'You're winning, you're winning, you're winning,'" says Bailey, 36, his voice cracking in the retelling, months later. "I can see it perfectly, looking ahead on the track and just thinking, like, 'I've spent 20 years to get to this point and I've got like two or three minutes to go, I gotta do this. I have to do this. I can't get this far and squander this opportunity.'"

Bailey has pursued this European hybrid of cross-country skiing and shooting in utter obscurity in his own country, living out of a duffel bag half the year, ringing up far more moral victories than top-10 results. He has contemplated retirement at least twice. Now the loves of his life have converged in the finishing stretch: love for his baby girl, Ophelia, and his wife, a fellow Lake Placid kid he'd first met on their grade school playground; love for this daft, maddening sport he first picked up when he was 14.

Bailey milks three seconds from the track and wins. The primal howls he uncorks in the finish area reflect years of bottled-up desire for him, for everyone he trains with. Teammate Susan Dunklee feels a rush of conviction: If he can, so can she.

Two days later, Dunklee becomes the first American woman to win an individual world championship medal, a silver in the mass start event. "Sometimes, you have to cross a critical threshold of seeing things are possible and starting to believe it," she will later say. A gifted ski racer who first fired a rifle when she was 22 -- years too late by elite biathlon standards -- Dunklee had devoted an entire season to refining the economy of motion and mindset she needed to shave seconds on the range.

Dunklee and Bailey were the first athletes officially qualified for the 2018 U.S. Olympic team, a year ahead of the Pyeongchang Games. Their teammate Tim Burke, whose 2013 world silver medal ended a 23-year drought for the U.S., is back in the mix after a season lost to fatigue and illness. As the flying wedge for a supporting cast of talented younger athletes, they represent "our best shot in a generation to succeed at the Games," says U.S. Biathlon CEO Max Cobb.

That goal is consuming enough. But Dunklee and Bailey also have taken vocal aim at the slow pace of reform since the Russian doping scandal began to erupt almost four years ago. Investigations uncovered entrenched performance-enhancing drug use, testing sabotage, institutional cover-ups and bureaucratic ineptitude. Accountability has been a frustrating, emotional, ever-moving target. Then again, never underestimate the tenacity of small-town athletes who spend years chasing a vision around the world while somehow remaining totally grounded.

LOWELL AND ERIKA BAILEY'S wedding celebration three years ago near their Lake Placid, New York, home took DIY to a different level. They started phlox, snapdragons and sunflowers from seed in their bathroom that March and transplanted them to hand-built outdoor hoop houses so they'd bloom early. Lowell built movable covered pens called "chicken tractors" so the flock of Freedom Rangers they raised that spring and early summer would graze on a fresh patch of pasture grass each day.

When it came time to slaughter 75 of the same chickens for the wedding barbecue, the couple helped with that, too. They considered it part of being true locavores, of commitment and follow-through. The same could be said of Bailey's approach as an athlete.

He values balance, perhaps because his inner ear was shaped by a musical family. His first name is an homage to the late Lowell George, the founding lead singer and guitarist for the genre-busting Southern band Little Feat. Bailey taught himself to play guitar and mandolin and gigged with his father's band starting when he was a teenager. He has since been a regular in bluegrass and folk groups and has often entertained fellow athletes on the road.

Some years, he sandwiched band practice between two-a-day training sessions. "I know it was imperative to my survival as a biathlete," says Bailey, sitting in a rocking chair on a spring afternoon in Lake Placid with Ophelia dozing on his shoulder. "From a strictly physiological standpoint, it's not the optimal thing to do. But I've realized I'm not the typical physical specimen. I don't have the same psychology; I think about things differently."

As a schoolkid in Lake Placid, Bailey found himself going head-to-head with a couple of other spirited boys: Billy Demong, a future Nordic combined Olympic champion, and Burke, from the nearby town of Paul Smiths. Their surroundings bred big ambitions. He and Burke, born seven months apart, gravitated to biathlon and embarked on a joint competitive odyssey and friendship that has endured more than two decades and seen them compete in four Winter Games.

Biathletes ski laps and shoot at targets that are 50 meters away from two positions -- prone (belly down with legs splayed behind) and standing. Hitting all five targets is called "cleaning." For every missed shot, an athlete does a corresponding number of penalty laps on a 150-meter loop next to the range. The fastest cumulative time wins. Their heart rates can peak in the 180s, but the athletes do not, as is sometimes wrongly presumed, try to tamp them down before shooting. They fire between breaths, using the fraction of natural stillness that comes after air is expelled.

Once hooked, Bailey discovered he had signed on for long stretches of delayed gratification. It would be 12 years after his World Cup debut, including a hiatus to finish his University of Vermont degree, before he raced his way onto a podium. Periodically, his passion for social and environmental issues would lead to existential self-interrogation: The world is going to hell: Shouldn't I be building solar panels?

Dunklee had similar bouts of ambivalence when U.S. Biathlon recruited her out of Dartmouth College, where she majored in ecology and excelled at cross-country skiing and running. Raised in rural Barton, Vermont, with a menagerie that spilled over from her mother's veterinary practice, she valued self-sufficiency and connection to the landscape around her.

Corny but true: Her first competitive inspiration came from a Highlights magazine story about a girl who worked diligently to win a 4-H blue ribbon with her cow. Dunklee was literally racing for lollipops in those days in a kids' program named for Bill Koch, the groundbreaking American cross-country skier. The first time she funneled her desire into winning a race, "I was drooling, seeing spots," she says. That would prove to be good practice for later on.

Learning her way around a .22-caliber rifle was not on Dunklee's to-do list. But free room and board at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid was enticing -- and so was the prospect of learning a new skill from scratch. "If you don't try this, you're always gonna wonder, 'What if,'" her father, Stan, a two-time cross-country skiing Olympian, told her.

She was a stiff, slow markswoman at first, fixated on getting it right. "It's a very Zen-like thing when you do it well," Dunklee says. "You have to have extreme control over your emotional state, which takes a lot of discipline and a lot of practice, and those are things I can respect and value."

Two years into biathlon training, Dunklee fell short of qualifying for Vancouver 2010 and found herself listless and questioning her purpose. She gravitated to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, near her hometown, where a then-new professional cross-country program offered lodging, coaching and meals in exchange for work projects on the property.

Dunklee recently bought her own place -- a snug house with an old boat-building shed next door -- but still works at Craftsbury for tangible and spiritual nourishment. On any given week, she tends fruit and vegetable gardens and chicken coops, maintains trails and works at mastering the art of beekeeping. That also demands focus -- and stings when it goes wrong.

The influx of talent led by Bailey and Burke lifted the prospects of a team that had long struggled to compete on the world stage. (Two world championship medals, a women's relay bronze in 1984 and Josh Thompson's individual silver medal in 1987, were exceptions.) The U.S. Olympic Committee increased its funding to U.S. Biathlon, which helped attract and develop athletes like Dunklee.

International Biathlon Union secretary general Nicole Resch called the evolution of the U.S. team "amazing," a reflection of hard work to overcome the liability of a small athlete pool and lack of tradition compared with Europe, where club systems get kids started at age 12 or younger.

U.S. Biathlon, once reliant on bake sales and angel donors, attracted sponsorship and became financially stable enough to hire a fleet of experienced support staff from Europe. Chief of sport Bernd Eisenbichler of Germany started as a wax technician and now oversees the men's and women's programs. Swedish coach Per Nilsson took on the men's team and ratcheted up training intensity.

Nilsson brought the best out of Burke, who had a breakout start to the 2009-10 season and wore the World Cup leader's yellow bib for a stretch but fell short of his own expectations in Vancouver. Bailey plateaued and chafed at his lack of progress but kept chipping away. Four years later, he finished eighth in the 20-kilometer individual event in Sochi -- a high-water mark for a U.S. athlete -- and began to think about an exit strategy. By 2016, he and Erika were deep into planning a new venture, raising grass-fed cattle on her family's ranch. They had spent months researching it and were about to take out a loan.

Then Bailey got an unexpected, dream-job offer -- executive director of the new Crosscut Mountain Sports Center in Bozeman, Montana, a facility that will focus on youth programs in biathlon and cross-country skiing starting later this year. The timing made it logical to push on. Last season wound up being the one in which he finally reaped what he had sown. "It's a little surprising when you've worked for two decades and all of a sudden, things click," Bailey says of the 2017 worlds, where he had two additional top-10 finishes. "If you have balance in your life, and therefore perspective on meaning, it becomes easier to compete well."

The 2017 season proved fascinating for other reasons.

BIATHLON IS AT OBVIOUS high risk for doping because of its endurance component and the fact that artificially boosted fitness can aid shooting accuracy, as well. Yet there had been relatively few high-profile busts in the sport before the Sochi scandal, with the most infamous case being that of two Austrians nabbed in police raids at the 2006 Torino Games.

Investigations of organized doping in Russian sport revealed biathlon to be deeply compromised. The team that will compete in Pyeongchang has been drastically reduced as a result. Yet two biathlon medals Russia won amid the documented fraud of Sochi 2014 are intact. Top Russian athletes have not been subject to regular testing in their own country for most of the past four years, and RUSADA, the national anti-doping agency, still doesn't meet international standards.

Testimony by whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, the former Moscow lab director who coordinated the doping and cover-up plans in Sochi, implicates the entire national team program dating back to at least 2012, when he said athletes were banking clean urine and using his Duchess steroid cocktail.

Infuriating biathletes from the U.S. and several other nations, the prestigious 2018 World Cup final is still slated to be held next month in the Siberian city of Tyumen. The IBU executive board will vote Tuesday on whether to keep the event there.

Color rises on Dunklee's cheekbones as she describes threats she received on social media for being outspoken about doping and the consequences it should bring. The draining, depressing issue would be easier to stiff-arm, but she feels obligated to speak her mind.

"We certainly want to focus 100 percent of our energies on doing well at the Olympics, but at the same time, there's more important things, and one of them is leaving a better world for the next generation," she says. "That clearly does involve advocating for clean sport at this time."

The scope of systemic doping in Russian sport emerged over 18 months starting in mid-2016 in World Anti-Doping Agency-commissioned reports by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren. Those findings prompted Bailey -- an athlete representative to the IBU -- and others, including double Olympic champion Martin Fourcade of France to escalate the urgency of proposals they had advanced before: higher fines and loss of start quotas for nations with multiple doping violations.

Impatient with the lack of action, and the IBU's decision to award the 2021 world championships to Russia, Fourcade led a walkout of athletes and staff at a meeting with IBU leadership a year ago. Athletes told reporters they were prepared to disrupt race start times on live television if their proposals didn't receive serious consideration. Emotions ran high for the rest of the season. Russian athletes refused to shake Fourcade's hand during one podium ceremony at worlds, prompting him to pick up his skis and leave.

The athletes' activism succeeded in forcing the IBU to say the 2021 worlds would be re-awarded, but the other proposals are works in progress, and this year's World Cup final is still in Tyumen. Resch said that she understands the athletes' unease but added that it will take "more than feelings" to justify moving it. She said that sample collection and testing would be done by an outside entity rather than RUSADA and that security would not be an issue if the event remains there.

But Bailey says keeping the event where it is would be "a huge, huge affront to clean athletes. That's saying to the world, to the athletes on the World Cup, the IBU executive board has no problem with doping, and they actually, in a sense, reward federations that dope. Because that's a reward. It's a monetary reward, pride, all of those things."

Canada has already announced its intention to skip the World Cup final if it remains in Russia, and several European teams are considering following suit. Dunklee says continued denials from Russia have heightened athletes' concerns about personal safety or even potential manipulation of their drug-testing samples.

"Tensions are so high right now, [competing in Russia] is not something I feel comfortable risking," she says. "It's sad. I want to see sports unify the world and not be this divisive thing. But we have to come from a basis of respect for each other first, and doping has no place in a world of respect."

The camaraderie of the traveling biathlon circus -- an intense, six-month sojourn with few breaks -- makes the notion of cheating even more difficult for Dunklee. "I don't want to accuse individuals without proof, but I think there are people violating those rules," she says. "It's painful. You get to know people -- they smile, they're friendly -- and you don't want to believe these things they might be doing."

THE ROLLING STONES' "Start Me Up" blasts through speakers into the brilliant blue sky over the Sudtirol Arena Alto Adige, tucked into the forested folds of a spectacular valley in the Italian Alps near the Austrian border. "You make a grown man cry," Mick Jagger and his bandmates wail as competition is about to get underway at the 2018 Antholz World Cup in mid-January, the last event on the circuit before Pyeongchang.

That snippet of lyrics is an apt epigraph for biathlon, which can, and does, humble strong people with some regularity. The differences between top athletes are often infinitesimal, a reality that spawns hope -- and dashes it. Weeks, months and sometimes whole seasons elapse between great results. One missed shot can make the difference between contending for a medal and five, 10 or 20 places further down, as it did for Bailey and Dunklee at Sochi 2014.

Jonne Kahkonen, the Finnish coach of the U.S. women's team, tells athletes they can't dwell on the what-ifs. "Just trust that your skills are good enough, and it actually works to your benefit if you shoot fast enough and your brain doesn't have time to interfere," he says.

Taming negative thoughts is also crucial to longevity in the sport. Clare Egan, a first-time U.S. Olympian, says she admires the way her veteran teammates deal with their oscillating fortunes. "They really don't beat themselves up over the micro-pitfalls," she says. "They have patience and poise, they don't panic, and they refocus on what they can do better."

A mentally vexing sport that sprang from Scandinavian military and hunting tradition might seem an unlikely vessel for mass appeal and raucous fans. But World Cup events are televised live throughout Europe and routinely draw crowds of 20,000 or more who wait in long lines to be bused to remote locations. Biathlon is the top-rated televised winter sport in Germany (BMW is the title sponsor for the World Cup circuit). Fourcade is a huge celebrity in his home country, eclipsed only by soccer stars.

The soundtrack of biathlon mirrors its polarities of blinding exertion and mindful concentration. A massive commotion rises from the stands at the start and finish lines in Antholz, and multilingual partygoers line the course, swigging beers and Jägermeister, wielding flags and clanking cowbells.

Yet when the leaders glide into place on the shooting range, dead silence descends as if a switch has been thrown. Then comes the sound of randomly popping corn as bullets hit metal, targets change from black to white and spent brass shells eject sideways. The crowd roars after each made shot. Dunklee documented the reception for Fourcade by sticking her cellphone out of a window high above a race this past December in the French Alps.

Antholz falls at a time when many World Cup athletes are tired and ready to taper toward Pyeongchang. The course is a mile high -- the loftiest altitude on the circuit -- and the approach to the range is uphill, leaving some gulping extra hard for oxygen in the first couple of days. They glide deliberately into position before they shoot, taking an extra increment of time to recover.

It also comes at the end of a challenging stretch for Dunklee and Bailey.

Dunklee is battling congestion and weeks of less-than-optimal shooting. She's used to riding out those biorhythms, but it's still hard. In Antholz, she takes heart from Tiril Eckhoff of Norway, an Olympic and world champion who breaks months of fallow results with a win in the sprint event. The cliché that every day is anyone's day has enough truth to qualify as gospel in biathlon.

"If I pull things together [in Pyeongchang], nobody's gonna remember what happened in November, December, January," Dunklee says through audibly clogged sinuses. "I really wanted to have good races then -- and I had a few. It's good to have that before the Olympics, for confidence. But it's not a prerequisite. I know I can turn things around pretty suddenly."

Bailey keeps catching colds -- four of them in as many months -- that sap his energy and cut into his training. Within the first kilometer of the men's pursuit race in Antholz, he knows he's dragging. He misses just one of 20 targets but still finishes 35th.

Moments afterward, he stops for a lone reporter and shakes his head several times, stymied for words. The laugh lines that often light up his face slant downward and deepen in the fading sunlight. "Just super disappointed," Bailey says finally.

It's Burke who appears to be rounding into strong form in Antholz with just three weeks left before the Games, but he politely deflects that suggestion. "Got myself into trouble thinking about that earlier in my career," he says. "I really got caught up in what everyone was saying and everyone else's expectations of me. That was a huge mistake, and I learned from that."

That night at dinner in the team hotel, Ophelia, now a round-eyed, mobile 19-month-old, toddles purposefully around the dining room. She mingles with other athletes' children and makes good use of her limited vocabulary, including the honorific "Dada," which she bestows on every man in the room. Bailey smiles through his fatigue and looks as though he has regained his equilibrium.

"Things can change quickly, and I've done the same prep as I did the year before," he says. "I have to trust the training. The other thing is that biathlon can be very surprising. It's just not predictable."

About 10 days later, he and Dunklee will win a bronze medal in the single mixed relay at the European championships.

The conditions in Pyeongchang will make things interesting for the field. Biathlon events are at night, under the lights, a rarity that will enable the fan base in Europe to tune in during daytime hours. The U.S. team has been advised to sleep in and keep body clocks on European time. Chances are the postrace wind-down will go inordinately late, what with doping controls, media obligations, showers, a meal and normal postrace adrenaline.

It will be an odd, sunlight-deprived couple of weeks, but what's not strange about a sport that asks athletes to jam on the brakes in midrace and override their galloping hearts? They'll soon find out how much further this crazy love can take them.