Heading into this winter, Saranac Lake's Annelies Cook wasn't sure what was in store for the biathlon season.
She had failed to qualify for any U.S. teams in the spring. That meant that she had to raise her own funds for competitions, leaving her status as a biathlete a bit in limbo heading into the winter season.
But things have turned around for Cook. In November, she qualified for the U.S. International Biathlon Union Team, and she's even found herself competing in a World Cup circuit event this winter.
Annelies Cook rounds a turn during a World Cup relay race in Antholz, Italy. Cook teamed with Lake Placid’s Haley Johnson, Sara Studebaker and Laura Spector to take 13th in the event.
(Photo — Manzoni/NordicFocus)
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
One of the highlights of her season took place in mid-January, when she teamed up with Sara Studebaker, Laura Spector and Lake Placid Olympian Haley Johnson to finish 13th in the World Cup relay in Antholz, Italy. The finish was the best by a U.S. World Cup relay team since March 2009 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"For me, it's wild because it's all these people I've been watching on TV and I idolize them a bit," Cook said. "Everything is a little bit of a circus. It's just so much bigger. The last World Cup was the biggest I went to so far. There was 27,000 spectators, maybe a little less. That is wild - to go through a stadium and have a huge stadium just packed with people. It's a little bit of a whirlwind, but it's exciting, too."
The U.S. is only allowed three quota spots in the women's field, so Cook was not allowed to compete in any of the individual races. However, she performed well as the second skier in the relay, moving the team up to sixth position after a clean prone stage. She used two spare rounds in standing, and dropped to 13th by the time she tagged off to Spector.
Cook has also had several top 25 finishes in the IBU Cup circuit this season, including a 13th place at Nove Mesto, Czech Republic in January. She placed one spot ahead of Johnson in the race.
"So far I am very, very excited with how my racing season has gone," said Cook, who was an All-American in 2009 at the University of Utah. "The IBU racing circuit was quite a surprise for me, in that I performed much better than I expected and then got to race in my first World Cup races. It has been a lifelong goal to get to race in a World Cup, and even though there are many people that get to do it, it was still a thrilling first for me. Also, just proving to myself that I have the ability to improve and get faster was the most important goal to reach and I think that I did that."
Cook said after last year's disappointing season that saw her not make the U.S. team in the spring, she considered moving on from biathlon. She has considered studying to be a nurse after her athletic career is over. But before giving up on the sport she loves, she decided to give it another shot. That included making some adjustments to her training such as cutting back on the volume.
"I also made sure to do enough of the kind of training that you do for pure pleasure, so that I would be happy come the fall and winter," Cook said. "There were days when I had to train a lot on my own and sometimes that was tough, but luckily I have such a good support system that there was usually a best friend or sibling to go on a bike ride with, or my dad to bike along with me when I was doing roller-ski intervals and didn't feel like being alone or was having trouble being motivated. That kind of stuff is what makes or breaks you. I'm such a social person that training by myself all of the time gets to be tough. But it also helped make me tough in a new kind of way."
That training adjustment and the ability to overcome some difficult times has Cook skiing with a renewed vigor.
"I've always said I only want to do biathlon competitively if it's fulfilling and I'm happy doing it," she said. "So if there comes a point where I don't feel happy anymore then that's a good time to move on."
The way the season is going that won't be anytime soon.
"The fun is back," Cook said.