LAKE PLACID - Olympian Haley Johnson is retiring from biathlon and lighting out the morning this article is published for Denver.
That's where she was born in 1981, although Lake Placid has been her hometown since the following year. Now she plans to spend the next couple of years at the University of Denver, where her fiance David Stewart is the head nordic ski coach. They hope to get married next summer in Lake Placid.
Starting in June, she'll take classes toward a degree in communications, a change from the environmental studies curriculum she pursued for two years at Bates College in Maine.
Olympian Haley Johnson poses for a photo at Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid on Wednesday.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
After 20 years of ski racing and 14 in biathlon, her life's story is starting a new chapter.
"I believe that my true athletic potential has yet to peak and that it would be realistic to set my sights on the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia," she posted on her blog Tuesday. "However, my priorities have changed and I truly believe in the next pursuits of personal excellence in other areas of life."
She was packing on Tuesday when the Enterprise interviewed her by phone.
ADIRONDACK DAILY ENTERPRISE: Where do you see things going from here?
HALEY JOHNSON: Well, I am going to take some time just to let skiing be for a little bit and get my feet underneath me in Colorado. But I look forward to racing, maybe in some marathons. I'm also interested in helping out with adaptive ski programs, whether in Colorado or the East or anywhere. So that's kind of the idea at the moment.
ADE: What is it about adaptive ski programs that intrigues you?
HJ: I think I'm eager to pass on what I've been able to learn through my own ski experience. I would enjoy doing it that way, which I feel like is really different from my own personal, very individual way of skiing. I feel like it'd be a neat way to share it. But also, one of my most profound ski experiences was being a guide for a Chinese blind skier at the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) nordic world championships held in Fort Kent (Maine) in 2005.
ADE: Tell me about that.
HJ: It was pretty incredible. I speak no Chinese, and he speaks no English, and I had never done anything like it before. And we skied a 5k race together. He was classic skiing, and I was skate skiing slash double-pole skiing, and it was by far one of the hardest ski races I have ever had in my entire life.
ADE: Why was it one of the hardest?
HJ: I am not much of a talker; I'm known as a quiet person. And I had to talk every single breath of that entire race because he was of a category that he was entirely blind. He saw no shadows, no differentiation in light whatsoever, so he was only following my voice. So I was constantly saying, "left, left, left, left; right, right, right, right" at a cadence that matched the severity of the turns. ... And also he fell a couple of times and broke a pole, so I had to give him one of my poles, which meant I was double-poling with one pole. And he was also 19 and learned how to ski a month prior.
ADE: And it was a race.
HJ: And it was a race, yeah. ... The Chinese team was there because it was a part of the international humanitarian effort ... by the Chinese to demonstrate their acknowledgement of people with disabilities, leading up to them hosting the 2008 (Olympic) Games in Beijing - because culturally they are known to not be as understanding or accepting of people with both physical, mental disabilities.
ADE: What happened after that, when you were done with the race? What were you left with, or like?
HJ: Well, unfortunately, I let him pass me on the finish line so he could finish first, and he got out of earshot and skied right into a fence. So, to be brutally honest, I finished feeling absolutely distraught and incredibly guilty for the fact that this kid's life was in my hands. But he got up with the most impressive smile and was incredibly inspiring, so it was a very mixed emotion of wanting to just melt down and cry, and also being super-happy for this kid that did something that he'd probably never had the opportunity to do before.
ADE: Have you done any kind of adaptive-type stuff since then?
HJ: No, I haven't actually ... but I have been part of some discussions locally with Jeff Erenstone of Mountain Orthotics and Prosthetics (in Lake Placid), for example. ... A lot of the national programs are really new, so it's only been as of recently that I've paid more attention to it.
ADE: OK, now shift to sports stuff: When and how did you start thinking about retiring?
HJ: I think it's been kind of a natural evolution, probably realistically over the last year or so.
ADE: It's kind of a roller-coaster season for you in a way: not making the World Cup or IBU Cup team and then making World Cup and having some solid finishes, both on your own and with the relay teams. How did that thought evolve over that time?
HJ: I think it was really interesting to have scaled the entire ladder of U.S. biathlon, all the way from not being on any team to starting at the first NorAm Cup in December and making it back to the IBU Cup, making it back to the World Cup and qualifying for World Cup pursuits, qualifying for World Cup points, qualifying for the World Cup in Maine and then qualifying for World Championships, and then being the final leg of the women's relay team at World Championships, and then being one of the members of the team to help the women's team secure a 15th international ranking, which is our highest so far. It also means we secured four World Cup start spots for next year, which is one more than we had this year all the way to qualifying for the final World Cup in Holmenkollen in Oslo, Norway (in March) doing well in the sprint, qualifying for the final pursuit and then doing well enough to qualify for the prestigious final mass start of the season. Altogether that week was collectively my best performance of my entire career. I qualified for the women's A1 national team for the 2011-2012 year, and I also finished with my highest international ranking of 58.
ADE: As you started out the season kind of at the bottom and then worked your way up all the way to your best season, really, how was the thought of, "Am I going to retire after this season?" playing through all of that in your mind?
HJ: I think I thought about it, but then I put it up on a shelf. I was thinking about it, of course, but it wasn't the main motivation to compete this year. I put it aside, and I competed this year as if I was continuing and stayed just as committed and just as focused as any other year.
ADE: And so when the season was over, how did it play through your mind then? What brought you to this decision?
HJ: I just took some time, and I honestly think the decision had already been made, and I just had to fully accept it myself and then follow through and let everybody else know.
ADE: And did you feel peace about it? There must have been some mixed emotions in that.
HJ: A little bit, but I admit I felt a great sense of completeness when I finished, and definitely a peace of mind that an important decision had been made and I was ready to move on.
ADE: You're famous; you're on a billboard on Saranac Avenue -
HJ: - (and) the grocery store.
ADE: Oh yeah, the grocery store, right. And at Whiteface - you were a cardboard cutout. You've handled that attention very graciously and also worked hard to turn it toward public benefits like educating kids about skiing and fitness, and promoting environmental causes and promoting the local foundation for winter athletes. It seems like you're always aware that your sports career has not been just for you but has been a shared thing. Is that a sense that has come to you from your family? Where does that come from?
HJ: I think it's something I've always had ... but I don't think I really found it until I lived in northern Maine and became part of a community-oriented ski team. ... It just happened to tap into a natural perspective I had ... to come back to a small town where everyone from the librarian to the postmaster has known me since I was a kid.