Haley Johnson: content and thankful

To everything there is a season. The winter sports season is about begin again. Haley Johnson, a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic biathlon team who had both her most challenging and ultimately best season last season, who at 29 is in her prime competition years in a sport that rewards endurance, has contentedly called it quits.

There’s a terrific lesson in Haley’s transition.

It takes great courage to go out on your own terms.

Oh — and by, the way, you don’t have to win Olympic gold to absolutely be a winner.

It’s not that US Biathlon wouldn’t want Haley back. She collected nine of her top 12 World Cup results in 2011; last spring, as the tour reached its end in Oslo, Norway, she finished 22nd in the sprint, 21st in the pursuit and 27th in the mass start, her best-ever weekend of racing.

Haley Johnson at the US Biathlon awards dinner in Park City, Utah

All this after having started the year way back in NorAms in December.

In essence — having worked her way back up one more time from double-A ball to the big stage.

In a lengthy letter she wrote that explained her decision to step away from competitive biathlon, Haley said, “My season could not have ended in a more exciting way as I crossed the finish line in the mass start competition in Oslo in March. Not only a personal best for myself, it was also a personal best for US Biathlon. I crossed the line with the truest sense of reaching my potential …”

That letter was addressed to US Biathlon’s executive director, Max Cobb; to the federation’s board of directors; and to the US Biathon foundation.

It goes on to say: “I am very glad to have grown up through the biathlon family and I appreciate all of my teammates and staff along the way. Upon returning home after the Mass Start race in Oslo I felt a great sense of completeness. Collectively, all of the people, places and experiences contributed to one of the greatest parts of my life. And for this I could not thank you all enough.”

Some at the annual biathlon awards dinner — which was held last Saturday in Park City, Utah — admitted without shame that they cried when they read Haley’s letter. She was among those honored at the ceremony.

In the letter, Haley also says, “I believe that my athletic potential has yet to peak and that it would be realistic to set my sights on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. However, my priorities have changed and I truly believe in the next pursuits of personal excellence in other areas of life.”

For one, Haley and her fiancé, Dave Stewart, who is the head Nordic coach at the University of Denver, naturally have some details to attend to. They’re getting married next August near her home town of Lake Placid, N.Y.

“A small wedding but we have big families,” she said.

They met in 2003. It was love at first sight. “It was,” she said, laughing. “It was pretty cool.”

Love at first sight -- Haley Johnson and fiancé Dave Stewart // photo: Empire West Photo

Haley is halfway through getting her college degree, finishing up at Denver after two years at Bates College, majoring now in public policy and social services.

“I felt all these stirrings not only the last year but the last couple of years,” she said. “I couldn’t just be an athlete.”

At the beginning of last season, when she was back in the NorAm circuit after having been in the Olympics just months before — that was because she simply wasn’t shooting well. “It was just this one small piece I needed to fix, not this whole thing … that’s why I never even thought about throwing in the towel.

“I had such a strong conviction I was going to set such a new track, I just let that go. I quietly reveled in my accomplishments. I knew I had a tall ladder in front of me. I never thought about which rung I was on and which rung I stepped away from. I tried to stay in the moment. I just stayed very much in the present.”

The truth is, Haley wasn’t even supposed to even be in Oslo.

She felt she had “missed that perfect little sweet spot that comes with peak performance” at the world championships, which had been held immediately beforehand in Russia.

The decision about who would go to Oslo was up to the U.S. coaches.

And then they said — Haley, you’re in.

“Then the magic began,” she said.

“I basically seized the opportunity of being granted the gift of one extra week,” with those best-ever results.

“I have been given that advice before,” of treating every competition like a gift, “but it wasn’t like that until [Oslo],” she said. “It can take an entire career to learn valuable things.

“Maybe,” Haley Johnson said, contentedly, “I’ll get to use it again in some other situation.”

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