Q&A with Emily Dreissigacker

By Mike Haggerty

So, when you’ve had a career in rowing that’s taken you as far as representing your country at World under-23 level, but you know deep down that’s as far it’s going to be…how do you get to realize your lifelong ambition of competing at the Olympic Games?

In 29-year-old Emily Dreissigacker’s case, you turn to biathlon and race at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea… that’s how.

Having rowed at Dartmouth, and also as a member of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, Emily’s rowing career reached its height at under-23 level where she raced in the USA women’s quads at Racice in the Czech Republic in 2009 and in Brest, Belarus in 2010. 

But after this, Emily reached a decision -“Going to the Olympics has always been a goal for as long as I can remember.  But I think I had finally gotten to the point with rowing where I was thinking ‘ oh – that’s not going to happen’.  I was ok with that and made my peace with that realization’.

But when she transferred to biathlon, it wasn’t the Olympic dream that motivated her at first.  “When I started doing biathlon it mostly was ‘this is fun, I really like this sport, I’m improving a lot and I think I have a lot of potential at it’.  So it’s never been solely focussed on wanting to make the Olympics, but on seeing where I could go with it.”

Emily is a member of one of the most famous families in modern-day rowing, so it is no surprise that she learned to row, along with her brother and sister, almost as soon as she could walk.  But, living and growing up in Craftsbury, Vermont, skiing was also a favorite family pastime.

With skiing in the family background, and with the Craftsbury Green Project embracing rowing, Nordic skiing, and biathlon, the switch-over was not difficult to predict. 

It was Emily’s brother who introduced her to biathlon but it wasn’t necessarily love at first sight.

She says, “my brother was really drawn to biathlon.  He got into it and I actually tried biathlon for one season when I was in high school but decided I wasn’t really that into it.  Right after that was when I switched to rowing from skiing.”

After this, a domestic accident would play a key role in bringing her back to biathlon. 

“The second time around – fast forward about eight years – I was rowing in Craftsbury and not really very happy with it.  I felt like I had stalled out and wasn’t improving anymore and, at the same time, I was doing a lot of skiing for cross-training in the winter and was really enjoying that.   Then I actually severed a tendon in my finger on a wood-splitter and couldn’t row for three months and was only skiing.  That’s when I was thinking ‘I’m having more fun with this and this is what I actually want to be doing’.”

For all that they differ in many ways, there are characteristics that these two sports share. 

First, as rowers know all too well if you want to become rich through sport… pick another one.   And about biathlon, Emily confirms, “I am a biathlete, but that’s not a way to make a living’, and, on this, she speaks for her husband too – Alex Howe, who is also a biathlete.  This is Emily’s first year on the national team and before that, as a member of the ‘B’ squad, the only support she got was health and insurance coverage.

However, she is quick to acknowledge the support she has received, saying,” the Craftsbury Green Racing Project is a really cool, very supportive programme for elite athletes.”

On the other side of the coin, biathlon shares a rich tradition of camaraderie with rowing.  She could be speaking about rowing when she says, “we have a really great team and, internationally, people are really friendly.  I guess we talk to the Canadians the most though!”

She is also clear about the differences between the sports too.  “Selection in biathlon is less physically brutal than in rowing, but it’s pretty mentally tough.  The sport is very mental.  The shooting aspect is so easy to mess yourself up by thinking the wrong thing and getting ahead of yourself.  Shooting is just an incredibly mental thing.

I would say that rowing and biathlon are different physically too.  Rowing is 2k while the shortest distance we do in biathlon is 6k – about 18 minutes – and that’s a big difference in the systems the body uses.  The races are longer, so there is way more endurance needed.  Also, small, lean people do better in biathlon.”

Emily also addressed where US biathlon is internationally right now.  “US has never won a medal in biathlon – it’s the only winter sport in which that’s the case.  It’s a tiny sport in the US.  We’re trying to build it more, but it’s an uphill battle because you need access to a range, access to a rifle, and coaching and there isn’t a lot of that, it’s not widespread.”

Try as they no doubt did, the US biathlon team performance at PyeongChang did not get them near the podium.

Emily raced in four different events and anchored the women’s relay squad to a creditable 13th finishing slot.

About her own performances, she said, “I‘m happy with my sprint and qualifying for the pursuit.  That was only the second pursuit I’ve qualified for at the World Cup level, in this, my first world cup season.  I’m not super-excited about my personal record, I think it’s important to recognize progress and improvement and to be happy with the improvement, no matter how small.”

She added, “when I was rowing, I was very results-focused and very driven by the goal of wanting to make the Olympics.  I think that hurt me in the end.  I think being concerned with process rather than results has helped me a lot.”

Looking to the future, she says, “I have not decided about the next four years through to Beijing, but I’m definitely going to continue for next year.  For me, it’s about whether I’m still improving and having fun.  As long as those two things are happening I could see myself going for four years, but at this point, I’m going to take it year by year.”