Clare Egan of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, competes in the sprint competition during the World Cup Biathlon, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Presque Isle, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

Clare Egan sees the Olympics as far beyond a competition, just one reason her preparation for the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, involves much more than physical preparation as a member of the U.S. biathlon team.

Try learning the native language.

“I’ve always said my favorite part of being on the team is having an opportunity to be a good ambassador for my country,” said Egan, a 30-year-old Cape Elizabeth native who qualified for the Olympics earlier this winter through her performance on the IBU World Cup circuit in Europe.

“That’s what I studied in school, languages and foreign relations, and while I love the sport I think the most fulfilling part for me is meeting the athletes and spectators from other countries and being a friendly person, an outgoing person.

“I always try to greet people in the local language and that to me is the greatest honor, having that opportunity. That’s always been a dream of mine, to live that out every day and certainly the Olympics will be the biggest stage at which to experience that.”

Learning languages is nothing new for Egan, with Korean being the sixth she has studied.

Learning to be a world-class biathlete is a more recent endeavor.

Egan was a three-sport athlete at Cape Elizabeth High School, starring in cross country, Nordic skiing and outdoor track and field before graduating in 2006. She was a state champion in the 400 meters and 300 hurdles in track and was part of a state title-winning cross country team with the Capers and a two-time member of the New England Junior national ski team.

Egan attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where not only did she become an NCAA Division III All-American in the 1,500-meter run but also started the first ski program at the school.

Egan continued her track and skiing exploits at the University of New Hampshire where she used her final year of collegiate athletic eligibility while pursuing a master’s degree in linguistics.

Egan was on track to continue cross country skiing at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Vermont on a postcollegiate elite training team called the Green Racing Project.

But the reality of her status among the U.S. women’s cross country skiing hierarchy prompted a trip to Fort Kent for the 2013 U.S. Biathlon nationals — her first races in the sport.

“I became excited about the biathlon,” she said. “I was excited about learning something new and especially on the women’s side the U.S. cross country ski team in my age group had been so strong that even by 2014 I knew who was going to be on the Olympic team in 2018.

“Certainly I saw more opportunity for international competition in biathlon and that was appealing to me, but in general the trying something new and learning something new was most appealing.”

Egan spent the next year working off and on with Algis Shalna, a regional development coach with U.S. Biathlon, and soon she was invited to join U.S. Biathlon’s national development training group.

“That meant I could go to the camps in Lake Placid (New York) and they officially started coaching me at that point,” she said.

Egan quickly became a serious candidate for the 2014 U.S. Olympic biathlon team that competed in Sochi, Russia, but was undeterred when that effort came up short.

“It was not at all like a letdown in any way,” she said. “It was the opposite of that. It was a real inspiration for me because I was new in the sport but saw I could definitely do this if I gave myself four more years and got in the kind of training and experience I needed.

“I was very confident I could do this the next time around.”

Egan has made steady progress up the International Biathlon Union’s World Cup rankings since the Sochi Games, from 96th during 2014-2015 to 67th in 2015-16 to 56th in 2016-2017 — including 10 top-40 race finishes in the last two seasons.

“What’s so cool about the biathlon is that I have a chance at a podium even though I’m not the best skier or the best shooter,” she said, “because if I have a great ski race and a great shooting performance on the same day and maybe some of the faster skiers miss more than I do or the best shooters are a little slower, then all of a sudden I can be fighting for a top 10, too.”

Egan’s 2017-2018 World Cup season got off to what she called an underwhelming start, save for a 7.5-kilometer sprint race in Hochfilzen, Austria, on Dec. 8 undertaken amid heavy snow and wind.

She scored her first World Cup points of the year that day, finishing 35th overall with just two shooting penalties in a race that saw just eight of the 102 competitors have clean days on the range.

It turned out to be a performance worthy of Olympic qualification, with Egan earning her berth as as one of the top two performers among the U.S. contingent in the early World Cup events along with 2014 Olympian Susan Dunklee of Barton, Vermont.

“It wasn’t necessarily how I expected it,” said Egan, who would have earned automatic Olympic qualification with a top-30 finish in the Hochfilzen sprint. “But I’m so looking forward to this.”

Egan, one of five U.S. women who will compete in the biathlon in PyeongChang, is back racing on the World Cup circuit that continues until a break for the 2018 Winter Games, which run Feb. 9-25.

“I was able to eke out one race that was good enough to clinch my Olympic spot, but relative to previous years it’s not been a strong start for me so I’m looking to improve on that and get my performance and confidence back to a place where I’m really comfortable going into the Olympics,” said Egan before she returned to Europe.

Egan should already be comfortable with the PyeongChang biathlon course after competing on it last March during a World Cup race that was created as a test event for the Olympics. She finished 33rd in the 7.5-kilometer sprint and 36th in the 10K pursuit.

“It was great to get a feel for the course,” she said. “There will be a lot of things that are different at the Olympics, but at least the course will be familiar.”

So, too, will be the language for Egan, at least somewhat.

“I’m a total beginner, I’ve been studying Korean for less than one year,” she said. “But I can read and write and have a conversation.

“The Olympics was an inspiration for me to learn Korean, but I was also aching to learn something really different and branch out from the European languages I already knew. Korean seemed like a good idea and I’m really glad I did it. It’s so fun and so different from anything I’ve ever learned and this will be a great chance to use it.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...