KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — COLUMN | Lanny Barnes dug her poles deep into the snow, her rifle slung over her back. Her heart raced. Her mind focused. In one lunge, she pushed forward with everything she had.
And began racing for two.
“I think I was fighting back tears the whole day,” her twin sister, Tracy, said. “I was so excited to see her, and I felt so in the moment that it was hard not to get emotional.”
What, really, encompasses sacrifice here?
Parents who scrimp to send their children to tournaments and competitions thousands of miles away because they dream of one day standing atop a podium? Sure.
Rehabbing from muscle tears, pulls and surgery, hoping beyond hope your joints’ expiration dates are after the Olympics? That counts, too.
The time and dedication put in to training and competing, the monotonous minutes, hours and days the elite athlete never gets back? Of course that’s sacrifice.
But what if you were a part of all that, showed up at the Olympic trials, made your national team and decided the sacrifice you’ve made isn’t enough? What if you need to give up your spot in the Winter Games because it’s the right thing to do?
Tracy Barnes never gave it a second thought. After all, it was for Lanny, the closest thing she would ever have to a clone on this earth. Lanny had done better in the World Cup events in the biathlon before she fell ill, her fever rising to 104 degrees before the Olympic trials in Italy. She couldn’t compete, missing three of the final four qualifying events that determined the Olympic berth for the U.S. team.
While Lanny was out, Tracy did earn an Olympic spot, but once she determined that it would go to her sister if she gave it up, she knew what she would do. That’s how it came to be that when the women’s 15-kilometer biathlon competition got underway Friday, Lanny was in uniform, going out as fast as she could because she knew Tracy was watching.
“You know that they would do anything for you and you would definitely do anything for them,” Tracy said afterward. “When you create a close bond with the people you care about, your friends and your family, you want to help them, you want to see them do well and achieve their dreams. . . . I’m one proud sister.”
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
They met before the competition, their first encounter since Tracy’s decision to give up her spot a month earlier. Tracy wasn’t supposed to make the trip, but her sponsor, Advanced International Technology, bought the plane ticket, and the U.S. biathlon people helped provide lodging.
“We didn’t have to say anything; we just know each other so well — yes, it was emotional,” Lanny said.
They were inseparable as kids, big blue eyes and dishwater blond hair, a carbon copy of each other.
“I can’t tell you all the tricks we played on everybody,” Lanny said. “We actually dated twin boys in middle school. If we were going fishing or to the mall or whatever, some days we’d just say, ‘Okay, you get that one and I’ll get him this weekend.’ We actually used to fool the teachers, who would tell us apart by what we wearing. So midway through school we’d go to the bathroom, change clothes and come back and switch seats. I don’t think any of them ever found out.”
Lanny pauses now, gathers her emotions after competing for two.
“She means so much to me. Not just because of this, but she just means so much to me.”
“Would you give your Olympic spot for her if you thought she deserved to go instead of you?” she was asked.
“I wouldn’t think about it for a minute. Yes,” Lanny said.
She finished 64th in the event, an Olympic discipline in which no U.S. woman has ever finished better than 14th. She covered the 15 kilometers in just more than 50 minutes, but missed three of her shots with the rifle and beat herself up for going out too fast.
“I just went for it and bonked,” Lanny said. “I tried to go for it and just got gassed too fast. It happens. I wish I would have had a better race. I really wish I would have had a better race for Tracy too.”
Tracy didn’t seem bothered by the result. She had actually competed in the Turin Olympics in 2006. The Barnes twins are just 31 years old, in a sport where 38-year-olds have medaled and many biathletes don’t hit their prime until after 30. Both will have another chance if they want to go through the grind and sacrifice again.
In 1936, German long jumper Luz Long gave advice to Jesse Owens to help qualify him for the final on his last jump, a gesture that angered Adolf Hitler at the time.
In 1988 a Canadian sailor destined for the silver medal decided he instead needed to rescue two other sailors whose boat had capsized. Lawrence Lemieux would later be awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship.
In 2006 I met Bjornar Hakensmoen, the Norwegian cross-country coach whose skier had just passed Canadian Sara Renner and was in medal contention after Renner’s pole snapped. He couldn’t stomach medaling that way. He gave Renner another pole. Canada got silver, Norway got fourth.
“Winning is not everything in sport,” Hakensmoen said to me afterward. “What win is that, if you achieve your goal but don’t help somebody when you should have helped them?”
And who can forget Beijing, where Shawn Crawford gave away his silver medal in the 200 meters because Churandy Martina of the Netherlands would have beaten him if he hadn’t been penalized for a questionable lane violation.
Tracy Barnes belongs in that pantheon, where medals and achievements never dwarf human majesty, never get in the way of doing what’s right — even if it means giving up your own spot to compete in the world’s greatest sporting event.
“I really want to see her happy and do well, and I’m so excited she had the opportunity to race,” Tracy said. “My parents are incredibly selfless people and have really done a lot to help us out over the years. We are surrounded by incredibly compassionate people, and it definitely rubs off on you.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.