Siblings set the pace: Cuneos lead by example at Auburn Ski Club
During a cold winter morning Steffen Cuneo and his sister AnnElise pull into the largely empty parking lot at Auburn Ski Club.
Dawn has yet to break as the two find their way inside to help the club’s biathlon coach Brian Halligan set up for that morning’s practice.
“They’re always the first ones to practice,” said Halligan, who’s finishing his first year coaching at the club.
“I think it’s important,” Steffen added. “If they wake up at 5 a.m. and go out to shovel targets. I think it’s reasonable that we should too.”
The persistence and hard work by the siblings this past year has paved off in the form of multiple podium finishes and steady improvement — something Halligan said he saw the potential for as soon as he met the two last summer.
“Right when I showed up I saw the potential in both of them. Steffen is a big kid … he’s come a long way in his skiing technique, and has really shot up there in the biathlon community in the country, because he’s been able to focus in his skiing,” said Halligan.
“This summer I’ve really seen AnnElise put the work in,” he continued. “Her shooting percentage has just skyrocketed.”
‘stop being a skier and start being a shooter’
Steffen and AnnElise have both grown up in Truckee, and have been longtime Nordic skiers.
Only in the past four years has Steffen, a junior, taken up biathlon, while his sister, a sophomore, has a year under her belt.
“They’re almost two completely different sports. If you race Nordic you have to go into a completely different mindset than if you’re racing biathlon,” said Steffen.
“Nordic, you’re thinking about racing and going fast and pushing hard the whole time. In biathlon you have to do that same thing, but you’re splitting it with the range. Once you go into the range you have to stop being a skier and start being a shooter. If you’re not on top of that, you’ll miss everything … I enjoy shooting and skiing. Skiing is not enough for me, if that makes sense.”
Though experienced on skis, Steffen rapidly picked up the shooting aspect of biathlon, learning under longtime coach Glenn Jobe. By the time Halligan arrived last summer, it wasn’t Steffen’s shooting that needed improving, instead the new coach set out on producing faster times on the skis.
“From right when I met him, he was a good shot, so I knew he had a lot of potential,” said Halligan. “Shooting takes a long time to master, and he’s picked it up really quickly. I knew he had that as an advantage, but it was the ski speed that really needed some work, and he definitely put in the work this summer. He’s seen the results. It’s all because of the hard work and dedication he’s put in. Same thing can be said about AnnElise.”
AnnElise said she initially began biathlon because of her older brother, and has since come to enjoy it more than cross-country skiing.
“I just love the sport and I love racing,” said AnnElise. “It’s just fun to come up here in the mornings and shoot, ski, and improve a lot.
“I really like the shooting part, because it’s completely different and not a lot of people do it. It’s super satisfying when you’re up on the range and you hit everything.”
Improvement right on target
This past season, Steffen has taken his racing to another level. He nearly qualified for a spot to represent the U.S. at the Youth & Junior World Championships held in Europe, and later went on to win several local races, including capturing the California Nevada Interscholastic Ski and Snowboard Nordic State Championship last March.
“I’ve improved a lot this year,” said Steffen. “It’s just super cool to feel better during races and get better results like state championships — just having good results.”
Steffen later traveled to Anchorage, Alaska following the state championships to compete in the U.S. Cross-Country Junior Nationals.
Steffen, who was a competing alongside several other Far West Nordic athletes, said he didn’t have a very good few days of racing and placed 44th in freestyle for his best individual result of the championships. For the Truckee skier, however, the much more important competition — the U.S. Biathlon National Championships — was still on the horizon, taking place later at the end of March in Jericho, Vermont.
“I didn’t have a good weekend. I had a decent result the first day,” said Steffen. “I just had a bad weekend, but I was glad to get it out before the biathlon nationals.”
The championships opened with the sprint event and Steffen raced to a runner-up finish in the Youth Men division, behind one of the best performances on the range out of the field of athletes. Steffen finished fifth in pursuit the following day, and then closed out the championships by racing to a second-place finish in the 10-kilometer mass start race.
With winter racing wrapped up, the siblings have shifted gears. AnnElise is swimming for Truckee High School, and Steffen said he plans on running track. Looking back at the 2018-19 season, Halligan said he’s seen a change at the club, due in part to the work ethic and practice habits of Steffen and AnnElise.
“The Nordic athletes, who aren’t even biathletes, they recognize the results Steffen is having,” said Halligan. “They see firsthand the work he’s putting in and the results he’s getting. Between the biathlon program and the Nordic program, I think a lot of athletes see what you’re able to accomplish when you put the hard work in. It’s had a great impact on the rest of the team.”
Going into next season, both siblings have set goals of making it onto the team representing the U.S. at the next Youth & Junior World Championships.
“There’s a lot of people that have helped us to get to this place,” said Steffen. “We have two Nordic coaches and they’re really focused on our skiing. We go and train with them and they’re some of the best in the country. They’re awesome coaches. And then we have our biathlon coaches. Brian is awesome, he’s probably one of the best biathlon coaches that’s out there.
“Our program is awesome. It’s one of the best programs in the country and I’d like if more people did it.”
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at email@example.com.