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Biathlon, the backwater Olympic sport in which skiers race cross-country with .22 caliber rifles strapped to their backs, flashed briefly onto the American media’s center stage in the mid Eighties. First, when U.S. Team member and World Championships bronze medalist Kari Swenson was kidnapped and shot by a crazed mountain man in Montana. Swenson survived to tell the tabloid tale, which then became a TV movie. And second, when Colorado’s Josh Thompson stunned the biathlon world, then, as now, dominated by Eastern European countries, by taking silver at the 1987 World Championships.
Unfortunately for Thompson, U.S. alpine skiing was at a low ebb then, and the pre-Olympic media seized upon him as America’s best hope for a skiing medal in Calgary. He absorbed so much pressure that he imploded, missing five targets on the shooting range worth five minutes of penalty time in the 20K event. Thompson finished a disappointed 25th.
Beyond these two telling tales, biathlon in this country has been about as visible as Ted Kaczynski before he was nabbed. That’s odd, because the sport has a venerable history, and we Americans are actually pretty good at it.
Historians believe the very first nordic skiing competitions were biathlons. Swedish and Norwegian border patrols used to challenge each other to skiing and target-shooting contests, perhaps with bow and arrow, as far back as the 1700s. (Hunting on skis as a timed event may go back even further.) The military tradition of the sport continues to the present; some of our best biathletes are members of the Army National Guard, which provides training and much needed financial support.
Biathlon has been an Olympic sport for men since 1960. Up until 1992, biathlon and modern pentathlon, a sport based on the skills thought necessary to be a war-time messenger (swimming, cross-country running, riding, pistol shooting and fencing), were administered by the same international union. Women biathletes finally gained Olympic status in 1992.
Eight years before that, the first women’s World Championships in Chamonix proved a breakthrough for the U.S. A contingent of American upstarts, including the star-crossed Swenson, Holly Beatie, Julie Newman and Jan Reynolds (they called themselves Bonnie Raitt, Emmy Lou Harris, Carole King and Joan Jett), ran and shot their way to the bronze medal in the relay competition.
I met Reynolds in 1983 at West Yellowstone, Mont., where whippet-like track skiers of various stripes were training. She was new to biathlon then, in search of a fresh challenge after racing cross-country at the University of Vermont and then fashioning an amazing resume as an adventure skier, crowned by a free-heel circumnavigation of Mount Everest. Most recently, she has toured the corners of the earth to research a series of books on vanishing indigenous cultures.
Some people are hooked by the impossibility of mastering golf; Jan was captivated by the mental and physical dichotomies of biathlon. “It’s like fire and water,” she told me. “On the skiing loops you’re driving your pulse up; your heart is just racing. You’re sprinting for two or three kilometers and then you come into the range and you have to slow your breathing and lower your heart rate, become poised and calm enough to knock off five black circles the size of silver dollars, with just five rounds, and do it in something like 30 seconds.”
Reynolds, who had never fired a rifle before trying biathlon, doesn’t see it as a military exercise. “It’s a Zen thing,” she says. “Two opposites combine. The rifle is like bow and arrow. It takes the same concentration, the same intense focus.” All biathletes I’ve talked to glaze toward ecstasy when they speak of “shooting clean,” that is, killing all five targets in a shooting stage, and better yet, all 10 shots in the sprint (10K for men; 7.5K for women) or all 20 shots (four range stops) in the distance events. The yin and yang of the effort exerts a powerful, dreaamy hold on them.
“I can’t explain it,” says U.S. Biathlon Association program director Max Cobb. “It’s just so much fun to see those targets go down.” Cobb and his cohorts in Burlington, Vt., keep the U.S. team in bullets and skate skis through “bake sales” and the sponsorship of outfits such as L.L. Bean. “We’re talking good old-fashioned amateurism here,” he says.
And coming into this Olympic season, the U.S. once again has some promising young athletes. Twenty-year-old Jay Hakkinen of Kasilof, Alaska, scorched the World Junior Championships in Italy last season, winning the 10K sprint. Dartmouth grad Stacey Wooley had five top-25 World Cup finishes last year, including a 12th at the World Championships in Slovakia. In Nagano, they’ll join biathletes from at least 30 countries, the most national teams in any winter Olympic sport.
A few years ago, after listening to Reynolds rhapsodize about the mind/body conundrum, I gave biathlon a spin myself at a public course in Beaver Creek. My rifle was not a .22 but an air-powered pellet rifle, the shooting distance was shorter, and I had to leave the gun behind while I skied, but otherwise this was the real deal. After skating a 1.5K loop on a hilly, silky track, I flopped down into the prone position and loaded a round. I wasn’t a bad shot as a kid, blasting tin cans in the desert with my dad. This was different.
My fingers fumbled, sweat dripped into my eyes, and my heart pounded a dent in the snow. I plinked all five disks, but it must have taken me 15 shots and at least four minutes. Back on the track, accelerating, I knew I had to slow down, think, find the balance, husband some bit of calm for the shooting. And then explode into furious skiing, again.
Around I went, adrenaline jerking on and off like a teenager new to the clutch. On one go ’round, I fired from the standing position. I settled my elbow onto my hip bone, breathed in a lungful of that long-ago peace in the desert. The gunsights danced like mercury, then settled on one black dessert plate after another. I shot clean, or close to it, and the euphoria launched me halfway around the next loop.