As US biathlon team shoots for gold in Korea, sport’s popularity grows back home
Thursday, January 18, 2018
In the world of competitive shooting, few events are both as physically and mentally challenging as biathlon. Nevertheless, this winter sport combining cross-country skiing with precision rifle shooting remains relatively obscure in America, even as other forms of competitive shooting are growing in popularity.
Most of us tend to forget the sport exists until the Winter Olympics, where biathlon has been a contested sport since 1960, roll around every four years. But behind the scenes, in snowbound states from Maine to Minnesota to Alaska, interest and participation in the sport has been steadily progressing for the past decade.
That progression has produced results, most notably American Lowell Bailey's stunning victory in the prestigious Individual event at the Biathlon World Championships in Austria last February.
Biathlon is widely popular in Europe, where it originated more than a century ago as a training exercise for the Norwegian military. Multi-time biathlon world champions such as Norway's Ole Einar Bjørndalen and France's Martin Fourcade are household names on the same level as Tom Brady and LeBron James. Bailey defeated those two giants of biathlon in Austria last year, and fellow American Susan Dunklee took an unprecedented second place in the Mass Start event.
It marked the first time Americans have finished on the podium at the world championship level and bodes well for the upcoming Winter Olympics, which begin Feb. 8 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. After years of dedicated training, Bailey and Dunklee head a U.S. Olympic Biathlon Team that poses a genuine threat to upset the dominant Europeans.
Lowell Bailey (left) and Susan Dunklee (right) lead Team USA into the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
It will take everything they've got to pull off any kind of upset. Bailey admittedly skied the race of his life in Austria last year, pushing hard the entire 20 kilometers and clearing all 20 targets at the range, a perfect score. That's what it takes to win gold in the Olympics — the race of your life and a perfect score — and be assured, clearing all the targets isn't so easy when your heart rate is pushing upwards of 200 beats per minute.
"There's a lot of pressure to it," explained Zack Paul, a former member of the U.S. National Biathlon Team who now coaches at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Midway, Utah. "It's a combination of all-out exertion and all-out mental focus."
Soldier Hollow is located near the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics and offers customers the opportunity to participate in a number of winter sports on official Olympic courses, including biathlon.
The center offers three programs for biathlon: individual, corporate and a recently-developed introductory program for would-be biathletes ages 10 and up. Participants ski on an Olympic biathlon cross-county course and shoot on an official range using the Anschutz .22 caliber target rifles preferred by many professional biathletes.
"We begin with a safety briefing, and there's always one coach per rifle," Paul said.
Attendance for all the programs has been building gradually each season and is split equally between men and women, boys and girls. Paul estimates that about half of the attendees have "grown up shooting and understand the fundamentals." He particularly enjoys working with the other half who are new to shooting.
Clearing all the targets isn't so easy when your heart rate is pushing upwards of 200 beats per minute.
In terms of developing competitive biathletes, the importance of introducing youngsters to shooting at an early age can't be stressed enough.
Dunklee, 32, considered by many to be the best woman on the U.S. team, didn't start shooting until age 22. It took her five years of practice to get good enough to consistently finish in the top 20 at world events. She's going against competitors who've been shooting since they were toddlers.
Like most American biathletes, Dunklee came into the sport as a competitive cross-country skier first. She learned to shoot at the U.S. National Biathlon training center in Lake Placid, New York, site of the 1980 Winter Olympics. Similar to Soldier Hollow, Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid offers a number of biathlon training programs for the experienced and novice alike.
Although it once might have been the case, biathlon in America is no longer constrained to these former Winter Olympic venues. In practically every northern state that has consistent snowfall, there are statewide biathlon associations, local biathlon clubs in major cities and biathlon teams in local high schools.
New York state has a particularly active biathlon scene with hundreds of members, scores of clubs and dozens of regularly scheduled events throughout the winter season. Minnesota, Washington and Alaska also have active statewide biathlon associations.
Men must ski a total of 20 kilometers (12 miles); women ski 15 kilometers (9.3 miles).
The growing attraction to the sport in America isn't obvious at first glance. The public's perception of the average cross-country skier as granola-eating environmental activist doesn't necessarily match up well with its perception of gun enthusiasts, including those who participate in competitive shooting.
These perceptions cut both ways. Somewhat surprisingly, a random sampling of shooting clubs contacted for this story expressed little interest in biathlon among their membership.
"To the best of my knowledge, I think most of the competitors in our area may tune into and watch some of the Olympic shooting sports, but I'm not sure if they actively seek it," said Robert Russell of the Pathfinder Fish and Game Club in Fulton, New York. The club belongs to the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA), among other professional shooting associations.
"Those that are sports buffs to begin with will be more active in tuning in."
Russell suggested there still may be a rift between some professional shooting organizations and the Olympics international organization, which over the years has sometimes seemed reluctant to include more shooting sports in the Summer Olympics, even though there's a full array of shooting events nowadays.
"Years ago, IPSC/USPSA (International Practical Shooting Confederation/United States Practical Shooting Association) was actively trying to get our sport recognized in the Olympics and was shot down because of the human-type target," Russell said. "Europe even changed the shape of the target to look like a turtle, and it still was shot down. That did not set well."
While the club's members may not follow biathlon that closely, they have no qualms about shooting in the snow, as long as they don't have to wear skis.
"We will be shooting outside this Sunday with a 3-foot base of snow," he said. "We get the snow blowers out and clear some area and go for it. No movement for safety reasons."
The gun used is a .22 rimfire target rifle specially designed for biathlon, with the Anschutz being the preferred brand of choice by the vast majority of biathletes.
Meanwhile, out West, Neil Potts, a member of the Chico Rod and Gun Club in Chico, California, offered his own detailed observations about biathlon, its popularity (or lack thereof) and the skill required to participate in it.
"In recent years the shooting sports have languished due to the negative press surrounding the illicit use of firearms," said Potts, a former teacher who has more than 50 years experience with shooting and coaching shooters. "Recreational and competitive shooting are viewed by many as an anachronistic aberration at best, or an anti-social faux pas of high level at worst. Often youngsters that might have an interest in shooting are unable to participate due to social pressure from family or friends."
As a coach, Potts appreciates the level of training it takes to become a top-notch biathlete.
"The combining of two or more athletic endeavors poses a special challenge," he said. "The ability to perform separate, often-disparate tasks at a consistently high level. Achievement of the required performance level requires tremendous dedication, countless hours of training — and no small outlay of funds. In the case of a biathlete, top-notch ski equipment is spendy, and a biathlon rifle runs about $3K."
Potts agreed that prospective U.S. biathletes would benefit from learning to shoot at an earlier age, within limits that fall within the beginner biathlon courses offered at venues such as Soldier Hollow.
"Youngsters need to be old enough to be able to follow directions, have coordination and dexterity to handle the rifle safely, and be mature enough to absorb some rather advanced ideas about goals and individual performance," he said. "This varies from athlete to athlete. Some can start at eight or nine, others a bit older. Twelve is usually a pretty good starting point for an average youngster."
While he thinks any youngster can benefit from learning to shoot at the local gun club, the unique technical aspects of biathlon ultimately require years of specialized training using the same rifle on 50-meter ranges comporting to international biathlon standards. It also requires something many gun clubs will never have.
"Obviously, the skiing end of the equation presents some hurdles as well," Potts said. "One must live near snow. We have seen that the most accomplished U.S. biathletes are from the northeast or from the ski areas of the West. In point of fact, it might be just as difficult to take a long-time shooter (nonskier) and bring them up to a competitive level in biathlon."
Indeed, the majority of the 10-member U.S. Olympic Biathlon team participating in Pyeongchang is from the northeastern United States. Bailey, the current world champion in the Individual biathlon, calls Lake Placid his hometown. Dunklee hails from Vermont. Only Joanne Reid, who trains in Boulder, Colorado, comes from outside the region.
Expect that to change in future Olympics if the sport continues to catch on.
Some sense of just how exciting biathlon is can be gained from watching Bailey's gold medal performance in Austria last year.
The Individual is one of five events in biathlon, which also includes the Sprint, Pursuit, Mass Start, Relay and Mixed Relay (male and female couples compete against other couples) events. More information about those events can be found here, but the Individual is the original biathlon event on which the others are based.
In all the events, the gun used is the same, a .22 rimfire target rifle specially designed for biathlon, with the aforementioned Anschutz being the preferred brand of choice by the vast majority of biathletes. The rifle features individual five-bullet clips integrated into the stock and a straight-pull action for easy repeated firing. Extra single cartridges are also carried on board in the advent of a misfire or other malfunction.
In the Individual event, biathletes compete on a cross-country ski course set up as a loop around a shooting range in the center. Men must ski a total of 20 kilometers (12 miles); women ski 15 kilometers (9.3 miles). For the men, that's five laps around the course, during which they must pull into the shooting range four times. They must shoot twice from the prone position at five targets the size of a silver half-dollar from 50 meters distance, and twice from the standing position at five saucer-sized targets from the same distance.
For spectators, the shooting range is where the action is, and the course in Austria has a huge stadium section to accommodate them, as do many European biathlon venues. The five targets are set in line in a rack and are self-indicating, turning from black to white when hit, visible to both shooters and audience, the latter of which roars its approval or groans in disappointment with each hit and miss.
And miss they do. Top biathletes average between 80 percent and 90 percent at the range, which means the chances of missing are roughly 1 in 5. On average, the top pros spend about 30 seconds shooting during each stop at the range.
Sometimes they hurry up, in an effort to reduce the time, often at the expense of accuracy. Each miss is punished, either by forcing the shooter to ski a humiliating penalty lap inside the stadium area, or by having extra time added to his or her score, as was the case in Austria.
The Individual event features a staggered start, and with more than a 100 competitors separated by 30-second intervals, the field gets strung out quickly, making it difficult to sort out who's winning any particular race.
Biathletes must shoot twice from the prone position at five targets the size of a silver half-dollar from 50 meters distance, and twice from the standing position at five saucer-sized targets from the same distance.
During Bailey's winning performance in Austria, you could sense the excitement of the commentators and the crowd building after he shot clean on his second trip to the range. After he shot clean the third round, they realized they might be watching something special: No American had ever medaled in a world championship biathlon event.
With all the heavyweights having already completed the course, the tension was high has Bailey slid into the range for the final time, shooting from the standing position.
Holding his left arm tight to his rib cage to form a tripod in the classic biathlon standing pose, he cooly knocked down all five targets. Twenty-for-twenty, a perfect score. The commentators and the crowd went absolutely nuts — but Bailey still had 5 kilometers left to ski. He gutted it out and crossed the line 3 seconds faster than his nearest competitor.
No one was more stunned than Bailey himself.
Paul, the biathlon coach at Soldier Hollow in Utah, served as an alternate on the 2010 U.S. Olympic Biathlon Team and spent several seasons competing with the national team in Europe. In Europe, he recalled spectators showing up in the early morning hours, holding tailgate parties into the late afternoon. Soldier Hollow hopes to generate that same sort of enthusiasm when it hosts a round of the Biathlon World Cup in 2019, an event that Paul said would be officially announced in the coming weeks.
As far as Paul is concerned, things are looking up for biathlon in the United States. More funding has become available for Soldier Hollow's biathlon programs, some of which has gone to the purchase of the expensive Anschutz rifles.
Bailey and Dunklee's performances in last year's world championships have given America's biathlon community hope that 2018 will mark America's breakthrough year in Olympic biathlon.
"It's a very exciting time," Paul said.
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