The National Guard, consisting of Army Soldiers and Air Force Airmen, sponsors a biathlon program that is headquartered at the Camp Ethan Allen Training Site (CEATS) in Jericho, VT. The “mission” of the program is to represent the National Guard and the United States Armed Services in national and international biathlon competitions, to include World Cup and Olympic events, while simultaneously developing the highest levels of skiing and rifle marksmanship necessary to improve the combat ability of individual Airmen & Soldiers. NG Biathlon fields teams in five international military competitions each year, culminating each August with the South American ski championships in Portillo, Chile. The article that follows was written by team member Brian Olsen, a Soldier in the UT National Guard and a Torino Olympic biathlete.
“How do these races compare to others in which you have competed?” asked the Chilean radio announcer, by way of my translator and our team leader, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Soto.
Based in Los Andes, the radio station was doing its first-ever live broadcast from the Andes Mountains to publicize the 11th International Military Ski Championship (CIEM) being held in Portillo from August 10 to August 14. Eight of us huddled around a table and two microphones trying to explain what our sport was to a population even less informed about biathlon than the American people.
I looked around the table at my new friends from Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. “Whereas on the World Cup and at the Olympics,” I responded, “much of my time was spent sitting in hotels with my teammates preparing to do our best in competitions, while here all of the teams live together. The focus is on building friendships. The genuine spirit of competition is much more alive here likely because we are all facing the same difficulties: gasping for air at 9,500 feet, strong and gusty winds that take hold of our bullets, and adapting to life at a remote military post.”
The others agreed. While we didn’t all understand one another in spoken language – my high school Spanish has accumulated a decade of dust – in our eyes, we acknowledged the relationships we had built through common experience over the previous week.
The American team was fielded by the National Guard Sports office in Jericho, Vermont, with the eleven athletes and staff serving as airmen or soldiers in the Air or Army National Guard of six states: Alaska, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Vermont.
Why does the National Guard fund international biathlon teams? The answer ranges from historical to functional. Biathlon’s history is steeped in military tradition; in fact, the first biathlon race was a friendly match between Norwegian and Swedish border guards in the 1700s. Then and now, training and competing in the sport serves as good practice for military skills like physical fitness, marksmanship, discipline, and unit cohesion. Today, the international teams are sent to events in South America and Europe to build goodwill and friendship with foreign militaries.
“Chile has never been the spoilt child of fortune; like Saturday’s bairn in the nursery rhyme, she has had to work hard for her living.” – Julio Perez Canto, 1912
The trip began with all of the personnel arriving in Santiago, Chile on August 8 aboard over-night flights across the Equator. We were met by our Chilean Army liaison, Lieutenant Juan Valenzuela, who whisked us through customs. With rifles and body-bag sized ski bags, clearing customs in foreign lands is never an easy feat for the biathlete. It is even more difficult in Chile due to its ban on the importation of any sort of foodstuff.
Arriving on a weekend, the country we passed outside our van seemed eerily idle, as if the earthquake that had struck six months earlier had swallowed the population whole. Yet, neither the buildings nor the ground revealed any indication of the horror that shook the country on February 27.
From the outside perspective, it seemed that the competitions were in danger of cancellation due to the sheer destructive power of the earthquake, but as one officer would later relate to me, “These competitions have immense meaning to the Chilean Army, both to motivate our own soldiers and to show our guests our depth of hospitality and level of military competency.”
The route from the airport to Portillo underscores the rustic-nature of the country, especially in the mangled remains beside the road of a railway that once connected Santiago with Argentina, its foundation long-since swept away by avalanches and landslides. The final two-mile ascent contains twenty-nine switchbacks, a testament to Chilean perseverance. The climb would not be such an ordeal if it didn’t serve as the main trucking route between Santiago and Buenos Aires. If it had been a weekday, we could have been stuck on the road for hours weaving among exhaust-belching semi-trailer trucks waiting to cross the border at the top of the pass.
Immediately off of the Autopista Los Libertadores, the Chilean Mountain Warfare School’s mountain post is nestled in a barren meadow surrounded on three sides by 13,000-foot mountains. (The close proximity to the highway seemed to permit us witness to the entirety of trade between Argentina and Chile, but also left the snow and our lungs a tad sullied by petrochemicals.) This would be our home for the next ten days: an outpost of less than a dozen mostly concrete and corrugated blue metal buildings surrounded by Andesite boulders the size of elephants. A perilous fifteen minute walk up the highway lie Hotel Portillo and the Portillo Ski Resort, while fifteen miles away as the albatross flies stands Cerro Aconcagua, the tallest mountain outside the Himalaya at 22,841 feet.
In the past, the competition series in Portillo had included three races: a 20-km individual race with four shootings and one-minute penalties per missed shot, a 10-km sprint competition with 150-m penalty loops for each miss, and a 25-km patrol race, in which four teammates tackle a long course and stop to shoot only once at one target each. This year, adding to the difficulty presented by the altitude and gusty winds, the organizers added a 15-km mass start biathlon race of four shootings, but shortened the individual and patrol races due to low snow conditions. Without taking into consideration the variable penalty loops skied by competitors, those that completed all four competitions skied a total of 56-km in races alone – longer than the popular American Birkebeinar!
The U.S. team fared well. SSG Jesse Downs (VTARNG) won the mass start competition and placed second in the individual competition, 2LT Brian Olsen (UTARNG) placed third in the sprint competition, and the team of Capt Eric Nordgren (NDANG), Olsen, MSG Doug Bernard (UTARNG), and SSG Downs took third place in the 21-km patrol race. Relatively new to the sport, Maj Becky Scott (AKANG), 2LT Brandon Adams (UTARNG), PFC Mike Scharn (SDARNG), and PV2 Jake Dalberg (MNARNG) had individual bests.
Our Officer in Charge (OIC), LtCol Edward Soto (AKANG), bunked the tradition of tending only to formal duties by jumping into the action himself, participating in two of the competitions. The athletes were supported by head coach SSgt Travis Voyer (VTANG) and NCOIC SMSgt Scott Belyea (AKANG).
On the free days, the athletes and staff were graciously taken on several trips in the area. When no vehicles were available to transport the group on a cultural tour, liaison Lieutenant Valenzuela and his wife volunteered to drive them in their personal vehicles the four hours to the coastal town of Valparaiso to visit the Chilean Naval Headquarters and Museum. Another group went on a day-long backcountry tour across the lake below the Portillo Hotel (Laguna del Inca) to catch some turns with a guide from the Mountain Warfare School. Others stuck to the Portillo Ski Resort’s slopes, provided with equipment and lift tickets free of charge by our Chilean hosts.
The competitions came to a close with a ceremony full of pomp. Politicians and military leaders from the participating countries presented the medals. A military band played national anthems as flags were taken down. Inside, the formal lunch was preceded by exchanging gifts and the presentation of a Chilean dance from the north. Beer and wine flowed. Competitors and hosts reflected on the week’s experiences and said good bye until next year when the National Guard team will return to build upon these friendships and once again compete in the shadows of the Andes.
Please enjoy the following map as well:
A 2006 U.S. Olympian, Brian Olsen is a soldier in the Utah Army National Guard’s 204th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade and graduate student at the University of Utah. He maintains a website at www.always-forward.com.
Readers interested in learning more about the National Guard Biathlon Program can contact Major Andrew Parsons at firstname.lastname@example.org or at #(work)(802)899-7120.