I know, it’s been a long winter and even Nordic diehards are ready for some sunshine, song birds and green grass. But I can’t help one look back at the recent, remarkable ski season. The snow may have been late in arriving here in New England, but when it came, we were buried. Locations to the south and over near the Atlantic coast, which typically have decent skiing only a couple of weeks each winter, were grooming trails for months in old fashioned, deep powder conditions.
Partly due to coincidence, my winter was “bookended” by two biathlon events, which make for some interesting comparisons. The first was the Biathlon World Cup in early February, at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, ME. Since the January storms went well south of Aroostook County, the dedicated volunteers who hosted the event worked hard to cover the race course with man-made snow. By the time the European teams arrived, Mother Nature made a modest contribution as well so at least it looked like winter across the potato fields and into the forests of northern Maine.
Following the example of World Cup sites in Germany and Scandinavia, Presque Isle and Fort Kent a week later, scheduled community festivals around the biathlon races. There were the colorful opening ceremonies , dog sled demonstrations, sleigh rides, art exhibits, quilt shows, a hypnotist, a wide assortment of musical groups, and of course, fireworks. At the competition venue it was possible to watch the athletes practicing their marksmanship on the shooting range, while coaches and waxing technicians repeatedly rode skis through speed traps to determine the fastest wax.
Race days were a kaleidoscope of activity, color and sound. Upbeat music filled the stadium when the announcers weren’t alerting the spectators to developments during the race. Busloads of school children in colorful hats cheered for foreign athletes whose home countries they had studied. A jumbo television screen showed fans at the shooting range what was going on out on the ski course. The competitions were a blur of some of the World’s fastest Nordic skiers as well as some very exciting shoot outs on the range where several athletes arrived together and the most poised, accurate shooter left with a clean target while the others, perhaps rattled by the pressure, missed targets and circled the penalty loop.
The spectators were hoping to see an American on the podium, which wasn’t to be at this World Cup, but most of us came away encouraged by the grit of the U.S. athletes, whom we watched compete. In this intensely competitive sport where a millimeter on a target can mean the difference between a medal and the third page of the results, the American team is steadily gaining ground on the Europeans.
Late in March, I had the opportunity to travel to southern California to help at another biathlon race. Four years ago, Dr. Mike Karch, an orthopedic surgeon who has served as the physician for the U.S. Nordic Combined Team, organized an invitational biathlon event in his community of Mammoth Lakes. Mammoth Mountain, founded decades ago by Alpine skiing pioneer, Dave McCoy, is also noted for its mind-boggling snow pack. Just over the mountains, to the east of Yosemite, it is not unusual for Mammoth to have 20’ of snow on the ground in March! This year was especially bountiful, even by local standards, and several of the cabins at the Tamarack Lodge were accessed only by tunnels which had been carved deep into the drifts.
In the four years that Mike has hosted his biathlon event, it has grown to involve more than 200 competitors. There is a novice, youth category where the youngsters shoot laser rifles on an abbreviated range (to promote initial success in hitting the targets). This year, several members of the Wounded Warriors of the Eastern Sierra (a program devoted to helping disabled combat veterans rediscover the joy of sport) participated to the thunderous encouragement of the assembled spectators and other racers.
As frequently is the case in the Sierras, a blizzard blew in on Saturday, forcing a revision from biathlon races to cross country skiing events. Although the howling wind and thick snow made seeing the targets impossible, dozens of competitors skied through the storm, and will no doubt be talking about their experience for years. Sunday broke clear and brilliant. As if skiing fast and hitting the targets were not enough of a challenge, the course was located at 9,000’ above sea level. Dozens of more biathletes, from first time shooters to former Olympians, racing in waves of 20, experienced, first hand just how difficult it is to hit those targets, especially shooting with a high pulse in a gusty wind.
Vancouver Olympic Team members Winn Roberts and Lanny Barnes took top honors in the men’s and women’s elite events, edging out fellow national team members, Raleigh Goessling and Susan Dunklee. Additional favorites with the boisterous crowd of spectators included 1980 Olympic biathlon alumnus and longtime Farwest junior coach, Glen Jobe, frequent summer biathlon champion, Mark Shepard, and 1972 Olympic contender, Pat Armstrong. The enthusiastic fans also cheered loudly for the several medical professionals who were no doubt cajoled into participating by the charismatic Dr. Karch. One woman, obviously new to the sport, smiled philosophically as none of her targets fell, “Why does that damn penalty loop have to be right in front of the crowd, it’s so embarrassing!” I tried to reassure her that she would have plenty of company on the loop due to the altitude and the gusty winds.
It was a terrific event, especially considering the remarkable diversity of experience and ability represented by the participants. Thanks in large part to an energetic, local “Pied Piper,” winter biathlon is developing an enthusiastic following in the mountains of California. It’s safe to say that coast to coast, biathlon has arrived in the USA.
John Morton was a member of two Winter Olympic Biathlon teams before coaching the Dartmouth College ski team for 11 years. He is the founder of Morton Trails, www.mortontrails.com, a trail design consulting firm which, over the past two decades has conducted more than 130 projects across the nation, ranging from simple recreational loops for private landowners to internationally homologated competition venues for world caliber events.