It’s easy to forget that women’s biathlon has only been a championship sport for 30 years.
And coming from the U.S., it’s also sometimes tough to remember that women’s sports were disadvantaged across almost the entire athletic spectrum until just 10 years before that, when Title IX was enacted.
But for the women who were among the first Americans to try biathlon, a pre-Title IX world was their reality growing up. Pam Weiss, who went on to have a long career in biathlon including several World Championships appearances, remembers being frustrated in her athletic endeavors as a kid.
“There were NO sports other than cheerleading at my high school,” Weiss wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier last month. “I even tried to train with the boys’ track team, but was denied training there too.”
Her father was a ski patroller, so she got into alpine ski racing, one of the sports where she actually had a chance to train. Weiss enrolled at the University of Vermont and made the alpine team there, although she started as the lowest-ranking member of the team. One thing led to another, and her senior (1976) year she ran cross country. The idea was to be able to do both alpine and cross country races.
“But with all that training, I was suddenly the # 1 skier on the alpine team and never actually did any XC skiing on snow once the season began,” Weiss wrote.
She captained UVM to a third-place finish at NCAA’s instead, then moved to Jackson, Wyoming, where she started cross country skiing for real.
“During a poor snow winter I got into XC ski racing after I won the first race I ever entered by 6 minutes over kilometers,” Wiess wrote. “I was hooked!”
She dropped out of school, where she had been studying for her masters in botany, and decided to tackle ski racing full-time. She won the West Yellowstone 50 k the next year, and began getting help and coaching from the likes of Peter Ashley and Marty Hall.
Meanwhile, women’s biathlon was starting to be a thing in the United States – just barely. In 1977, Kari Swenson (whose story we told on Friday) joined a development team that the biathlon squad was setting up. Holly Beattie was among the first women to start training with the men’s team, and Julie Newnam soon joined as well. Up north in Canada, Karina Engelbrecht had also started doing biathlon.
“We had to move our 1980 Olympic trials to Valcartier, Quebec, and when we arrived the Canadians wanted to race in our trials, including Karina,” Art Stegen, the head coach of U.S. biathlon at the time, told FasterSkier. “At that point, we suggested to a few of the women that they could come to Valcartier… Holly Beattie came and the two raced in what might be considered the first race between U.S. and Canadian women.”
Weiss ran into the biathlon team when they were at a training camp in Jackson. As soon as she heard that women were starting to be included on the team, she asked if she could try it out.
“I was fascinated by the sport and the mental aspect of shooting,” Weiss wrote. “I heard through the grapevine that there was a training camp in 1980 or 1981 summer that women were being invited to at Squaw Valley. I found out who to contact and begged my invitation. This training camp was the beginnings of a woman’s biathlon team.”
“Attending that camp were Julie Newnam, Pam Weiss, Holly Beattie and Karina Englebrecht,” Stegen remembers. “We also extended the invitation to our regional coaches in Minnesota and Montana, John Durban and Matt Montagne. A group from Minnesota included Pam Nordheim, Patrice Jankowski and Rae Hoisve and from Montana came Keri Swenson and Diana Tihart.
“At first we were worried that U.S. Olympic Committee would not approve of using the facilities for women since no Olympic program existed for them,” Stegen continued. “However they never questioned and it wasn’t a issue. We had a great camp with the women and men and that really got the ball rolling.”
Learning the Ropes & Gaining Speed
As Swenson said in her interview, Weiss emphasized how much of an “interesting time” those first few years were: some of the women had absolutely no shooting background, and they also had varying levels of endurance training under their belts, although all had some innate talent.
“Most of the women had very little shooting background so there was a fair amount of time helping us with shooting basics,” Weiss explained. “Marie Alkire was hired as the shooting coach and she was instrumental in our shooting progress and a rare female coaching presence. Overall physical coaching was kind of hit or miss (no pun intended) and generally we had male biathlon ex-racers who weren’t always aware or trained as coaches.”
Weiss worked with the biathlon team for part of the year, and then would race on the marathon circuit for cross country skiing, where she was a sponsored athlete. There were still few competitions for women at that time, and once the men left for the World Cup in Europe, the women had no more competitions until National Championships in March.
So Weiss took advantage of being named to the cross country national team as well. In 1984, she got her first taste of really professional training.
“The biggest breakthrough I had in physical training was when I was named to the woman’s XC training camp in Boulder, Colorado, during the summer of 1984 I believe,” Weiss wrote. “Peter Ashley and Torbjorn Karlson were the coaches and I had some real structured training and training plans for the physical part of my training.”
Through both skiing and biathlon, she began to learn about the science behind their training. Weiss hadn’t started endurance sports until she was 24, in Jackson after graduating from UVM. After testing at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, she was told that her VO2Max needed to go up, but that the scientists weren’t sure whether such a thing was possible for an athlete in her late 20’s.
A year later, Weiss had improved her VO2Max by 20 percent. (note: that’s really impressive!)
“In those days very few women competed past their mid-twenties and there were no role models to suggest it was possible,” Weiss wrote. “Instead you were supposed to give up and attend to a career or more importantly a family!”
Instead of doing those things, Weiss was living on the cheap. She waitressed constantly, and also worked as a raft guide on the Snake River. The only way to make biathlon profitable was to join the National Guard, but Weiss wasn’t interested. She started her own hat company, Mountain Woolies, and knit ski hats on a knitting machine. In the winters, she would put all of her belongings in a storage unit, move out of her housing, and thus avoid paying rent.
“I also did many other part-time jobs to save up for the winter traveling and had many very generous friends that helped me out with places to stay,” she wrote. “It was a dream to be able to just train, rest and eat and not have to work so many hours. Our counter-parts in Europe certainly weren’t working in addition to training.”
And finally, that was an idea that actually meant something: her counterparts in Europe. In 1980, that had seemed inconceivable to Art Stegen.
“At the Olympic Games in Lake Placid I learned that the Czechs were also introducing women to biathlon,” he recalled. “However when I discussed it with some of the other coaches many responded as the Germans: with a laugh they said, ‘we don’t have enough women skiers, so why should we even consider biathlon?’”
But four years later women’s biathlon had advanced to a point where the women would finally have their own World Championships. Weiss wrote that she had been one of the top U.S. women in biathlon for the last two seasons, and had also just won the 20 k at cross country trials. But she got sick before biathlon trials and had poor performances. The coaches had a policy against the use of discretion, so she didn’t make the trip to the first women’s World Championships.
Hitting the Stage
The next year, Weiss got a chance to finally compete outside of the U.S. At those first World Championships, Beattie, Newnam, and Swenson had won a bronze medal in the relay. Improbably, the U.S. women were a force to be reckoned with.
“At the time, none of us were aware of where the level of international competition stood and really had no idea of how well the women might do,” Stegen explained. “At the time, our men were not as competitive as today, and I felt like the women would be in the same situation. I thought that the Norwegians and Russians would be the strongest simply due to their better skiing results.”
The bronze medal had been highly symbolic and generated some excitement for women’s biathlon. The team was growing and more college skiers were showing interest in the sport, making training and racing more competitive.
Weiss stayed near the top, though, and raced the leadoff leg of the women’s relay at World Championships.
“I came in 3rd and was chasing the Norwegians and the Russians while battling the Finns and Swedes,” Weiss recalled. “I distinctly remember the standing shooting leg where three of us were shot for shot and I somehow held it together to get ahead. I can still remember the crowd behind me while we were shooting. I have a newspaper picture from that at home.”
Overall, the atmosphere was completely different than anything Weiss had ever experienced.
“My recollections were mostly surrounding the pageantry of the big event and just how big the sport was in Europe,” Weiss wrote. “Crowds attending and watching the events and the scale of the Opening Ceremonies.”
With their success in the early years, the U.S. racers became something of celebrities, at least when they were out abroad.
“I think it was in 1987 when I was in the first seed that I was mobbed after the race for autographs!” she wrote. “Over there I was considered a hero and yet on the plane coming home in the USA I had to explain to my seatmate what the sport of biathlon was about.”
The women of biathlon were hoping strongly for an Olympics. It wasn’t happening.
“The women’s addition to the Olympic biathlon program was held up for some time by the Eastern block nations that didn’t want to have it until they felt confident that their athletes would have the best chances of winning,” Stegen opined.
So in 1988, instead of competing in a Games, Weiss and her competitors races in Canmore after the Olympics were over. It was bittersweet, but Weiss loved the course and won the race, calling it “her own personal Olympics.”
Weiss wanted to stick around and finally get to compete in the Olympics, but the next chance wouldn’t come until 1992. Feeling overtrained, she decided to step away from the national team and train on her own. During this time period, personal issues with the biathlon federation came to a head. Passionate about getting better opportunities and recognition for the women, she butted heads with some team leaders.
“Chauvinism was a whole different ballgame then,” Weiss wrote of the early days of women’s biathlon. “I was very involved in trying to open the doors for the women’s team. I was an athlete’s representative to the Board of Directors for a few years and probably created many future closed doors for myself for being an activist. Most of the board members were either former or still active military that were not quite prepared for women to be involved in this male-dominated sport.”
Weiss wrote that at age 33, some asked her to retire. She felt that this was unfair, as she still was improving athletically. But women’s biathlon was so young that there was no model for how long athletes should or should not stay in the sport. Swenson, for instance, had already retired so that she could go to veterinary school.
During her time training on her own, Weiss spent time with some female cross country skiers who provided a morale boost.
“There were two or three key skiers I got to know along my path and both of them were a big influence,” Weiss wrote. “The first was Alison Keisel (Spencer at the time) who spent a summer training in Jackson in the late 70’s. She was one of the first woman XC ski racers in the US and I was lucky to have her as a role model. Jennifer Caldwell lived with me one summer in Jackson and we trained together and also Kelly Milligan and I spent many a summer day doing long runs in the Tetons.”
She does not remember the biathlon coaching staff as being supportive after her break with the national team (“I’d be given a spot to zero at the edge of the range in some lumpy location, I was treated like an intruder and not someone who had contributed all they could to the sport”). Instead, she had Peter Ashley coach her from afar, and worked with Martin Hagen on shooting.
Things were going well in the fall of 1991 and Weiss seemed on track to make the Olympics.
“I placed top 3 in the races leading up to the try-outs,” Weiss wrote. “Then five days before the Olympic try-outs were to start, I was involved in a car crash when a car going out of control smashed into my car waiting at a light. My car was totalled and my body was left completely out of whack. There just wasn’t enough time unfortunately to recover.”
She finished out of the running and called it a career.
…. And happy times
But despite the politics, her uncanny ability to attract drama or just plain bad luck around the times of trials races, and her ultimate inability to get to the Olympics, Weiss has a lot of happy memories.
“[Swenson] had some nice comments on the team comaraderie which I would strongly echo for those early days,” Weiss wrote after reading the profile of Swenson. “The men’s team were extremely supportive for us and all of us early women helped each other out as it was attitude we all had.”
Women were extremely successful at that point; Pam Nordheim became the first woman to win a medal at the World Military Ski Championships while part of the National Guard, and Stegen returned to coaching after 1992, overseeing further success in military competitions. In the 1992 Games, Joan Smith Miller finished 14th, still the best result ever for a U.S. woman at the Olympics.
“In retrospect we were very naïve, but by not having much to base our expectations on we just were giving it all we had,” Weiss said.
And to Stegen, including women was a no-brainer of a way to better the sport as a whole in the United States.
“When the Chilean team was in the U.S. for some competition years later, they asked me how they might improve their program and I suggested to them that they recruit more women,” Stegen explained. “I told them that women had a better chance of success then their men and it would help grow their program and gain public support. For us, the growth and early success of the women was one of the most important things to have happened in the sport. They were also easily coachable and pleasant to have on the team.”
While Stegen was in many ways one of the military-type men that Weiss struggled with, she was quick to point out his enthusiasm for the women’s team and how far he brought the sport.
“I think he had a lot of energy towards managing the team,” Weiss wrote. “He put a lot of heart and soul into the team, which I’m not sure if it was always appreciated.”
So, Where Are They Now?
Stegen lives in upstate New York and has been on the U.S. Biathlon Association board of directors, although he plans to retire after this year.
Weiss now splits her time between Jackson Hole and New Zealand, where she runs the New Zealand Kayak School with her husband, Mick. Although she didn’t want to give up her sport to get a job and have kids, once she had retired on her own terms, she got an accounting degree. She also now has a son, Liam.
In 2002, she finally got to see women’s biathlon at the Olympics when she worked as a timer at the Salt Lake City Games.
“I enjoyed seeing many of the women who had just started the sport when I was retiring racing at the international level,” Weiss concluded. “The sport has obviously evolved but there were also some interesting discussions I had with women as to the continuing politics on the team. It was a joy to be around the sport again though… I often wish I had been able to give more from my experiences back to the athletes in the years after I retired. It was and probably still is one of the missing ingredients in the coaching for women in the sport.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.