It was originally posted in January 2014, but in light of Susan Dunklee’s silver medal in the mass start at 2017 World Championships, we thought we would revisit the last time the U.S. won a World Championships biathlon medal, back in 1984.
“I am so thrilled for Team USA,” Kari Swenson wrote in an email this week. “To have two individual world championship medals is historic. Susan Dunklee’s silver medal is inspiring and will create movement and motivation among young female biathletes in America. She’s in a position to elevate our development programs throughout the country to the next level. Her silver medal means that the USA will be taken seriously by international biathlon programs and fans. Susan and Lowell [Bailey] are now the faces of the USA Biathlon. They will be able to promote Biathlon nationally and in small local clubs. I hope that we can get both of them to travel the country to inspire up and coming biathletes. I am trilled to have Lowell committed to helping our local Bridger Biathlon program in Bozeman, Montana.
Going into the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the U.S. women’s ski team has a very real shot at a relay medal – either in the team sprint or the 4 x 5 k relay competition. That’s backed up by World Championships gold in the team sprint last season in Val di Fiemme, Italy, by Kikkan Randall and Jessie Diggins.
Before their win and Randall’s silver in the 2009 World Championships skate sprint, it had been nearly three decades since and American women’s team in the nordic sports world stood on a championship podium. In 1984, the biathlon team of Julie Newnam, Kari Swenson, and Holly Beattie won bronze in the relay at World Championships in Chamonix, France.
The results were comparable in many ways: it was a landmark moment, an astonishing accomplishment for a U.S. team that had never been expected to do much by the international establishment.
But both in Val di Fiemme and the upcoming Olympics, the favored U.S. women’s team might be a little more prepared for the big stage. After all, back in 1984, it was the very first World Championships female biathletes had ever had – and the first races in Europe for the members of the American team.
“We went over and that was our first-ever experience,” Swenson said in an interview last month. “We went into Chamonix cold, not knowing what our competition was. Maybe that was a good thing, not knowing. We had no idea where we would finish up.”
It had been a long road to Chamonix for Swenson, who started doing biathlon pretty much as soon as women were invited to join U.S. training camps back in 1977. You might not know it now, but biathlon was a male-only sport for far longer than many, in part because it was usually associated with the military.
Then a freshman in high school in Bozeman, Montana, Swenson had skied at U.S. junior nationals, where the biathlon team had set up a demonstration to try to attract interest from young skiers. The demo culminated in a fun race where biathlon team members helped the new skiers set up and shoot their rifles, aiming at balloons rather than targets. Swenson was hooked.
“They decided that they were thinking about starting a women’s development team, and would a couple of us be interested?” she recalled. “We were like, sure! We didn’t really know what that meant. So we started to get invited to the fall camp in West Yellowstone. All of us were skiers but we had to learn how to shoot, because none of us really knew how to handle a gun. It was an interesting time.”
For several years, Swenson and other women honed their shooting skills as they all also improved at skiing. There was no international circuit to speak of for women’s biathlon, so they competed domestically. Swenson finished high school and enrolled at Montana State University, where she also competed on the ski team.
Finally, in the 1983-1984 season, the women got their chance. The U.S. had been training women for seven years, and so, Swenson thought, had other countries. The problem had never been a lack of women interested in competing; it had been an unwillingness by others to allow them to do so.
“There was a lot of, I hate to say it, but male chauvinism, in this sport,” she said. “Because it involves shooting, and they didn’t think that women should be shooting rifles… I mean, Italy was way behind, just because of the male chauvinism aspect of it. Biathlon started way back in the military, so it was male-dominated because it was military based.”
But that season, a World Cup circuit was set up, although the Americans did not attend. They stayed home and trained until the end of February, when they headed to Chamonix for the World Championships.
“[The other teams] had been over there competing against each other all year, so they kind of knew each other,” Swenson said. “So we came in as dark horses. They had no idea who we were or how we would compete. I think we might have had a little bit of an edge there.”
The first race on the schedule was a 10 k individual competition with three shooting stages. With a single penalty, Swenson placed fifth out of the 35 competitors, landing just under a minute and a half behind the winner.
“Four Russians and then me,” Swenson laughed. “It was really quite interesting, exciting, and eye-opening to be over there and see how the athletes were actually involved. How many countries there were.”
After a 5 k sprint, where Swenson again led the U.S., this time placing 13th, it was time for the final event of the Championships: a relay. The Americans placed third, behind Russia and Norway.
Their experience was something akin to when the U.S. women’s ski team placed third in a World Cup relay in Gällivare, Sweden, in 2012. Those women will feel plenty familiar in Swenson’s description of what happened next.
“First of all, we couldn’t believe it that we actually won a medal, and nobody else could either!” she said. “All of the other competitors and coaches were coming up and saying congratulations and hugging us. It was a pretty big deal… To have the Russians come up and say ‘congratulations,’ it was just amazing because they were such a powerhouse.”
For Swenson, the World Championships opened up a whole new realm of sport. She was amazed at how popular biathlon was in Europe, and it energized her even more to keep racing.
“Competing in Europe was so different than competing here,” she marveled. “It’s an actual sport over there. Seeing all the people who would come out, it was an event. The grandstands were full of people cheering, and they’re all drinking their Schnapps or whatever, and it was just a festive atmosphere. And here you’re lucky just to have 15 or 20 people show up.”
Championships complete, the U.S. women’s biathlon team was born. Swenson and the other women went on to compete in not only World Championships, but the actual World Cup circuit as well during the next few seasons.
Swenson was temporarily derailed by tragedy as she was abducted by two men while out on a training run in Bozeman. She ultimately was escaped, but one of her rescuers was killed by her abductors during a rescue attempt, and Swenson herself had serious injuries after being shot through the lung. The event gained national media attention, although Swenson just wanted to put it behind her.
By that winter, she was back competing again, and soaking up more of the international competition experience. It was a heady time to be a woman in the world of biathlon.
Swenson remembers mostly positive things – like the community of women competing together on the international circuit.
“There was never any politics involved with biathlon,” she recalled. “It was almost like it wasn’t important. It was just an athletic event and we were all there to compete, trying to do our best and it wasn’t political. Everybody cheered for everybody, and nobody cared who won as long as everyone competed their best.”
Along the way, she chalked up the milestones that many World Cup racers keep track of: top tens, appearances in different foreign countries. As for many, one highlight was in Oslo, Norway.
“It’s this huge bowl for ski jumps,” she said, fondly recalling the atmosphere in the stadium. “The king was there! The king and queen were there, and I was just floored. I mean, talk about stress! How can I compete in front of all these people, and do halfway decent? I actually placed fourth, and I was just so excited to have placed so well at the Holmenkollen.”
On the other side of the spectrum, it was eye-opening to travel to East Germany after the Berlin Wall had fallen. Swenson remembers one very grey, depressing trip where she could still see fences and guard houses. She and her teammates were glad to head west when the races were over.
The main negative experience that Swenson and her teammates faced again and again was spectators who didn’t think that women should be doing the sport.
“The first year that we went over to Europe, we had a lot of older citizens that would come to our practices and our races and tell us that we should not be doing that,” she explained. “That it was just too hard on women. That women shouldn’t be skiing and carrying a rifle, that this was just too hard on women. And that it was not ladylike to be shooting rifles.”
That would be enough to get any athlete down – how hard is it to stay mentally focused and positive when you’re being told that you shouldn’t even be competing? But Swenson says that the U.S. women didn’t take it too seriously.
“It was hard, but at the same time, we just kind of laughed it off,” she said. “Like, ‘oh, women can have babies, and it’s okay to go through childbirth, but it’s not okay to put a rifle on your back and go skiing?’ We kind of thought it was funny. We nodded our head and skied on by. We were very nice to them, and they had their opinions, and it was okay.”
(When told that Magalena Neuner, a German woman, was the most popular athlete in biathlon for a number of years, Swenson practically cackled with glee: “Oh is that right! I love it!”)
It also helped that the men on her own team were considerably more open-minded. Because biathlon was a fringe sport in the U.S., the men’s team was quite small too, and all of the athletes banded together.
“They were very very supportive,” Swenson said of her male teammates. “They were a great help in getting it started. When we started we were very small, men and women, so we had a very close-knit and supportive group of people. We helped each other in all aspects, skiing, shooting, and just keeping a positive attitude no matter what.”
The two teams also trained together, which made everyone involved sharper and faster.
“The hardest part for the men, and I’m sure they would argue this point with me over and over, but that we could shoot as fast and as accurately as they could,” Swenson laughed. “Shooting is not a sport where you have to be big and strong. Shooting is all about accuracy, so the women’s team often outshot the men’s team. There was some contention there. We’d have shooting competitions, and often times we won.”
After a few years, though, Swenson decided to call it quits. She had graduated from Montana State and spent two years pursuing biathlon full-time. She still dreamed of going to the Olympics, but there was no Olympics in sight for women – after giving ladies their own World Championships, the biathlon establishment hadn’t taken any further steps towards equality.
Swenson had always wanted to go to veterinary school. She was afraid of waiting too long.
“I thought that I just couldn’t waste my time – I love biathlon, but I can’t just wait for the Olympics,” Swenson said. “So I retired in 1986 to go to veterinary school. The first Olympics for women’s biathlon wasn’t until 1992, so I thought it was good that I went on and did something with my life!”
She is now back in Bozeman, where she is a veterinarian and also owns horses. She says that she spend more time with her horses, often taking them to Yellowstone National Park, than she does with endurance sports.
“I’ve sort of lost touch,” she says of her current relationship with biathlon.
But she still exercises and stays in shape. She goes to the West Yellowstone Ski Festival, where it’s “like a reunion” with old friends and teammates. And she’s looking to be involved in a new biathlon club starting up in Bozeman.
“Here in Bozeman we had a very large number of skiers who went on to become skiers and biathletes on the national team,” she said. “But then it tapered off and we had this huge emergence of just nordic skiing here in Bozeman… We have a great range, a permanent range up at Bohart Ranch. I’m like, this is so silly we have a permanent range with metal targets, and we don’t use it! So we’re going to try to get a club started and get kids interested in the sport. It will be fun.”
Although Swenson hasn’t been involved in all of the planning meetings for the new club, she plans to be involved with coaching.
“I love to help kids,” she said. “I think it’s really fun because they have that inquisitiveness, and that energy. It’s really fun to watch a child enjoy something, and progress, and eventually reach their goals, whether it be shooting five out of five targets, or skiing a certain pace on a course. So I’m hoping to be involved in whatever capacity I can be.”
For young racers in Bozeman, that’s a lucky thing indeed. Although she has a different life now, Swenson remembers her days of competing at the very top of the sport with fond memories. The next generation of Montana biathletes might be able to look back on the sport with her same attitude. Hopefully, the current crop of U.S. Olympians will too.
“I still have my rifle,” Swenson says. “People laugh and ask why I still have it, and I say, ‘well it’s my baby! I can’t let it go!’ And I have my old skis with all the little stamps on them from my international competitions, and I have all my medals up. It’s still part of my life, definitely.”
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.