Olympic Games put winter’s mystery sport in the spotlight. In Washington, there are two places to try it.
Bryn Black had never even tried nordic skiing when she first tried biathlon, years after a college career as an alpine skier. But she had one advantage: Her Marine father taught her to shoot when she was a kid. “I’m not the fastest skier, but I’m a decent shot,” she said.
She fell in love with biathlon’s combination of all-out aerobic racing and target shooting. “It’s so much fun because of the instant gratification of knocking the target down when you’re totally out of breath,” she said. “And being able to strap that rifle back on and go skiing is exhilarating.”
To many Americans, biathlon is one of the Winter Olympics’ most mysterious sports. But for a dedicated group of enthusiasts in Washington, the Pyeongchang games will be the highlight in a larger push to raise the sport’s visibility here.
In its early days, “biathlon was a little bizarre,” said Bob Vallor, president of the Washington Biathlon Association, a group of about 75. “Military patrol,” based specifically on military maneuvers, was an Olympic sport until 1948, when “people were fed up with guns and wars and it wasn’t invited back,” he said. It was revived as biathlon in the 1960 games; women’s events were added in 1992.
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Biathlon is now the most widely watched winter sport in Europe. The European Broadcasting Union reported that at times during the 2017 world championships, 50 percent of everyone watching TV in Sweden and Finland was watching biathlon. About 140,000 people attended the event in person, a feat only NASCAR can match in the U.S.
No U.S. medalists
Biathlon took hold more slowly here, and it’s the only winter sport in which no American has ever won an Olympic medal. But the U.S. has made steady progress in recent years, and this year, two American athletes could be medal contenders.
Lowell Bailey, 36, finished first place in the individual 20K event at the 2017 world championships. Susan Dunklee, 31, won silver in the 12.5K mass start event there, becoming the first American woman to win an individual medal in a world championship.
While American biathletes have typically come from the established programs in the Northeast, interest is growing in the West. Montana is likely the next biathlon hot spot: After the Olympics, Bailey will head a much-heralded training program there.
Biathlon requires physical endurance and finesse as well as mental toughness. Athletes must ski as fast as they can over long distances on hilly terrain — which is hard enough — but they also pause to shoot at silver-dollar-sized targets 50 meters, or about 160 feet, away.
Conditions vary from race to race or even minute to minute. Competitors face shifting winds, falling snow or sleet, and changing temperatures, all of which can affect the mechanical workings of the rifle.
The stakes for hitting targets are high: For each shot missed, the competitor must ski an additional distance or have time added.
“Biathlon is an interesting sport in that you can be awesome one day and a flop the next,” Vallor said. “One result of that is that the people involved in it all have kind of a humble attitude. They’re all really approachable.”
Easy to try
It’s easy to get a taste of what biathlon is like in person: On most winter weekends, folks will be practicing their skills or competing at the biathlon range at Stevens Pass Nordic Center, about five miles east of the main ski resort. All you need to do is ski about 2.75 kilometers, or 1.7 miles, from the parking lot to reach the biathlon course.
The Methow Biathlon Association also has a range, 1.5 kilometers (a bit less than a mile) from the Mazama Corral trailhead.
Biathletes train year-round, and summer events are increasingly popular, partly because they don’t involve some of the logistical hurdles winter presents. Summer competitors run or even mountain bike between shooting sessions. “In the summer, if you can run, you can compete,” Vallor said.
The club has loaner rifles for use during events, and the only prerequisite for joining in is taking a one-time safety course, taught the morning of each race day. Safety is paramount: Rifles must be empty of ammunition except on the range. Magazines, each holding five rounds, are stored in racks in the rifle stock until the skier is facing a target.
About 30 people compete in any given WBA event. When they’re not racing, they’re volunteering to keep score, set up equipment and monitor races.
Like the Olympics
WBA races are similar to the Olympic events, though some amateur races involve different distances.
They include long or short (sprint) individual races as well as pursuit, in which racers start according to their time differences in a previous race.
Biathletes from Washington also travel to national and international events, and sometimes they do well. “We haven’t quite reached our goal yet of having a homegrown athlete in the Olympics,” Vallor said, but he’s hopeful.
Many amateurs take up biathlon as adults; most WBA regulars are in their 40s and 50s, but people compete into their 60s, and masters competitions are increasingly popular worldwide. “Just because you’re on the couch right now doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Black said.
If you’re starting late, take heart. Biathletes tend to have long careers. The winningest athlete in Winter Olympics history is Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, of Norway, who racked up the last two of his total 13 medals in Sochi at age 40. And he’s not done yet: He’s slated to compete in Pyeongchang, at age 44.
Try it / Watch it
• Washington Biathlon Association holds introductory clinics every January and May. Check the calendar on the WBA website for dates and locations: wabiathlon.org.
• Methow Valley Biathlon holds two “Try Biathlon” events each winter; the next one is Feb. 18 at Mazama Biathlon Range; $25 suggested donation: methowvalleynordic.com/event/try-biathlon-2/.
NBC plans coverage of 2018 Winter Games biathlon events Feb. 10-23. See the schedule at nbcolympics.com/tv-listings/biathlon.