He Shoots, He Skis
A would-be biathlete tries winter's weirdest sport.
Check out Slate's complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
At the starting line, I hung around a few guys who looked as ill-prepared as I was: folks on old-fashioned wooden skis, wearing cargo pants, sweatpants, and blue jeans. They were all marksmen who spent so much money on ammunition they didn't have any left over for ski equipment.
"How'd you do on the practice round?" I asked a fellow in jeans and a red cap with earflaps.
"I got four out of five," he said. "I do a lot of shooting. I'm trying to get more into skiing."
It was a staggered start, one skier every 30 seconds. As I struggled up the first hill, I was passed by a pair of schoolboys on skate skis. They seemed quite relaxed. One was talking about the last Harry Potter book he'd read.
By the time I reached the shooting station, I was sweaty and worn out. I flopped down on the mat, my skis splayed out behind me, and was handed a rifle. I tried to locate the first target through the scope. Bang. Missed. Bang. Missed again. Bang. Missed a third time. I wasn't breathing hard—I'd had plenty of time to slow down as I cruised into the station—but I was having trouble holding my weapon steady.
"Keep it centered," advised the club member supervising the shooting, as he tracked my wavering muzzle. "Get the target right in the center of the scope. Exhale about three-quarters of a breath."
Bang. I hit the fourth target, which reassured me that I wasn't playing a rigged carnival game. But I missed the fifth.
"Four laps!" the instructor ordered, shouting like an aggrieved gym coach.
I circled the ring of red cones four times, then headed back into the woods. When I finished, the guys in sweatpants, cargo pants, and jeans were waiting. They'd started behind me, and I hadn't seen them pass me on the trail, so they must have outshot me.
"I got three out of five," said sweatpants.
"I got four out of five," the guy in the red cap told me.
I couldn't shoot. I'd worn the wrong skis. That's an unfortunate combination in a biathlon race. The winning time was 16:16, by a skate skier in spandex who "shot clean," hitting all five targets. My time was 37:55. There was a bright side. I didn't finish last. (I finished next-to-last.) I also didn't shoot myself or anyone else. And during the Olympics, when I cheer on Tim Burke in his attempt to win a gold medal, I won't just be thinking, Thank God I never have to do that again. I'll also be thinking, Is there any athlete who can bring America together like a cross-country skier carrying a rifle? City boy and country boy. Gun lover and environmentalist. The biathlon's got a little something for all of us.
Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, to be released in May by Bloomsbury Press. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Tim Burke by Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images.