A would-be biathlete tries winter's weirdest sport.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 16 2010 11:58 AM

He Shoots, He Skis

A would-be biathlete tries winter's weirdest sport.

Tim Burke. Click image to expand.
Tim Burke

In the part of the Midwest where I come from, cross-country skiing and shooting off guns don't go together. They're practiced by different breeds of outdoorsman. Skiers go into the woods for solitude: quiet, powdery trails between long rows of pine trees. Hunters park their SUVs at the edge of the forest, blaze away at bucks, then brag about the kill over a 12-pack back at deer camp.

Maybe this explains why the biathlon—the skiing-and-shooting race that is hugely popular in Europe—has never caught on in the United States. It doesn't just combine two different athletic disciplines. It combines two cultures—nature boys and rednecks—that want nothing to do with each other here in America. Ted Nugent has never written a song about cross-country skiing.

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After American Johnny Spillane won a silver medal in the Nordic combined over the weekend, biathlon assumed a dubious honor: It is now the only sport in the Winter Games program that the United States has never medaled in. But one of the world's leading biathletes, shockingly, is an American: Tim Burke, a skier from New York's North Country who lists his hobbies as "fly fishing" and "hunting."

I've been a skier since I was 7 years old, but I've never fired a rifle more powerful than a BB gun. Yet in early February, inspired by Burke's holistic approach to fun in the woods, I drove up to Wisconsin for my first biathlon race.

Biathlon was invented in the 18th century as a training exercise for Norwegian ski troops but didn't gain a permanent spot in the Olympics until 1960. Burke's first event was  Saturday's 10-kilometer sprint. After a staggered start, the biathletes skied four laps of the course, stopping twice at the shooting range to fire five .22-caliber bullets at a target 50 meters away. For each miss, they circled a 150-meter penalty loop. Burke failed to gild America's biathlon heritage, finishing 47th after getting caught in a snowstorm with other late-starting competitors. Jeremy Teela was ninth, the best-ever Olympic finish for an American biathlete. They'll both race again in Tuesday's 12.5-kilometer pursuit.

In my first biathlon go-round, I came prepared for both the martial and athletic aspects of the sport. Sort of. Weeks before the event, I got tips from Rachel Steer, a member of the 2006 U.S. Olympic team. The real challenge in biathlon, Steer explained, is keeping a rifle steady while your heart is pounding at 150 beats per minute.

"They always joke about how biathlon is like running up a flight of stairs and trying to thread a needle," she said. "You calm yourself down through practice. There's a lot of mental training in what you do for the 30 or 45 seconds before you get to the range. You have to find a landmark and slow down—slow down your breathing and focus on shooting."

Since I don't own a rifle (or a needle and thread), I had to think outside the ammo box and the sewing kit in planning my training regimen. Amazingly, there's a biathlon game for the Wii—but I don't own a Wii, either. So one night, at a tavern, I practiced my shooting on the Big Buck Hunter video game, firing at animated deer with a plastic .22.

When I told Steer about my predicament, she suggested an exercise designed for the unarmed urbanite. "Next time you go skiing," she said, "ski hard for six minutes, then try to type a text message without auto-complete."

I tried a text-and-ski on my next practice run, in a forest preserve near my home in Chicago. Heart racing, I tore off my glove and attempted to type "texting and skiing is hard." For those critical 30 or 45 seconds, my thumb kept skipping past the right letter. It took me a full minute to finally settle down and finish the message. This was how I readied myself to handle a loaded weapon in a state of utter exhaustion. Hopefully I wouldn't shoot someone.

The McMiller Sports Center in Eagle, Wis., is designed for biathlon, with four shooting ranges and miles of groomed ski trails. As I walked up to the warming lodge to register, members of the local biathlon club, dressed in spandex unitards, were zipping around the trails on fast, short-bladed skate skis. A skinny human spider in a turquoise body stocking raced by with a rifle strapped to his back. He looked like a crewman from the USS Enterprise, exploring a snow-covered planet.

I'd brought along my long-bladed classic skis—useful for cutting tracks through fresh snow but much slower on groomed trails. I was also dressed in a turtleneck, a heavy Andean sweater, and a pair of nylon ski pants over waffle-iron long johns. I realized, right then, that I probably wasn't going to win this thing.

The Novice race consisted of two laps around a two-kilometer course, with a shooting station after the first circuit. As at the Olympics, we'd get a 150-meter penalty loop for each errant bullet. We were given a brief training session on the rifle range. Before it began, I watched a guy unpack a brand-new .22 from a zippered case. "I tried it last year with the club's rifles," he explained. "My dad just bought this on the Internet this week. It's Russian. It cost $1,450."

Lying prone on a plastic mat, we got five practice shots at a CD-size target 50 meters away. (Real biathletes have to hit a target the circumference of a silver dollar.) After missing all five, I was ready to race.

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.

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