Guns, Lycra, and Skinny Skis: Biathlons Catch on in the Inland Northwest

In a few months, Olympic enthusiasts everywhere will be glued to the TV to watch their fill of all things snow and ice. But in between bouts of figure skating and freestyle skiing, we might see a different sport edging into the prime-time coverage: biathlon. The combination of cross-country skiing and precision shooting, biathlon is the most-watched winter sport in Europe (yes, even more than hockey or downhill skiing), with over 900 million views during the last World Cup Season.

As an amateur Nordic skier, I’m naturally curious as to what has the Europeans so excited. Skiing plus guns… what’s the appeal? So I did what any legitimate scholar would do: I pulled up a few YouTube videos from the 2010 Vancouver Games. The more I watched, the more convinced I was that biathletes are the secret superheroes of the Winter Olympics. They’ve got it all: aerobic endurance, muscular speed, technical skill, race savvy, and precision under pressure. (As if cross-country skiing wasn’t challenging enough… after a hilly workout on the Mount Spokane ski trails, I can barely concentrate enough to untie my boots, much less hit a two-inch target at fifty meters. No sport since chess-boxing demands such a toll on your physical and mental abilities!)

But it gets better. In addition to toned legs and colorful lycra outfits, you’ve got the rifle. “All men, I swear, are genetically predisposed to shoot the gun,” laughed Betsy Devin-Smith, a masters biathlon champion and head coach of the Methow Biathlon Team. “All the little boys come to me and are just so excited to blast away!”  She should know: her son, Casey Smith, is on the short list to make the 2014 Olympic biathlon team.

For those of you skiers eager to grab your .22 and head up to Mount Spokane, there isn’t a biathlon range in Spokane yet. But lucky for us, there are several learn-to-biathlon events happening in the Pacific Northwest. “Once you’ve completed the safety clinic, you can compete,” explains Coach Devin-Smith. “There are not very many places in the US that offer a lot of opportunities to race, but Washington is lucky. We have a whole race series.” She’s referring specifically to the ten biathlon races held throughout the winter at Stevens Pass and in the Methow Valley, all of which are open to novice biathletes. If you don’t have your own gun, never fear; the Washington Biathlon Association has rifles available for novice use, and ammo is supplied to racers at cost.

But what if I’m not a very fast skier?  I asked ten-year-old Linnea Sunderman about her first biathlon race: “The best part is that if you’re steadier than the boys, you can beat them all, because all clean shots means no penalty laps!” The fastest skier might be blindingly near-sighted, the best marksman might be thirty pounds overweight, so the entire race order can get scrambled after every shooting bout. “It’s not like an ordinary race, because the race outcome is never obvious,” explains Haley Cooper-Scott, another skier-turned-biathlete. “It keeps the spectators constantly engaged, and demands psychological composure above and beyond that of a typical endurance event.”

It may be a few more seasons before a biathlon range is built in Spokane, but the enthusiasm is already growing, and there are events already established elsewhere in the Inland Northwest. With great snow, an active Nordic ski club, and one of the best trail systems in the Northwest, a biathlon range seems a natural progression for the Spokane skiing community. Coach Devin-Smith explains it best: “Biathlon adds that extra twist to cross-country skiing…to go from gut-busting exhaustion to absolute focus and precision. It’s the ultimate challenge.”//


“Come Try Biathlon Day,” is a family friendly even in Winthrop  Jan. 1 and Feb. 15: rifle safety, shooting instruction, and a short biathlon race (ages 9 and up).

The Washington Biathlon Association hosts a biathlon clinic at Stevens Pass the second weekend in Jan.: rifle safety, marksmanship, skiing strategy, and more.

Join a “Free Ski and Try it Biathlon Day” on Jan. 4. in West Yellowstone

Article by Jamie Redman

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