The Wyoming National Guard is hosting the 2017 Western Regional Biathlon Competition at the Casper Biathlon Club on Casper Mountain, Jan. 10-14. A biathlon is a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship.
“It combines these two very separate disciplines,” said Maj. Rebecca Walsh, Wyoming National Guard biathlon coach. “You have the endurance, speed and stamina of cross country skiing with the precision of rifle marksmanship.”
Competitors are allowed to utilize all cross-country skiing techniques in the biathlon. Skis and ski poles are the only equipment that may be used to move along the designated course. Each biathlete carries a specialized .22-caliber rifle on their back for the marksmanship portion of the competition. A snow guard on the end of the barrel prevents snow from entering the rifle while the competitor is skiing.
Wyoming National Guard biathletes are joined in the regional competition by biathletes from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Montana, Colorado and South Dakota. Service members from the nine states in Casper will compete in two races this week.
Thursday, participants will compete in the sprint race, a 10-kilometer ski for men and 7.5 kilometers for women. Skiers will complete the distance by lapping the course three times with a rifle marksmanship section between each lap. The biathlete shoots five targets in the prone position by lying on the ground after the first loop and then five shots in a standing position after the second loop. For each target missed, competitors must ski a penalty loop of 150 meters before continuing. The target range shooting distance is 50 meters.
The second race, the pursuit race, will be Saturday. Biathletes starting time in this race is determined by their finishing time in the sprint race on Thursday. The fastest competitor from the previous race will start first with the second fastest finisher starting 5 seconds after and so on through the rest of the field. The distance is 12.5 kilometers for men and 10 kilometers for women. Competitors will ski five laps around the course with four stops to shoot. Again, five rounds per shoot, with two shoots in the prone position and other two fired while standing. Each missed target will again result in a penalty loop of 150 meters.
“You have the potential to ski up to 20 penalty loops in a pursuit race,” said Walsh. “So we are hoping for good shooting, especially for Team Wyoming.”
According to Capt. Kevin Elmer, the National Guard biathlon coordinator, the history of the biathlon dates back to the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939. Finnish soldiers, who used the mobility of skiing in the snow-covered forests of Finland to engage Soviet troops with precise marksmanship, left Finland after the war and joined the United States Army.
“They watched how the 10th Mountain Division was doing in snow mobility combat and told them they were doing it all wrong,” said Elmer. “They began teaching them the skiing techniques and better marksmanship techniques.”
After that, the skiing and rifle marksmanship developed into more specialized events with the first World Biathlon Championships held in 1958. Soldiers from the 10th Mountain represented their country in the event. The U.S. then introduced the modern form of biathlon into the Olympics at Squaw Valley in 1960. All the while, the U.S. Army maintained the Biathlon Training Center for military athletes at Fort Richardson, Alaska, from 1958 until 1973, before turning the biathlon mission over to the Vermont Army National Guard.
What is at stake this week? The opportunity to advance and be selected for the All-Guard Biathlon Team. The top-four finishers for both males and females from each state competing will advance to the Chief, National Guard Biathlon Competition in Jericho, Vermont, in March. The highest finishers at that match will be selected for the All-Guard Biathlon Team and the development team, with potential to qualify for international races.
The key to finishing well will be to do well at two very different sports. As a competitor and coach, Walsh says that is the most difficult part.
“Being able to put them together, get it to sync and have a good day shooting and have a good day skiing it’s just the hardest thing,” said Walsh. “But when it comes together and you have that perfect race, nothing is better.”