Give it a Shot | Long a Home to Skiing and Shooting, It’s Logical That Biathlon is Growing in Vermont

Grafton Ponds Director Bill Salmon aims a laser rifle on the center's biathlon course. Photo by Josh Gleiner.

Last winter, at Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center, a bus full of children unloaded for a day of skiing. You could tell which kids were into it, charging ahead on their skis, and the kids who weren’t—shoulders slumped, head down, slugging through. One particular kid was getting ready to force himself through another day of skiing in the woods, and you could just read his thoughts: “What is the point of this?”

Not wanting to get in the way, I had been taking a break as the kids readied themselves for takeoff. As they began to depart, I picked up my laser rifle, and aimed at the targets in front of me. The boy who looked particularly annoyed by this skiing field trip was looking at me. I caught his gaze, and he looked at the gun. He opened his mouth, mouthing “whoa,” and looked up at me again. “How do you get to shoot guns?” he asked, sort of to me, sort of to whoever would listen.

The targets at the Grafton Ponds biathlon course. A light indicates whether one has successfully hit each target.

“Biathlon,” I said, “You race on skis and then you have to shoot at these targets.”

It was at that moment that I realized biathlon is the ultimate Vermont sport. Shooting guns and racing on skis. What’s not to love?

It turns out I’m not the only one who thinks so.

U.S. Biathlon Team Member and Barton native Susan Dunklee helps promote the sport in Vermont and beyond. She sees biathlon as a perfect way to embrace the cold, snowy winters, because biathlon builds on the strong Vermont traditions of skiing and hunting/shooting. Combined, the sport is a thrill.

“I love the challenge,” she said. “Biathlon is an incredibly difficult sport because it combines two completely different disciplines. During a race, you have to switch quickly from feeling hyped up on the skis to a very detached zen-like state of mind in order to shoot accurately. To have a perfect race, you must have both components come together on the same day. That is nearly impossible. I’m always hunting down that perfect race.”

The Grafton Pond biathlon course is used year-round, in running and biking races. Photo courtesy Grafton Ponds.

And perhaps because it’s a little-known sport, the egos aren’t there. Dunklee points out another reason why she loves biathlon: the people. “The sport attracts the adventurous, the determined, and the resilient. It’s a very fun group to hang out with, and we get to know each other pretty well. We also have generous coaches and volunteers who spend countless hours doing behind-the-scenes work like range maintenance and race organizing. I feel very lucky to be in such a community-oriented sport and supportive environment.”

Bill Salmon is director of Grafton Ponds, the stunning outdoor center in Windham County. His center hosts 250 to 300 school kids each week in winter, and biathlon has gotten kids interested in Nordic skiing. As an individual sport, Nordic skiing doesn’t have the same appeal as other sports kids grow up with. But shooting changes things.

“A lot of kids grow up hunting around here. As soon as they grab that rifle, they’re good ad shooting,” Salmon said. “And then they’re interested in skiing. Before … were they that interested in skiing?”

Grafton uses laser guns, which are completely safe and amazingly accurate. He says interest in the sport is up-and-coming, in part due to U.S. athletes placing better in the Olympics, and the related media coverage. You can see the effect in Vermont—biathlon training and events are on the rise.

Dunklee said in the past few years, biathlon has become more accessible, thanks to an increase in facilities and beginner clinics.

“Biathlon is becoming more of a year-round sport in our area, with running and cyclo-cross replacing the skiing in the summer,” Dunklee said. “One of the sport’s biggest challenges in the United States  is that not many people are familiar with it. In Europe, the sport is huge. Five million Germans will tune in to watch a weekday World Cup race live. However, if you tell someone in the states that you are a biathlete, they will likely say, ‘So you compete in running and swimming? That’s cool.’ However, that is beginning to change.”

Rules of the Game
Skiing biathlon involves any style of cross-country skiing—although most participants use the faster skate-skiing style—and rifle shooting at five targets. The course is made up of skiing interspersed with shooting, so your constantly elevated heart rate impacts your ability to aim. The goal is to have the fastest time. For each target missed, there is a penalty, and depending on the type of biathlon, that penalty could be skiing extra laps, added time, or some other punitive measure, such as doing pushups.

Professional biathletes must carry their gun at all times of the race, and the shooting is in one of two positions, standing or prone (laying front-side down). In some distances, skiers alternate standing and prone shooting, while in others, standing and prone positions are successive. In beginner-friendly biathlon events, a paintball gun is sometimes used, and participants don’t have to carry the gun while skiing.

Ready, Aim, Try It
If you’re looking for a new twist on Nordic skiing, why not try biathlon? Dunklee’s advice for a newbie: Have fun. “Go on long training hikes in the mountains. Make up games to see which of your friends can shoot the quickest and most accurately under pressure. Create an obstacle course to do between shooting stages. Wake up early and go hunting. Mingle with other cross-country skiers and jump into their races.”

Are you ready? You’ll find supportive learning environments around the state. We’ve compiled a list of some of the biathlon happening in Vermont.

Ethan Allen Biathlon Club
13 Ethan Allen Rd.
Learn to shoot a .22 in a safe and supportive environment. EABC has 12 adult and five youth rifles and hosts a winter series under the lights on six Thursday evenings in January and February (for racers ages 14 and older). Summer rollerski races. Events: Jericho is hosting the 2012 North American Biathlon Championships Jan. 13 to 15.

Craftsbury Outdoor Center
535 Lost Nation Rd.
Craftsbury offers biathlon training for its junior and Bill Koch League training; adult opportunities occasionally throughout the year, check for updates.

Grafton Ponds
783 Townshend Rd.
Grafton has a year-round biathlon course and holds skiing, biking, and running events, including a summer biathlon series. Ten laser guns are available for use Tuesday through Saturday, with advanced notice. Biathlon Fun Race Series is every Saturday at 10 a.m. this winter. $5, all abilities.
Events: Cross-country running biathlon at 10 a.m. on Dec. 3 (free!).

Mountain Top Inn & Resort
195 Mountain Top Rd.
Mountain Top Inn hosts a paintball biathlon Jan. 21–22.

Ole’s Cross-Country Center
2355 Airport Rd.
Adult paintball biathlons on Feb. 11 and March 17. Paintball biathlon has been part of kids programming, and Ole’s found that adults might even be more excited about paintball than the kids are!

Memphremagog Ski Touring Foundation in the Newport area hosts an annual Paintball Biathlon. January 2012, for details as they become available.