The National Guard Biathletes
Spanning 11,000 acres in Jericho, Bolton and Underhill, Camp Ethan Allen is a bustling place of training grounds and barracks, forests and trails. It is the home of the Army Mountain Warfare School, an infantry brigade combat team, an infantry battalion. As many as 20,000 members of the National Guard are stationed here each year, preparing to respond to both overseas conflicts and domestic crises.
The training site is a place of constant motion with Guard members working on marksmanship, rappelling and rock climbing while practicing mountain survival skills, land navigation, engineering, and first aid. There is one exception to all the hustle and bustle: the firing range used by the National Guard Biathlon Team.
Here, world-class ski racers come to a halt, center themselves, control their breathing and, in a moment of stillness, fire their rifles at targets. Then they grab their ski poles and head back out on the biathlon course.
SOLDIERS AND CONTENDERS
Under the supervision of head coach Air Force Tech Sgt. Travis Voyer and Staff Sergeant Drew Gelinas, the members of the team get world-class training in both marksmanship and skiing. Biathlon rifles are different from conventional weapons so the biathletes get special training beyond the normal marksmanship drills that other soldiers go through.
This winter, no fewer than five members of the Vermont National Guard Biathlon Team were competing for the opportunity to represent their country at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Three of them made the U.S. Olympic team. Leif Nordgren of Hinesburg and Sean Doherty of Center Conway, New Hampshire have competed in two prior Olympics, but for the third, Deedra Irwin, of Pulaski, Wisconsin this is her first Olympics.
They will join Vermonter Susan Dunklee and her fellow Craftsbury Green Racing Project teammates Clare Egan and Paul Brown in Beijing—meaning six of the eight members of the U.S Olympic biathlon team will have trained in Vermont. Two more members of the Vermont National Guard – Vasek Cervenka and Maxime Germaine – were contenders for a spot
For many, it’s no surprise the National Guard is sending three Olympians. The veteran of the group at 32, Nordgren, grew up in Colorado and began doing biathlon when he was 18. “I’d grown up cross-country skiing since I was two years old,” he said. “I didn’t start biathlon until 2007 but I basically followed my sister into the sport. I was already a decent skier when I started so that helped a lot.” Nordgren didn’t come from a family of hunters but he had no trouble using a rifle. “I picked up shooting fairly fast,” he said “and the rest is history.”
Now 26, Doherty grew up skiing in New Hampshire, initially competing in alpine skiing rather than Nordic. He was introduced to biathlon by a family friend in 2007 when he was 12. “I did some small races and then I started training with the junior national team’s coach,” he said. “I made some good progress and qualified to race in Europe and after that I was totally hooked.” In 2013, as a junior racer Doherty became the first athlete in US biathlon history to win three individual medals in world championship competition. Doherty also doesn’t come from a hunting background so the biathlon rifle was the first gun he had ever picked up.
The 29-year-old Irwin, who did her first biathlon in 2017, is the newest to the sport. “I didn’t start skiing until I was 16,” she said. At the time, it was a way for her to train for cross-country running, her first sport. “I didn’t realize biathlon was a competitive sport until I was 17 or 18 and made my first junior nationals,” she says. Irwin competed in college and subsequently skied cross-country for Sun Valley, Idaho’s Ski Education Foundation’s XC Gold team.
In the summer of 2017 when Irwin was considering retiring from Nordic skiing, a friend suggested she attend the US Biathlon Talent ID Camp. Irwin had virtually no experience with weapons. But she looked at that ignorance as an asset. “They didn’t have to fix any bad habits,” she says. Irwin started doing biathlon full time in September of 2017 and qualified for her first international competition the following February.
“The challenge of shooting really appealed to me,” she said. “Adding that extra bit of pressure was intriguing and it introduced me to the National Guard, which helped me continue to make a career as an athlete.”
The three biathletes enlisted in the Guard around the same time. Doherty was the first, joining in the fall of 2018. “I had trained at Camp Ethan Allen a lot,” he said. “The Guard was a way to further my career and have a support network.” Nordgren was 29 when he joined the Guard in 2019. He had recently gotten married and was thinking about starting a family. “I knew my sporting career was starting to die down,” he said. “The Guard was a way to get high level support for the remaining years of my biathlon career and have a good career after that.”
Irwin also joined the guard in 2019, admitting that biathlon was the main reason. “It was getting harder and harder to pay my student loans,” she said “and in the Guard I could make a living in biathlon.” The three have different Military Occupational Specialties (MOS). Nordgren is part of the aviation unit and hopes to become a pilot; Irwin is a human resource specialist; and Doherty works in carpentry and masonry.
Although all three put in their required two weeks of Guard training drills every year and as many weekends as they can. They recognize that their status as elite athletes means they miss some time with their units. All enjoy the time they spend on base but starting each November, they head to Europe for competitions.
“In the winter everything is geared toward biathlon,” Nordgren says. “We pick up our guard duties in March when we get back.” Both Irwin and Nordgren have taken the leadership training course which can help them achieve the rank of sergeant. Nordgren won the Vermont Guard’s Best Warrior Competition in 2020 and Irwin was the winner in 2021.
The competition has 20 separate events including marksmanship drills, obstacle courses, physical fitness challenges, medical evacuation tasks, a fast march over rough terrain with a heavy pack known as a ruck march, interviews, and written exams.
TRAINING FOR THE OLYMPICS
There are several different events that make up biathlon and Irwin is partial to the relay race. “When everyone can come together and have an amazing race it’s really incredible,” she said, noting that last year, the women’s team finished sixth at a World Cup relay race. “I’m very new and very much an amateur and the weak link on the team, but I’m getting better and I like how the relay race really unifies us.”
Doherty likes the pursuit but he also enjoys the relay where he normally does the first leg. “I like the head-to-head competition,” he said. Nordgren’s favorite event is the mass start. “It’s also the most exclusive race so I don’t always qualify,” he said, adding that he also enjoys the relays. “We’re an up and coming team and we’ve come a long way in the past few years,” Doherty said. “We’ve been strong before and we have a good chance this year to capitalize on that experience.”
Nordgren said that during the racing season, the athletes favor eating quick burning carbs, good proteins, and some good fats. “We’re training so much that you have to eat as much as you can,” he said. “We’re training four to six hours a day so you eat whatever is on site.” Irwin admits that in the past she has had a hard time staying fueled. “I’m an advocate for eating what you crave and eating when you’re hungry,” she said “but coffee and donuts are my guilty pleasure.” Doherty notes that it is also important to pay attention to getting enough fuel after a competition. Before competitions he generally has a light, simple meal, often including pasta.
Although it is Nordgren and Doherty’s third shot at the Olympics, the thrill is still there. Nordgren is hoping he can draw on the experience he’s gained since his first try in 2014. “Biathlon is a sport where you have to constantly be in a learning mindset,” he said. “Once you think you’ve made it, it can still come crashing down pretty quickly.”
Doherty is sad that there probably won’t be a live audience but adds that the Olympics are still a special event. “This is a sport that takes a long time to get the hang of,” he said. “Retirement age is later than other sports so it’s cool that I have time and hopefully a few more years.”
For Irwin, it’s reassuring to be training with two two-time Olympians. “It’s no pressure being with them,” she said “because they know what they are doing. It’s really easy to watch how they work and emulate them. It’s pretty incredible to be able to train with them.”
For Irwin, the passion of the sport and its fans is what drives her, but she also appreciates the fact that on a given day, anyone can be a winner. “Someone can come in and shoot clean or have their best ski day,” she said. “When you’re immersed in it, it’s a really cool experience to be part of the culture.”
Doherty describes his sport as an uncompromising challenge. “It’s two events that are quite opposing,” he said. “It’s a combination of skills that keeps me interested. The target doesn’t care who you are or how good you were yesterday or how much you trained in July. Shooting gives you more opportunities. You can win even if you’re 20th on the course.”
Nordgren refers to biathlon as a balancing act. “The winner isn’t necessarily the best skier or shooter,” he said. “I’m definitely not the best in either of those disciplines, but the way those two combine make it possible that anyone in the field, if everything lines up, can come out on top. That unknown aspect makes it exciting for me.”
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