Northern Wilds January 2019

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Duluth Biathlon Club on target DULUTH— Biathlon is the Olympic sport that combines cross-country skiing with rifle marksmanship. It’s a challenging combination: heart-pounding aerobic endurance matched with the quiet discipline of hitting a target. Like many winter sports, it’s heavily dependent on having a venue where athletes can train. In this case, the biathletes need cross-country ski trails paired with a rifle range. Duluth is one of few places with such a combination. At the Snowflake Nordic Center, John Graham manages the meticulously groomed ski trails that lead out to the biathlon range where the Duluth Biathlon Club trains. Eric Watson is entering his second winter leading the Duluth Biathlon Club. He got involved through the interest of his children. “I got involved with the club when my oldest daughter took up the sport at age 12,” Watson said via email. “I started helping out at practices and races, attended coaching workshops and training camps, and gradually picked up coaching along the way.”

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The sport is a hybrid of two disciplines and it’s challenging to merge the two. In sprint events, the athletes stop at the shooting range twice, once to shoot prone and a second time to shoot standing. They aim at five targets that are 50 meters away. The standing target is a black circle 4.5 inches in diameter. The sight is always visually the same to the athletes through the peep sights, but when shooting prone, they must hit the center 1.8 inches of the target. When the biathlete hits each target, it flips from black to white so athletes and spectators get immediate feedback. The skier must ski a penalty loop for each missed target. In longer events, the athletes stop to shoot four times (twice standing and twice prone) and get a time penalty for each miss instead of a penalty loop. There are several different formats of competition, but clearly shooting with the specially designed .22 caliber rifles is key.

Lucy Watson (Duluth Biathlon Club) coaches a Nordic North Stars athlete at a biathlon clinic for novices at Snowflake Nordic Center in Duluth. | ERIC WATSON Kara Salmela and Siiri Morse). I hope we can build more collaborations with other area Nordic sports groups.”

Watson described some of the shooting training that the club’s five athletes have done. “Kara Salmela has been running some of our shooting practices this summer and fall and helping refine technique. We have seen huge improvements in shooting speed as a result of her training.” Salmela is a biathlete who competed in the Nagano and Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games for the United States.

The Duluth Biathlon Club is a chapter of the statewide sport organization called Minnesota Biathlon. The athletes participate in races, camps, and clinics in other parts of the state that have facilities: Elk River, Nisswa, and Coleraine (at the Mt. Itasca Winter Sports Center). There are five biathlon races as part of the Minnesota Cup series this winter, one of which is in Duluth.

Because of the unique demands of the sport, it’s challenging to find time to train, even with a local venue. “The club used to have a dedicated year-round training program. That had some advantages. However, it also conflicted with other sports, which forced athletes to choose, for example, between belonging to a Nordic ski team and belonging to the biathlon club,” Watson said. “Now, we are trying to layer biathlon training on top of Nordic training. We’ve had great collaboration with Marshall School (coached by Dave Johnson) and Nordic North Stars (coached by

“We have a race at Snowflake on Sunday, March 3. As part of that event, we plan to have a novice race where coaches and athletes will give a short clinic and help novices of all ages try out the sport,” Watson said.

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Watson is clearly motivated about biathlon. He said, “I like the sport itself—it’s a wonderful combination of movement and stillness. It requires a lot of grit.”

“John Gould [former Duluth Biathlon Club leader] would always say, ‘Ya gotta be tough to be a biathlete.’ And it’s really true—it’s a tough sport. It’s also a relatively unknown sport, which means that you have to scrap for opportunities to train. There are no school teams like there are in hockey or track or even Nordic skiing. But at the same time, the smallness of the sport has a lot of advantages—you get to race alongside elite athletes (there are currently four Minnesota athletes on the U.S. national development teams). You get to spend lots of time outside, in all weather. And when you hit five targets— ping, ping, ping, ping, ping—that’s a hard feeling to beat.” For details about biathlon in Minnesota, visit minnesotabiathlon.com. For questions about the Duluth Biathlon Club, email Eric Watson at: duluthbiathlon@ gmail.com.—Eric Chandler

Biathlon is a unique sport but the challenges can be rewarding for those who participate. Watson sums it up this way:

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