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Wisconsin Biathlon group teaching about grueling Olympic sport

Posted at 1:31 PM, Feb 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-22 14:32:10-05

Biathlon is a sport created in the 1800s by hunters in Scandinavia and Russia but has transformed into one of the more difficult Olympic sports.

A hybrid of cross-country skiing and competitive shooting, its athletes need to be strong both physically and mentally.

"There is a lot of fitness in it," Mike Larsen, Director for Wisconsin Biathlon said. "Good balance, good endurance, good aerobic capacity and also, be a good shot."

Larsen got into Biathlon as a way to exercise and get outdoors during cold winter months. He had always been into more extreme and endurance sports but it was a new challenge for him. The dichotomy of sprinting on skis and coming to a complete halt for precise shooting can be tough. 

"It can be difficult," Larsen said. "Your heart rate is high and you're getting tired. You can really only use major muscle control when you're in this standing position. In prone, you have to use as much support as you can based on the ground and the characteristics of the gun itself."

Competitors are firing at a target the size of a compact disc, more than 160 feet away. When they're shooting from the prone position, the target is smaller, like the size of a golf ball. Larsen compared it to running 10 flights of stairs and immediately trying to thread the eye of a needle.

"Things can move around quite a bit," Larsen said. "You have to shoot in between breathing and even wait for your heart rate to settle down a bit if it's too high. You have to get your heart off the mat because your heart is going to mvoe your whole body because you've been working so hard."

"It's very hard," Lowell Kellogg, a biathlete said. "When you're at rest and you're practicing shooting, it's really not that hard. When you throw in the aspects of an elevated heart rate and skiing really hard, competitively, it can be very, very challenging. When you get the tight picture, it sometimes looks like the target is going around in circles. If you're really taxed and towards the end of the race, what the heck. Shoot the five and get going."

Huffing and puffing while trying to do something with precision is something Olympians do with relative ease. He says, they'll miss a target only a couple of times during a race. Most of the Olympians who are at the top of the list are from other countries overseas where the sport is heralded as one of the best. 

"It's a huge spectator sport like football would be here in the United States but it's in winter time in Europe," Larsen said. "It's become a big national sport. All the nations have their own teams. It's highly funded."

Here in the United States, it's more of a niche sport. The specialty skis, poles, high performance clothing and rifle can be a little costly. But it's a good test of fitness according to those who love it. 

"I enjoy the sport," Kellogg said. "It's a hobby and an excuse to get out in the winter. It's a good way for a person my age to get out in the winter and have some fun."

Participants race at different distances and will need to hit five targets during each lap. Depending on the race, they'll have to hit the targets while shooting from a standing and prone, or laying down, position. For each target they miss, they have to take a penalty lap in a small circle nearby. It's not a large distance but can be quite demoralizing when it happens. 
"You get very disappointed," Kellogg said. "You get chuckles from some other competitors. Oh, how many penalty loops you get today? It's a good rivalry, like, get out of my way!"

Those interested in trying out biathlon need to pass a gun safety course to be allowed to carry a rifle during a race and also become members of the United States Biathlon Association (USBA). McMiller Sports Center offers an introductory class on biathlon to get people started. Their next course is being held March 3, 2018. 

For more information, you can visit the Wisconsin Biathlon website