'Diabolical opposition sport' sees its 26th year

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— The first time Paul Yonekowa was introduced to the world's only Muzzleloading Ski Biathlon, he said he thought the participants were a little odd.

"I thought it was unusual that they were letting rifles to be shot within city limits," said Yonekowa of the event that features cross-country skiing and black-powder rifles. "I thought these guys were nuts."

One aspect that makes this event unique during the Winter Carnival captured Yonekowa's attention.

Some of the participants were dressed in 1800s-style clothing and were using ski equipment predating the 1940s.

"I have a love for history," said Yonekowa, who has been organizing the event for the past five years. "I was fascinated with the knives, the clothes and jewelry they were wearing."

The participants Yonekowa is referring to were competing in the traditional class. The biathlon is open to anyone 18 or older with a black-powder musket and some skis, but to compete in the traditional class, 1800s-style clothing and outdated skis are mandatory.

"The traditional class is much more colorful," he said. "It adds a flavor to the competition. We have some participants who ski on pine boards."

For others who prefer the traditional in-line cross-country skis and spandex outfits, they are welcome to compete in the open class.

Regardless of what class one decides to compete in, the course is the same for all participants.

Participants ski four times around a cross-country course that is laid out at the base of Howelsen Hill. Each time around, the racers stop and shoot at three targets, reloading the rifles after each shot.

The racers have 12 shots to hit nine targets, which are made of cookie dough and cut into shapes of animals or stars.

The shooting distance varies with the size of the targets. The average distance is 30 yards and the average target size is 3 inches.

Bill R. Gilbert, who is a founder of the event, is preparing for his 27th straight appearance in the competition. Gilbert is one of the few longtime participants who has competed in every biathlon.

"It is always something I look forward to because of the friends I have made across the country and overseas," said Gilbert, 57.

"The actual competition is a small part of it."

The biathlon was started after Gilbert and a couple of buddies from the Medicine Springs Skunk Skinners and Beaver Trappers Association were throwing back a few drinks at a local pub in 1974.

The group was talking about how hard it was to shoot their firearms over the winter when Gilbert got the idea for the biathlon close to closing.

"I'm astounded," Gilbert said of the competition's longevity. "I never thought in my wildest dreams it would last this long."

In the early years of the biathlon, the targets were charcoal briquettes wired on large pieces of cardboard.

"The competition has been an on-going development," Gilbert said.

Even after 26 years of competing in the biathlon, Gilbert has to shake his head when he thinks of the contrast the sport presents.

"I call it the diabolical opposition sport," he said. "The cross country skier is breathing hard. The muscles are tense.

"A sharp-shooter needs to be mentally relaxed. To stop and shoot is quite difficult."

Yonekowa has competed in the biathlon in the 12 years he has been involved in it and has always been impressed of the accuracy of the racers.

"It amazes me the accuracy some of these competitors have after they ski their guts out," said Yonekowa, who has not decided if he will compete in this year's biathlon. "It is fascinating to watch."

Yonekowa is expecting about 20 competitors for this year's biathlon that usually attracts people from across the country and the world.

"We have had participants from Germany and England," he said. "We also have had competitors from California and as far as Illinois."

Winners of the competition will receive medals, but all the competitors are eligible to win donated prizes in a drawing.

"Participants are encouraged to build or buy something for the trade table," Yonekowa said.

For this year's medals, Yonekowa is considering using new gold dollars.

"The dollar commemorates the year and adds a little historical flavor," he said.

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