Right on target

Winter Sports Club's biathlon program growing in second year

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Molly Newman and Cameron Osteen stare intently down the barrels of their air rifles, quickly lining up their open peep sights with circular targets 10 meters away.

There is no time to waste. Biathlon shooting is about speed and precision. They pull their triggers. Both knock down the metal plate, indicating a perfect shot.

Then Newman and Osteen share short giggles as they get up from their prone position and put all their energy into pumping air back into rifles that are easily longer than their arms.

Not even teenagers, Newman and Osteen are two of the dozen or so young Nordic skiers who joined the recently developed Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club's biathlon program, an add-on to the club's established Nordic program.

Biathlon combines cross country skiing and rifle shooting. While it is one of the world's oldest sports, dating back to 3000 B.C. when hunters used arrows instead of rifles, it is relatively new to the Steamboat Winter Sports Club.

Until the creation of the biathlon program in 2003, the Winter Sports Club, formed in 1914, had never offered the sport before, Nordic director Todd Wilson said.

Planting seeds

In previous years, people expressed an interest in starting a biathlon program, but Wilson couldn't find any coaches.

Then Gary Osteen came forward last year with the desire to teach interested athletes, including his daughter Cameron, more about gun safety and proper shooting techniques. With Osteen handling the shooting, other coaches could focus exclusively on ski instruction.

"I've always thought biathlon would be a fun way to round out our Nordic program," Wilson said. "It's another opportunity, and the more opportunities we can offer kids, the more kids will participate in the Winter Sports Club for another reason. We're planting the seed and hope it grows."

With the program in its infancy, Osteen just wants the biathletes to enjoy the sport. The children involved are first- or second-year shooters, though most are experienced cross country skiers who practice four times a week or more.

Indoor shooting practice, on the other hand, takes place on alternating Mondays for less than two hours, in a vacant building near the corner of Yampa Avenue and 11th Street.

"The goal is to have kids out and have fun," Osteen said. "It's not too intense, and they can take it as far as they want to."

In two competitions this winter -- one at Howelsen Hill and one at Snow Mountain Ranch between Granby and Fraser -- the young biathletes had the opportunity to demonstrate their strong skiing abilities and ever-improving skill with the rifles.

In adult sprint races, competitors shoot .22-caliber rifles; athletes younger than 15 aren't allowed to handle that type of firearm, so a majority of the Winter Sports Club biathletes use air rifles.

In the Dec. 29 competition at Howelsen Hill, Brett Denney and Carter Miller, a former biathlon member, missed only six targets in 20 attempts, despite limited outdoor practice.

Each time a young athlete misses a target, he or she is required to ski a 150-meter penalty lap in addition to the standard 3-kilometer course. Adults ski 7.5 or 10 kilometers in sprint races.

Many of Steamboat's athletes are strong skiers, so they can make up time on penalty laps quickly, but Osteen continues to emphasize the importance of shooting.

"The only thing worse than a miss is a slow miss," he said. "It's that balance between taking time and taking too much time. You have to be so in tune with your sights, breathing and the gun. It's a whole new level of awareness."

Newman, a second-year biathlete, decided to give the sport a try because her friend Cameron Osteen enjoyed it, and because Newman's father thought it looked interesting.

Newman has been enrolled in the Winter Sports Club's Nordic program for four years, but she learned quickly how difficult shooting and skiing become when combined.

"It looks a lot easier than it is," Newman said. "I'd like to get pretty good because not many girls my age are in the sport."

Starting with a dream

National team and Olympic team dreams seem more realistic for young athletes like Newman.

Steamboat, a town of roughly 10,000 people, has sent 56 athletes to the Winter Olympics. Many of those are repeat qualifiers, bringing the total number of times Steamboat has been represented in the Winter Olympics to a staggering 95.

Here's another statistic: zero. It is the number of Olympic biathletes Steamboat has produced.

"I think it could be possible (to have an Olympian) in the future because of the program," Sarah MacCarthy, 16, said. "I'm kind of surprised we didn't have a program earlier. I think it could really go far in Steamboat."

MacCarthy is an up-and-coming cross country skier. She finished 13th in last year's Junior Olympics and was 15 seconds away from placing in the top 10 nationally.

MacCarthy is committed to skiing, practicing six days a week when she's not competing throughout the country, so she has limited time to focus on shooting. But she did practice on a target all summer and continues to get to the indoor range when possible.

"I enjoy biathlon because it adds another element to skiing, and I love skiing, so it's another challenge," she said. "I don't know what I want to do with it. ... I treat it as fun and something else to do."

However, MacCarthy has thought about where biathlon might take her; there are far fewer female biathletes than cross country skiers in the United States. She can ski. She just needs more time to shoot.

"To get better at biathlon I'd have to practice a lot more in the shooting field," MacCarthy said. "Shooting is hard on a .22 from 50 meters, especially when you are breathing hard. It takes a lot of concentration and practice."

Looking ahead

Now that Winter Sports Club's biathlon program is available, the club will have to see if interest remains strong.

If it does, an outdoor range will need to be built, particularly as the athletes age and transition from air rifles to .22-caliber rifles.

Ideally, the range would be set up near Howelsen Hill, allowing athletes to shoot and ski on the mountain's trails to simulate competition.

Gary Osteen said the Snow Mountain Ranch-based Colorado Biathlon Club, one of the most active in the nation, has extra targets and has expressed interest in helping set up a range in Steamboat.

"If we had it, we'd get a lot more adults interested, as well, and that would help groom kids," Osteen said.

Josh Thompson, a 1987 World Championship silver medallist and three-time Olympian, offered his support when the biathlon program started here a year ago. A resident of Lyons, Thompson sees a future for biathlon in Steamboat and hopes the program continues to grow.

Thompson, 40, agrees with the fun-first approach currently in place. Children should participate in a wide variety of sports while they are young, developing specific interests when they are ready, Thompson said.

And should a young biathlete in Steamboat decide to focus on the sport, Thompson believes, as MacCarthy does, that Steamboat is capable of producing elite competitors.

"Why not?" he asked. "All they need to have is somebody that wants to do it and does it. There is already a support mechanism. You have the snow, the ski trails, put in a range and attract some attention. All the ingredients are in Steamboat."

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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