Steamboat Springs The location couldn't be more ideal.
A town crazy about Nordic skiing and squeezed between the planet's two largest migratory elk herds seems a perfect setting to breed biathlon's next generation - hybrid athletes as handy at shooting rifles as they are comfortable sprinting on skate skis.
For six years, Steamboat Springs resident Gary Osteen has found plenty of junior athletes eager to be introduced to the world of competitive biathlon.
"I was talking with (Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Nordic program director) Todd Wilson about starting some kind of biathlon team or program, and I volunteered to coach," said Osteen, whose junior program is an auxiliary to the Winter Sports Club's cross-country skiing programs. "I was raised shooting and hunting so the sport intrigued me. The more you get into it, the more complex and detail-oriented it becomes."
Now Osteen's club team - the only competitive youth biathlon team of its kind in the state - has 11 junior athletes signed up. The skiers practice their skate technique with their respective age and ability classes, then join Osteen for shooting practices at the Routt County Rifle Club range and for a handful of events hosted by the Colorado Biathlon Club.
"During practice he'll help me sight, position where I lie down, trigger pulls and sight line-up technique," 12-year-old Evan Weinman said of Osteen.
Evan won his age division (a 3K sprint for boys and girls 11 or 12 years old) at a pair of January races at Snow Mountain Ranch outside of Fraser. He now is looking for his third consecutive age division state title when racers head back to the course for the Colorado State Championships on Feb. 9 and 10, also at Snow Mountain. The first day is a sprint event, typically a 10K with two shooting bouts. The first bout is at five silver dollar-sized targets, from the prone position at 50 meters. The second bout is at five cheeseburger-sized targets, standing from 50 meters. Each missed target results in a 150-meter penalty lap.
The second day is a 12.5K pursuit race that features four shooting bouts, in which the biathletes' starts are staggered from their sprint finishes.
Evan isn't worried about being prepared for state. He's been cutting down his range times and working on his transitions. His problem is that he doesn't have much competition to push him to improve.
"Last weekend, there were three other racers," Evan said of his slim division. "Sometimes I finish before they even let the other kids start in the pursuit."
Time and energy
Osteen is the first to recognize how far Colorado lags behind states like Minnesota, Maine and Alaska, which have ranges and development ski teams and, subsequently, produce the lion's share of U.S.A Biathlon World Cup and Winter Olympic Team members.
"We could hopefully raise the level so it's Aspen, Summit, Durango, and then it's teams versus teams and individuals versus individuals like Rocky Mountain Nordic events, so there's more energy to the races," Osteen said. "We have a great opportunity to become a (biathlon) hub of the West - we just need a range."
The missing piece is a groomed skate-ski trail with an adjacent firing range, which would allow biathletes to practice the all-important transition from huffing through a ski sprint to relaxing for a concentrated shot. Osteen gets excited talking about the possibilities of the sport's growth with an appropriate range in place, from hosting events to a potential program for Routt County's booming field of Masters-age skiers.
Even without a training venue for biathlon, county residents such as Tammie Delaney have gotten creative. Last year, through Hayden's after-school youth cross-country ski program, Tiger Gliders, Delaney offered six "shoot and ski" sessions and took a few skiers to some smaller Colorado Biathlon Club races. Delaney grooms a small track and sets up shooting targets on her property so her children, 12-year-old Liam and 10-year-old Millie, can practice. But it's hard for her small skiers to stay interested in biathlon events offered the same weekends as the popular RMN events that pull in junior skiers from across the region. But Delaney still sees promise in kids like her own, who grew up involved in 4H shooting programs.
"Hayden has great shooters and speed runners, so there's potential," Delaney said. "I think we could grow the interest, it's just a matter of time and energy."
But when it's time and energy spent perfecting cross-country skiing technique that forms the foundation of the sport, you can never rule out Steamboat-area athletes.
Osteen took Marty Smith - a local junior Olympic cross-country ski standout with no prior formal biathlon training - to an invitational U.S.A. Biathlon camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs at the end of last season. Smith caught the immediate attention of U.S.A. Biathlon Development Team coaches.
"He's got that positive attitude that can help in the pressure cooker of the range - not being afraid to miss," Osteen said of Smith, who has been posting strong results and narrowly missed a spot on the Junior National Team in his first year shooting.
Now under the wing of some of the country's top coaches, Smith, 20, is working to match his shooting with his elite level of skiing. Smith will compete Friday and Saturday in Jericho, Vt., in a NorAm Cup event, hoping to post a solid result and help put Steamboat on the national biathlon map.