Shoot, Ski, Communicate
by U.S. Army Spc. Nathaniel Free
May 25, 2018
As the sun set on the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the sun was just beginning to rise on yet another Olympic sport, half a world away in Soldier Hollow, Utah—the very same location of the Winter Olympics 16 years before.
The staccato of gunshots echoes across powder-covered mountains as National Guard Soldiers and Airmen from 23 states pour through a winding, cross-country course, armed with custom rifles and Nordic skis. They climb mountains at an elevation equal to that of the notorious Hindu Kush in northern Afghanistan, and then fly down unforgiving slopes into a live-fire range.
Biathlon competitors representing the Kentucky Guard and California Guard engage grapefruit-sized targets from an offhand firing position during the Chief National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah on February 28, 2018. Each competitor must ski between 7.5 and 12 kilometers, while periodically stopping to engage targets ranging from the size of a quarter to the size of a grapefruit, at a distance of 50 meters. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Nathaniel Free, 128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
It’s the 2018 Chief of the National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships, hosted for the first time ever in Utah, home of the state’s trademarked “Greatest Snow on Earth.”
“Biathlon is a really strange sport,” said Capt. Barbara Blanke, a member of the Utah National Guard Team, and first place winner of the Women’s Master Class Sprint and Pursuit races. “It combines the rigors of cross-country skiing—a very demanding athletic event—with rifle-precision marksmanship.”
Biathletes ski between 7.5 and 12 kilometers during any given event, while periodically stopping to shoot at targets ranging from the size of a quarter to the size of a grapefruit, at a distance of 50 meters.
Like many Olympic sports, the origins of biathlon are rooted in warfare. From the snow-blanketed orchards of Lier, Norway, during the Napoleonic Wars, to our modern Army Mountain Warfare School in the Green Mountains of Jericho, Vt., skis and rifles have gone hand-in-hand.
A soldier representing Rhode Island at the 2018 Chief National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships tears away from the firing range in Soldier Hollow, Utahon February 28, 2018. Each competitor must ski between 7.5 and 12 kilometers, while periodically stopping to engage targets ranging from the size of a quarter to the size of a grapefruit, at a distance of 50 meters. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Nathaniel Free, 128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
“Every building block of resiliency is found in a biathlon race,” said Brig. Gen. Dallen Atack, assistant adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, during the opening ceremony of the biathlon race. “No amount of PowerPoint presentations, no amount of guest speakers will teach our Soldiers resiliency like going out and doing hard things—and that’s exactly what biathlon is.”
In 2013, the Army introduced the “Ready and Resilient” campaign, focusing on helping Soldiers develop physical and mental toughness.
“Today’s U.S. military is all about maintaining and building readiness,” said Maj. Gen. Steven A. Cray, adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard. “The biathlon program fits just perfectly into that. Shoot, move and communicate is what these athletes work on every day.”
The timeless infantry maxim of “shoot, move, and communicate” encompasses not just the essential skills for achieving battlefield supremacy, but also for competing in a biathlon race. Both Cray and Atack encouraged competitors to take these skills back to their home states and assist other Soldiers and Airmen in becoming ready and resilient.
“The small investment that we make to be able to put on events like this pays off across the force,” Cray said.
“The first time you hit the target and hear that sound, you’re addicted,” said Army Staff Sgt. Ty’Lene Puro, from the Utah Guard team. She will rely on her biathlon training during her upcoming deployment with the 65th Field Artillery Brigade in the coming months. “It’s helped my shooting and it’s helped by PT scores. The whole sport is about resilience.”
Puro has been competing in National Guard biathlon races since she returned home from her initial active-duty training. Like many others, the first time she put on Nordic skis was at her first competition.
“I’ve been at this a long time,” said First Sgt. Dan Westover, from the Vermont Guard team. “But there’s a big misconception among Guard units that biathlon is only for elite athletes or Olympians. We want every person we can get. The door isn’t closed. We’re willing to teach people how to do it.”
The Colorado Guard team crosses the finish line after completing the men's patrol race, during the Chief National Guard Bureau Biathlon in Soldier Hollow, Utah on March 1, 2018. The patrol race requires competitors to stick together and work as a team to achieve the best time. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Nathaniel Free, 128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)
Not only is the door open to current National Guard members to join a biathlon team, but it’s also the reason why many decide to serve. Spc. Travis Cooper, a member of the All-Guard Team and first-place winner in the Men’s open Class Sprint and Pursuit races, joined the Guard to be a biathlete.
“The biathlon has energized my career and motivated me to continue to work hard and learn new skills,” said Sgt. First Class Adam Schwartz, from the Alaska Guard team. “From a recruiting perspective, Alaska has high school, cross-country ski teams. It’s important to show our community the biathlon program.”
“This sport embodies everything that we look for in our Soldiers,” said Maj. Gen. Jefferson S. Burton, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, at the closing awards ceremony. “It’s endurance, it’s commitment, it’s leadership, and it’s marksmanship under pressure. Why would we not want to continue this program?”
The first Chief of the National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships was held in 1975, with only seven states participating. This year there were more than 23 states in attendance. Burton said he hopes to see the day when all 54 states and territories are participating in this event.
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