Right on Target - Biathlon’s Popularity on the Rise Thanks to Athletes, WOP Public Programs
Gillian Gowling gets almost as much of a kick out of seeing youngsters succeed in the Whistler Olympic Park (WOP) biathlon range as she does competing in the sport herself.
Gowling, 19, spent a day per week last summer working as an instructor in the public Experience Biathlon program, teaching park guests about the sport in which she hopes to realize her Olympic dreams.
Gowling, a member of the Whistler Nordic Development Centre (WNDC) biathlon team that trains at WOP summer and winter, said that while she enjoyed sharing her knowledge about biathlon with those of all ages, “My most memorable moments were working with kids who had never shot before. It was a big challenge for them because their parents are there, and they want to do well. It’s been really fun to see kids get excited and really into it.”
Biathlon, which combines skate-style cross-country skiing and marksmanship using a .22-calibre rifle, had its origins as a wintertime hunting endeavour in Scandinavia, and later a way for soldiers to patrol their countries’ borders. It was introduced as a full Olympic sport using the current format at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. “Ski fast, shoot straight” is the biathlete’s mantra. A biathlon competition’s outcome often hinges on athletes’ ability to calm their breathing and shoot accurately after 1.5 to 4 kilometres of heart-pounding ski racing. A missed shot results in a fixed penalty time, usually one minute added in an individual race, or a 150-metre penalty loop that must be skied before continuing in other competition formats.
Those who sign up for the winter Experience Biathlon (shooting only) or Discover Biathlon (skate-ski instruction and shooting, minimum age 13) won’t have to ski a penalty lap for every miss — unless they want to. The programs endeavour to help participants discover and appreciate the sport’s finer points in a fun, non-competitive setting. The aim of WOP’s program is to help park visitors to learn about the athleticism of a winter sport that, while popular in Europe, is new to most North Americans. While some Europeans who sign up participated in the sport as kids, the experience of North American guests “really varies,” said Claudia Viviani, an experienced instructor at WOP. “Most have watched it on TV during the Olympics, but some arrive and know nothing about biathlon.”
The number of people signing up for WOP biathlon programs has increased every year, Viviani said. For many newcomers to the sport, there’s often a lightbulb-going-on moment at some point during the lesson. “I’ve had people taking a lesson say they had to slow their skiing down when they come in to shoot, and sometimes they’re surprised by that,” she said. “It’s kind of fun when people notice that and then realize that that’s a big part of a biathlete’s success.”
Gowling and her WNDC teammates — 17 aspiring Canadian Olympians between the ages of 17 and 21 — are the highest-level biathletes training and competing in the Sea to Sky Corridor. They’ve helped inspire and mentor younger athletes, said Clay Whitman, biathlon director with the Sea to Sky Nordics, one of the local clubs that trains at WOP.
Before WOP was built for the 2010 Olympics, biathlon was non-existent locally. In its first year, Sea to Sky Nordics’ program attracted 13 athletes of all ages. Last winter that number was up to 75, Whitman said.
“It seems like as soon as people try it, they stick with it,” he said. “It has those two elements of the endurance skiing and the precision shooting. People can be drawn to either one of those, and the combination of the two just makes it an exciting sport to play as well as watch.”
Last winter, two WNDC members from the Sea to Sky — Benita Peiffer from Whistler and Larissa Black from Squamish — competed at the Junior World Championships in Estonia. Peiffer even posted an impressive 11th-place finish in the Youth individual competition.
“It’s really great for our young athletes to see the [WNDC] team, that if they work at it and stick with it, that could be them down the road,” Whitman said. “Having [WNDC athletes] make it to that level and then interact with our athletes, it just shows them what’s possible.”
Training alongside the high-performance athletes “has created a lot of motivation for the younger athletes,” said Etienne Letondeur, WNDC head coach.
According to Viviani, having athletes training at the range also boosts WOP’s public programs. “Basically, the athletes are demonstrating the points we’re trying to make even without meaning to,” she said. “There are all kinds of questions that they help us illustrate: Do you always shoot left to right, or what about lefthanded biathletes; or how long do they take to take their five shots? That’s really valuable for people to see.”
Experience and Discover Biathlon programs are offered Saturdays, Sundays and during the Christmas holidays.