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Ohio National Guard team members relish chance to vie in biathlon

U.S. Army Capt. Lauren Weber, Ohio National Guard Biathlon Team, loads her weapon during a biathlon sprint race at Camp Ethan Allen Training Site, Jericho, Vt., Jan. 27, 2018. Athletes from 24 states participated in the National Guard Eastern, Western, and Central regional biathlon competitions.

AVERY CUNNINGHAM/ARMY NATIONAL GUARD

By ALLISON WARD | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: February 23, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — National sports headlines last week asked readers: What is the only Winter Olympic sport in which the United States has never medaled?

The answer: the biathlon, the relatively obscure Nordic competition in which athletes navigate a cross-country course on skis while intermittently stopping to shoot a rifle at targets.

The two events are essentially polar opposites, combining the adrenaline rush of racing on skis and the cool collectedness needed to accurately discharge a firearm.

Even though a third-place Olympic finish or better has eluded American participants through the years, the lack of international success hasn't stopped others from pursuing the sport, including a small group of Ohioans.

Since the mid-1980s, the Ohio National Guard has fielded a team for regional and national meets, said Lt. Col. Dan Long, the squad captain.

"It combines high-extreme cardio exercise with marksmanship," said Long, a Granville resident, who responded nine years ago to a public-service announcement about biathlon tryouts. "It's what any war fighter needs to do — to move under stress in physical, austere environments. When you fire your weapon, you need to be dead-on.

"It's the optimal sport for a soldier."

That's how the U.S. Army and the National Guard have viewed the biathlon, too.

In 1973, the National Guard took over the military's biathlon program from the Army; it is currently based with the Vermont National Guard in Jericho, Vermont. Every year, between 20 and 25 states assemble teams, said Maj. Chris Fouracre, the guard's biathlon coordinator.

The guard funds teams, recruits soldiers and airmen, and trains members.

"It goes back to the central mission of the military: to operate — when exhausted — any piece of equipment on any terrain in the world, in any climate in the world," Fouracre said.

The biathlon originated in the snow-covered forests of Scandinavia, where people hunted and skied with rifles on their backs. Soldiers practiced the skill during the Great Scandinavian War in the early-18th century, Long said.

Modern biathlon competitions can be traced to the military in Norway in 1912. After several failed attempts to make the biathlon part of the Olympics, the sport made its debut in the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California. Members of the National Guard were part of the U.S. biathlon teams in every Olympics from 1988 to 2010.

As the 2018 Winter Olympics end this weekend in PyeongChang, South Korea, guard members are competing in the Chief of the National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships in Salt Lake City, on the same course used in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Events, consisting of different distances and styles, begin on Friday and will continue through March 2.

Four of the roughly 20 active members on the Ohio team will compete,, including Capt. Lauren Meyer, 28, of Akron.

Meyer, in her seventh year, last month placed first in the women's open class (ages 18 to 34) pursuit (in which skiers pursue the person in front of them) and second in the 7 1/2-kilometer sprint in the Eastern regional competition.

Growing up in Michigan, she had long enjoyed downhill skiing.

"They gave me a pair of roller skis (a hybrid of cross-country skis and skateboard), which is what they use to train in the summer," Meyer said of joining the team. "I picked it up right away, and when I hit the snow, it was kind of natural. They set up a range and we got to shoot.

"It was an immediate love."

Technique is a bit different from downhill skiing — "Actually going uphill took me for a loop," Meyer said — but the cross-country aspect suited Meyer, a physical-fitness and -endurance junkie. She, like other biathlon athletes, uses a skate ski, which is shorter and thinner, allowing skiers to pick their foot off the ground.

For her, shooting posed a greater challenge.

She doesn't have the opportunity to practice that sport as much, she said, and training herself to calm down after skiing has taken time.

"When I sprint, when I stop, I start walking and breath in my nose and out my mouth to control my breathing and get my heart rate down," Meyer said.

Adding to the challenge, competitors must ski a 150-meter penalty loop for each target missed. (For some events, a time penalty is simply added to the finishing time.)

"I tell people that it will be one of the hardest things they've ever done," said Staff Sgt. John Lonsberry, 56, a Coshocton resident who remains on the team more as a mentor than a participant.

"To be a good, relaxed shooter is hard enough, but then you come in (to the range) with your heart rate at 170-180 and you're trying to lie down and hit the target the size of a silver dollar. You shoot between breaths and heartbeats."

Shooters alternate between prone and standing positions, aiming at targets 160 feet away. For the prone position, targets measure 1.8 inches in diameter; for the standing position, 4.5 inches.

Ohio's unpredictable weather and lack of snow can complicate participation in the sport. For Buckeyes, though, the biathlon is more about physical fitness and camaraderie than about medals.

The team as a whole gathers only a few times a year to train, usually at Cleveland MetroParks, in Chapin Forest in Kirtland, Ohio, or in northern Michigan. Those places have the groomed trails necessary for skiing, Long said.

Training often takes place individually, Meyer said, which might mean getting on roller skis and "poling" around a parking lot and finding a range whenever possible.

"The past three years, I've planned a half marathon toward the end of the summer so when I hit the skis, I just worry about technique and don't have to worry about being out of shape," Meyer said.

The biathletes enjoy the obscurity of the sport and the reactions people have to it.

When Meyer left for a competition in January, her stepchildren assumed that a biathlon meant she would be running and biking.

"My husband showed them pictures of me," Meyer said. "I had to tell them, 'Yes, you actually ski with a rifle on your back.' A lot of people are intrigued."

As someone who loves the cold, snow and physical fitness, Long considers the sport ideal — not to mention unique.

"It's doing something a lot of people can't do, don't have the opportunity to do or couldn't imagine doing."

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U.S. Army Capt. Lauren Weber, Ohio National Guard Biathlon Team, competes in a sprint race at Camp Ethan Allen Training Site, Jericho, Vt., Jan. 26, 2018.
AVERY CUNNINGHAM/ARMY NATIONAL GUARD

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