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Five Things You Might Not Know About Biathlon

You say you've been watching hours of coverage of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics?  Then you've probably run across biathlon, that seemingly odd hybrid of target shooting and cross-country skiing.

But as with many Winter Olympic sports, the once-every-four-years focus might have you in the dark as to exactly what's going on.  

Lake Effect connected with 2006 Olympic biathlete Carolyn Bramante (who competed as Carolyn Treacy) to glean more information about what makes biathlon an intriguing sport.  She says there are a quite a few things most Americans don't know about the sport she loves:

  1. History (thousands of years of it). Bramante points out that there are cave drawing in Norway depicting hunters on skis. More recently, the military in northern countries, such as Finland, have patrolled remote areas on skis.
  2. It's two sports in one.  Like Bramante, most biathletes come to the sport with a cross-country skiing background.  But some - like 2014 US biathlete Lanny Barnes - start as experts in marksmanship.
  3. Plus, there are two styles of shooting.  Competitors take multiple laps around the biathlon course.  Early in the race, participants needs to shoot at a 4.5 cm target while lying - prone - on their stomach. Towards the end of the race, competitors return to the range, and this time aim for an 11 cm target while standing up. Bramante says that order is one of the aspects that makes the sport especially challenging.  "By the end of the race, when your legs are most tired and the most lactic acid has built up, that's when you have to stand and shoot," she says.
  4. There are (believe it or not) American hotspots for biathlon.  Bramante grew up in northern Minnesota, but there are ranges and clubs in various parts of the country - places like northern New England, Montana, Utah, Alaska, and Lake Placid, New York.  There is even a biathlon club in southeastern Wisconsin.  "Not surprisingly," Bramante says, "they're kind of centered in places that reliably have a lot of snow."  
  5. Competitors don’t just buy a deer hunting rifle off the rack.  Biathletes use 22-caliber custom-made rifles - and the weapons allow for various adjustments to the stock and the trigger’s weight and phase. At the elite level, many dedicated participants have their guns custom made in Europe so the stock fits their body perfectly.  Bramante's gun was custom-made in the Czech Republic.  "It's just a beautiful piece of wood and artwork," she says.

Bramante hung up her Olympic rifle after the 2006 Winter Games - in which her relay team finished 15th - the highest-ever finish for Americans in biathlon.  She went on to finish college, and then medical school, and is now a resident in pediatrics and internal medicine at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.  Biathlon, she says, isn't necessarily a guaranteed conversation starter in her current life.  
"I usually automatically explain what the sport is," she says, "just assuming people don't know."  But she says that's beginning to change - each year she returns to northern Minnesota to help conduct a biathlon clinic.  

In Wisconsin, local biathletes will conduct their own get-to-know biathlon event this Sunday in Eagle.

Incidentally, the song that closes our segment is called "der Biathlon Song" or "Weltmeister", by the German group KellerSteff und Band.  There's a video, too:

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