By Capt. Rory Mele
128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
The ancient worship of Norse gods meets the modern warrior’s spirit of readiness at the 2020 National Guard Bureau Western Regional Biathlon Championship as 75 Soldier-athletes from eight different states compete for top honors at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center, in Midway, Utah, January 10-11, 2020.
This competitive historical sport fosters partnerships, develops participants and has the potential to grow into a force multiplier.
The biathlon, as recorded in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “is rooted in the skiing traditions of Scandinavia, where early inhabitants revered the Norse God Ullr as both the ski god and the hunting god.” Over the centuries, biathlon has transformed from a military training practice into an internationally recognized Olympic sport, attracting military and civilian competitors.
Two of Utah’s very own, Sgt. First Class Jeremy Teela and Col. Robert Duncan Douglass are former Olympians who competed in this event. The Army National Guard currently has five strong candidates preparing for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Soldiers already qualified include Pvt. First Class Leif Nordgren and Pvt. Sean Doherty from Vermont. Other candidates include Pvt. First Class Vaclav Cervenka from Vermont, Spc. Dedra Irwin from Vermont, and Spc. Travis Cooper from Alaska.
“The roots of biathlon evolved in the Norwegian army during the eighteenth century but the sport’s more immediate genesis stems from an obscure ski manual prepared for the Russian military in 1912,” according to William D. Frank, professor of Russian Imperial and Soviet history.
The Finnish ski troops during the Winter War, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland in November 1939 withstood mechanized Soviet forces for over three months until that conflict ended, according to Franks. The Soviets took note of Finland’s success and organized a massive ski mobilization, later formed into the Red Army ski battalion, and the Soviet skier turned into propaganda as a national defense icon.
“The Russians threw thousands of troops at the Finns and the Finns held them off with hit-and-run tactics using skis like ours,” said Capt. Mathew Hefner, National Guard Bureau National Biathlon Coordinator. “They hit their supplies, they hit their patrols, they hit everything and, though they were largely overwhelmed at first, the Finns were good at these hit-and-run tactics while skiing and shooting.”
In time, biathlon entered the international sporting arena but has just as much application in today’s national defense as it did in previous eras, making it the perfect team sport for National Guardsmen.
NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL PARTNERSHIPS
The Utah Army National Guard partnered with the Vermont National Guard to host and staff this competition in the beautiful mountains of Utah’s Wasatch Front where the 2002 Winter Olympics occurred. Utah is proud to host teams with civilian, Army, and Air National Guard participants from Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Oregon.
“This sport builds state cooperation with each state, assisting others to accomplish the mission,” said Sgt. First Class Lela Placy, NGB National Biathlon noncommissioned officer in charge. “We currently have three states assisting the Virgin Islands build a team because they feel it is important to participate in the biathlon program.”
Sgt. First Class Shawn Robison, 97th Aviation Troop Command, UTARNG, and Competition Chief, explained that biathlon extends beyond logistical and operational partnerships into actual interstate friendships and comradery, which was evident by the sportsmanship throughout the event.
The biathlon mission is owned by the Vermont National Guard and operates the Western, Eastern and National events, along with other races. According to the National Guard Biathlon Facebook page, it is a “joint force program available to Army and Air National Guard members throughout the US,” and more individuals are getting involved nationwide. The relationship also expands to international teams, as U.S. teams have trained and competed all over the world in places like Italy, Chile, and Morocco.
“Morocco asked us to come and teach them biathlon in some of the mountains in Morocco,” said Sgt. Maj. Shawn Blanke, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group operations Sgt. Maj. and long-time biathlete. “So, the 19th SFG put together a mission and trained Moroccan Commandos to use as a mechanism to reinforce and teach actual mountain survival and combat skills. Biathlon is a superb sport for that.”
Hefner explained that the international bonds and relationships that are built in the spirit of competition are unique. Competitors are able to put aside the reality that one day we might be fighting the very people who we are enjoying our time within these events.
“Our opportunity to partner nationally and internationally with other teams is awesome,” said Hefner, “because everyone is dedicated to each other and they see the value and the significance of this sport to each individual and to the National Guard.”
A TACTICAL INVESTMENT
Blanke didn’t mince words when he explained that the mission of the United States Armed Forces is to fight and win America’s wars and the Armed Forces has no other purpose for existence, when it comes down to it.
“In order to succeed in the modern battlefield, you have to be able to shoot, move, communicate and survive,” he said. “This is why biathlon is important, and why we should be doing it in the Army and Air National Guard, or even the Marines for that matter, because biathlon is the best mechanism that I know of to encourage and motivate National Guard Soldiers to own their tactical training.”
Like any sport or leisure pursuit, Blanke explained, biathlon comes with a price and if a participant can’t find funding through their organizations, they must provide their own way to compete. But this isn’t just about the individual. It has the potential, in a very real way, to become a tactical investment for the future of the Army National Guard, the Air National Guard and other Department of Defense organizations.
Besides creating partnerships and friendships, the Biathlon Program enhances the individual athletes and their teams, and it develops leaders.
Maj. Barbara Blanke, 640th RTI HHD Commander, UTARNG, and long-time biathlete, identified resiliency as the hallmark of not only this sport, but of the United States servicemember. She explained that the challenges that you find in biathlon are the same ones you face on the battlefield, other than enemy combatants. She expressed that our war fighters need this sport to regularly practice that level of resiliency before they take it to combat.
“On the course, and on the battlefield, things will not always go your way,” said Maj. Blanke. “You will have bad weather, you will have equipment malfunctions, you will have unforeseen setbacks and you will have to navigate those mentally and emotionally and do so before you get to the transitional shooting events or engage an enemy. After agonizing movements, the athlete and the Soldier must learn how to calm their breathing and focus their attention to engage targets and be prepared to move again.”
Sgt. Maj. Blanke, as someone who has seen many firefights in his 25 years in the Special Forces, validated Maj. Blanke’s explanation, with combat experiences.
“There have been multiple times when I have been moving and running at an uncomfortable pace and pushing myself out of my comfort zone and finding myself out of breath,” he said. Biathlon has helped me develop my combat mindset by anticipating how to effectively get from one point to another before having to engage my next targets, shooting accurately, I hope. There is a method that this sport teaches and reinforces as it introduces you to your personal limitations.”
He went on to explain that biathlon is a great war fighter training tool where you quickly learn to evaluate how your personal speed and movement has an impact on your body which effects your ability to hit targets. In biathlon, a decrease in ability will impact the race, but in combat, it can have disastrous consequences for the individual and their team, putting everyone at risk.
Beyond the development of the individual Soldier and their teams, biathlon refines and sharpens the military leader.
“This sport produces a lot of leaders,” said Placy, “and if you look at the participants, you have a lot of young specialists competing with colonels, lieutenant colonels, and sergeants major who directly mentor these younger athletes up through the ranks.”
The proven benefits of this sport are immediately seen by everyone who has the opportunity to attend and see the athletes in action. You can see them push past physical, mental, and emotional challenges to shoot at targets no bigger than a golf ball, and then continue on to complete their next lap.
“I think anybody who comes out and actually witnesses these events, gets it,” said Sgt. Maj. Blanke. “Anybody who is Soldier-minded and combat-minded immediately sees the value and wants to invest in it, which is one of the reasons we have been blessed with the frequent support from the state of Utah.”
There are many people who would participate, but don’t have the support or funding from their state, forcing them to do it on their own dime, Hefner explained. So, receiving necessary funds would allow more individuals from each state and branch to participate in a sport that really embodies the Army Values and augments the personal and professional development of the warfighter.
Such funding would improve esprit de corps and give Soldiers and Airmen applicable training opportunities outside of their regularly mandated assignments.
Biathlon’s transitional shooting elements play right into the challenges of the new rifle qualification and the new Army Combat Fitness Test being implemented in the Army and Reserve components. Robison did not hesitate to call biathlon a force multiplier for the National Guard, specifying that it helps with recruiting and retention efforts.
One competitor, Spec. Everett Darrow from Alaska, began biathlon when he was eight years old. He had previously considered joining the National Guard after high school and was approached by the National Guard coach while competing at the World Junior Trials event in Jericho Vermont to see if he wanted to compete professionally. Darrow took first place in both races at this event.
“Joining the National Guard looked like a really cool opportunity,” said Darrow. “Being on the National Guard biathlon team was an added bonus.”
CALL TO ACTION
Current and former biathletes collectively called on fellow service members to “come give it a try.”
“I always tell people, ‘it’s the toughest thing that you’ll love,’ said Maj. Blanke. “You will discover that it requires a lot of intelligence, it requires you to master a lot of things, it’s very interesting and it’s really cool.”
“While we have Olympic-level athletes, biathlon is for anyone who wants to give it a try,” said Sgt. First Class Nichole McElhaney, Vermont Biathlon Recruiter. “You don’t have to be good to give it a try. There are plenty of events to compete in for senior, master, and novice athletes.
The 2020 NGB Western Regional Biathlon Championship at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center held two races over two days: the Sprint and Pursuit.
The Sprint Race consisted of the men skiing 10-kilometers and women skiing seven-and-a-half-kilometers with participants shooting in both the standing and prone positions, hitting golf-ball sized targets at a range of 50 meters.
The Pursuit Races was 12-and-a-half-kilometers for men and 10kilometers for women, with competitors shooting multiple times. Each event ran for approximately two to three hours.
Congratulations to the winners in each event, and good job to all participants.
Top Mens Senior (under 35 years old) – Everett Darrow – AK
Top Mens Masters (over 35 years old)-Douglass Duncan- Utah
Top Mens Novice- Garrison Dahn- CO
Top Womens Senior- Christine Smith- ID
Top Womens Masters- Tracey Dooley- AK
Top Womens Novice- Brianna Dahm- CO
Mens PursuitTop Mens Senior- Everett Darrow- AK
Top Mens Masters- Douglass Duncan- Utah
Top Womens Senior- Samantha Wood- CA
Top Womens Master- Rebecca Doucette- UT
Top Womens Novice- Brianna Dahm - CO
The Utah National Guard Biathlon Teams will be defending their national title, at the Chief, National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championship in Feb. 28, 2020 when the national championship biathlon returns to Utah. Races at the national championship includes two longer team events; the Patrol and Relay Races.
Maj. Samantha Wood from California is new to the sport and has trained at a few venues but enjoyed participating at Utah’s Soldier Hollow Nordic Center.
“Soldier Hollow was an awesome course,” said Wood. “It is a world-class venue and the event was so well-run. There was a lot support from Utah as Utah Guardsmen running the course were cheering us on. It was a great community to compete in with a great vibe.”
Biathletes pushed themselves to the limit during the race and will have the opportunity to do so again on their return to Soldier Hollow next month for Nationals.
Eastern Region Championship results will be posted on Saturday.
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