By Staff Sgt. Tim Beery
128th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
Crisp mornings and sunny days set the tone for a week of fierce competition as soldier-athletes from 22 states convened at Utah’s famed Soldier Hollow Resort for the 2020 Chief National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships during the week of February 28 through March 5.
The normally quiet resort and town were abuzz with activity as competitors traversed winding trails, climbed relentless slopes on nordic skis, and flew down monolithic hills at breakneck speeds, while maintaining the physical strength and mental discipline to fire custom .22 rifles at targets ranging from the size of a quarter to that of a grapefruit from 50 meters away.
“Biathlon is a really strange sport,” said Maj. Barbara Blanke, a veteran-member of the Utah National Guard Team and top-place finisher in the Master Women’s 7.5 km sprint competition. “It combines the rigors of cross-country skiing—a very demanding athletic event—with rifle-precision marksmanship.”
Biathletes cross-country ski between 7.5 and 12 kilometers during any given event, while regularly climbing climbing hills with well over 25 feet in vertical rise, on average, and then immediately apply their marksmanship skills.
“Athletes will ski from the course and go directly into the target area and shoot targets with an elevated heart rate,” said Capt. Matt Hefner, the National Guard Bureau Sports Director of the Biathlon. “Sometimes those heart rates are between 160 and 170 beats per minute. That creates a stressed shoot, and they’re on skis while doing it.”
Ready and Resilient (R2) is the Army's strategy for strengthening individual and unit Personal Readiness by fostering a culture of trust though shared trial. This event for soldiers is inspired by that mantra and builds upon it through challenges and competition.
“As company commanders, we try to get our soldiers to shoot with an elevated heart rate and being exhausted,” said Hefner. “This sport forces that on them. It’s fantastic!.”
Historically, soldier-athletes who compete and train for the biathlon have demonstrated higher physical fitness and marksmanship scores than their counterparts. Hefner attributes that to the dedication required by this event .
“Those who compete do tend to have higher PT scores and are better marksmen than their fellow soldiers,” Hefner said.
As physical readiness proliferates while training in this grueling sport, another benefit laid before the competitors is their building relationships with teammates and opponents.
“You want to do well, but you want other people to do well too,” said Spec. Siena Ellingson, a member of the Minnesota National Guard team and first place finisher in both the women’s pursuit, open sprint, and team relay races. “I race most of the year, this race is different. The camaraderie is different in this setting. Having your teammate’s support, but also the support of the competing athletes and states is huge.”
“It’s easy to become addicted to this sport,” said Sgt. Maj. Shawn Blanke during the closing ceremony.
“We get together and do amazing things (at the biathlon).” he added. .
“I look out at this group and I see a bunch of tremendously fit marksmen and soldiers who serve their country and do amazing things.” continued Blanke.
“The thing I really look back on and admire are the people, and the associations I have made in the biathlon are people never would have met or interacted with in any situation. The biathlon has brought us together. It’s the people who make biathlon what it is. It’s the people who make this event as special as it is.”
The top ten females and males will move on to form the All-Guard team and will then compete at the U.S. National Races in Yellowstone this spring and during the summer months will compete in the Chilean Military Championships in Chile.
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