Guns may close gap for Team USA biathlon as it seeks first Olympic medal


Midway • One thing the United States has a lot of is guns.

In fact, it has nearly 2.5 times as many as Yemen, the war-torn country with the second-most guns per capita in the world, according to a 2018 survey.

What it doesn’t have a surplus of is elite shooters who ski — or elite skiers who shoot. Whichever it is, the result is that the U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon — the event combining Nordic skiing with target shooting. Furthermore, it has just a single world championship title, from in 2017, and no World Cup wins in nearly 60 years of competition.

So don’t expect to hear “The Star Spangled Banner” blasting through the medals plaza at this weekend’s Biathlon World Cup at Soldier Hollow. The national anthem of Norway, which is led by the Boe brothers and holds the top five spots on the men’s circuit, or that of another European nation like France or Sweden is far more likely.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Top athletes from around the world converge at Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Midway, Utah, as they train for the weekend BWW IBU World Cup Biathlon on Wednesday, March 6, 2024.

But U.S. Biathlon, the sport’s national governing body, has a plan to close the gap. President and CEO Jack Gierhart said the organization, which relocated here last fall, expects to earn its first piece of Olympic hardware in Italy in 2026. Four years later, the bar is set at four more medals. That would position the U.S. perfectly for a breakout performance in 2034, when the Winter Games are expected to return to Salt Lake City and Soldier Hollow.

“That’s sort of the North Star way, in a way, but there’s so many elements that are going to support that,” Gierhart said. “If we get to 2030, we want to keep going, right? It has to be sustainable.”

And keeping it sustainable might involve tapping into the country’s comfort with guns.

CHASING OLYMPIC DREAMS

Deedra Irwin knew entering the 2022 Olympics in Beijing that she was perhaps the longest shot on a USA women’s squad that already had long odds at winning a biathlon medal. Like many American kids, she’d grown up playing soccer, swimming and running cross-country. She didn’t pick up cross-country skiing until she was a teenager. Not until she graduated college, four years before the Winter Games, did she try her steady hand at biathlon.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deedra Irwin, 7th place US finisher in the Women’s Individual Event at the Beijing 2002 Olympic Winter Games, is interviewed ahead of the BWW IBU World Cup Biathlon at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, on Wednesday, March 6, 2024.

Most of her European competition, meanwhile, have been on skis since they could walk. Instead of dreaming of competing in the NBA or WNBA, it’s not unusual for Norwegian kids to want nothing more than to be on the national biathlon team. That’s because European nations typically invest much more money in the sport than the U.S. does and it draws far larger crowds. More than 65,000 fans were expected to attend a World Cup event in Germany last month. This weekend’s World Cup at Soldier Hollow will likely draw a quarter of that number.

“A lot of the best athletes in all the European countries go into biathlon,” said Gerrit Garberich, Team Soldier Hollow’s head biathlon coach, “while in the U.S. your best athletes stick to running or football. They get into the more popular sports of your country and your culture.”

Biathlon isn’t just far down the list of the U.S.’s most popular sports, it’s almost completely off the radar. That’s why bringing awareness to the sport is one of the three pillars established in U.S. Biathlon’s 2030 Strategic Plan — the organization’s blueprint for bagging at least five Olympic medals over the next six years. The other two pillars are investing in a high-performance program that gives athletes the tools they need to excel and establishing a consistent pipeline of talent.

Part of the issue with exposure is that biathlon isn’t an NCAA sport. Not only does that mean fewer opportunities for people to see a race, it also puts a kink in the athlete pipeline. Since cross-country skiing is an NCAA scholarship sport, those who might otherwise gravitate toward biathlon often take that route instead.

“It’s tough to compete with that, right?” said Vincent Bonacci, a Salt Lake City native who graduated from West High and who led the U.S. men’s relay to a historic finish Friday. “Like, you’re the best 18-year-old skier in the country, you’re not going to think ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to give up a full ride [scholarship] and make it work.’ No, you’re going to go to college for four years and it’s free and it’s fun.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) US biathlete Vincent Bonacci, Salt Lake City native who began training at Soldier Hollow as a 6-year-old, jokes around with teammates ahead of the BWW IBU World Cup Biathlon at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, on Wednesday, March 6, 2024.

That was the case for Irwin, a Wisconsin native who competed in Nordic skiing at Michigan Tech. She planned to move on from her athletic career after graduation until someone put a rifle in her hand and steered her toward biathlon. Four years later, she skied a personal best in the 15-kilometer race in Beijing to place seventh — the best Olympic finish by an American biathlete in history.

Irwin hit 19 out of 20 shots in the race. Had she gotten them all, she would have taken silver. That, she said, is proof that a medal is within reach.

“I went in and I was definitely the least ranked to medal on our team. And I was able to just show up on that one day and everything came together and I was able to get one shot away from a medal,” the 31-year-old said. “So it’s one of those things where I think just me specifically having that result opened the door for everybody to just know that at any point it can happen for us.

“We put in the work. We know what we’re doing. We’re great skiers. We’re great shooters, and sometimes we just have to have that puzzle piece come together.”

After Beijing, though, Team USA lost two of its veteran racers in Clare Egan and Susan Dunklee. Now, it has to find new talent. It wouldn’t be surprising, Gierhart said, if it’s sighted on a shooting range.

“A lot of kids try it and they really like the shooting,” he said. “Especially, you talk to some of the parents who have daughters who have done it, and they feel empowered. There’s just something there.”

BUILDING TOWARD OLYMPIC SUCCESS

Just a few months before U.S. Biathlon’s move from Maine to Midway in September, Soldier Hollow began an impressive overhaul that should help with the high-performance program. Where once was little more than a two-story cinder-block shack now is an elegant competition hall. It will soon feature a team clubhouse, a gym with two treadmills wide enough for roller skiing and an elaborate ski tuning room.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Luke Bodensteiner, Soldier Hollow Nordic Center General Manager, left, and Jack Gierhart US Biathlon President & CEO, are interviewed ahead of the upcoming BMW IBU World Cup Biathlon competition at Soldier Hollow featuring top athletes from around the world on Wednesday, March 6, 2024.

Meanwhile, Gierhart believes the country’s success will boost awareness of biathlon. The International Biathlon Union’s strong interest in growing the sport in North America as a potential untapped revenue pool also helps.

So, of U.S. Biathlon’s three pillars for success, establishing a consistent pipeline of talent is one with the most wobble.

That’s where Americans’ interest in guns could come into play.

Gierhart acknowledged the difficulties of managing a shooting sport program in a country where the possession of firearms can be polarizing. He said he’s been in talks with potential sponsors only to see them vaporize after a mass shooting. But, he said he believes biathlon can be an educational resource for how to use guns safely.

“There is a negative side, but there’s also a huge part of this community that’s comfortable with guns and firearms,” Gierhart said. “They’re sort of the people in the middle that, like most of us, like to shoot and they like to hunt, right?

“We can tap into that. Because it’s a very patriotic group, and they want to see us succeed. They want to see Americans succeed and Team USA. So, I think that’s an opportunity for us from a visibility standpoint.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carlo Cavallaro, 10, of Salt Lake City gives his best shot while learning about the biathlon during Saturday’s Olympic Celebration in Park City on the Bob Wells Plaza, Feb. 12, 2022.

It is less clear whether that demographic also presents opportunities from a talent standpoint. It stands to reason that if a young athlete is already a sharpshooter, all they would need to do is learn how to ski.

Bonacci, the Utah native who learned to Nordic ski when he was 6, said though biathlon combines shooting and cross-country skiing, skill in one far outweighs skill in the other.

“You can miraculously hit all the targets,” he said, “but you can’t miraculously ski two minutes faster. So it’s way more important to be fast.”

Irwin agrees that being skilled with a hunting rifle, which has a heavier trigger and bigger recoil, doesn’t necessarily directly translate to biathlon. Seeing as one shot separated her from the first Olympic biathlon podium in American history, though, she might disagree with the notion that shooting deserves less respect than skiing in the sport.

It takes both to put an athlete on the podium.

“I don’t know if it’s gonna happen in ‘26, ‘30 or ‘34. But I think it’s really anytime,” she said. “I believe our team is very close to just popping out a medal any moment.”

They say to lean into your strengths. So as U.S. Biathlon seeks its first Olympic medals, tapping into the country’s gun culture just might give Team USA its best shot.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.



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