At the Mount Van Hoevenberg Recreation Area on the edge of Lake Placid, N.Y., history was made last week. Beneath the blue spruce and white birch of the Adirondacks, Josh Thompson, a 24-year-old from Gunnison, Colo., won a silver medal in the 20-kilometer race of the Subaru Biathlon World Championships—the best finish ever for an American in any major international biathlon competition.
Frank-Peter Roetsch, 22, of Altenberg, East Germany, won Thursday's event in 1 hour, .40 seconds, but Thompson, 50.60 back, finished ahead of the rest of the dominant East Germans and perennially strong Soviets, West Germans, Norwegians and Finns to become one of America's top prospects for a medal at the Calgary Olympics.
"This is a new era for the biathlon and a new generation of American biathletes," says Nat Brown, a Nordic coach who last week served as the mad waxing scientist of the U.S. biathlon team. "In the old days of international competitions, when the U.S. would be on the last page of the result sheet, 18 minutes behind the top finishers, the officials joked that they wanted the Americans to start early in the race, so the timers could be home for dinner."
Says John Ruger, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, "We used to be international laughingstocks. I can remember the world championships in Minsk in 1982, where thousands of spectators yelled, 'U-S-Ah! Ha-ha-ha!' "
No longer. Further signs of amazing progress were evident on Saturday as Thompson and Willie Carow, 28, of Putney, Vt., also achieved a breakthrough in the 10-kilometer event by finishing 18th and 24th, respectively, the first time two Americans have placed in the top 25 in major competition. Both skied well but shot poorly in the blustery winds and near-zero temperatures.
"We used to look up to the Soviets and Eastern Europeans as unbeatable," Carow says. "They were demigods. Now we believe we can beat them. We know how close we all are."
The demands of the biathlon are contradictory. A competitor skis at a furious pace, with a rifle weighing as much as 11 pounds slung over his shoulder. Then, with racing heart (about 160 to 180 beats per minute), quivering leg muscles, heaving breath and no time to spare, he comes to a complete stop, aims and shoots, from alternating prone and standing positions, at a configuration of five black dots 50 meters away. Those dots have diameters of 115 millimeters (4.76 inches) for standing shots, 45 (1.76 inches) for prone shots. Each miss in the 20-kilometer race adds one minute to the competitor's final time; each miss in the 10-kilometer and relay events means the competitor must ski a 150-meter penalty loop.
As recently as 1984, the U.S. Biathlon Association operated on a budget of $60,000. It often could not afford to hire qualified coaches or to send a team to Europe to compete in World Cup events. The situation changed in 1985, thanks to the USBA's $1.3 million share of the surplus from the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. That windfall enabled the national team to buy some important resources, among them head coach Sigvart Bjontegaard.
Bjontegaard, 29, is a three-time Norwegian national champion with a degree in biathlon instruction from the Oslo Sport Institute. He is demanding of both his athletes and the USBA. For several weeks in September, the team trained on a glacier in Austria. Bjontegaard insisted the Americans compete on the full four-month-long World Cup circuit. And he brought two wax coaches, one masseur, two sports psychologists, a nutritionist, an orthopedic surgeon, a physical therapist and two biomechanics to the world championships. These three steps toward building a strong U.S. team would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Bjontegaard and assistant coach Tracy Lamb have also quietly gone to work on the team's psyche. They have created a close-knit group of highly intelligent, extremely motivated—but very different—people:
•Thompson, a 1984 Olympian, grew up in Yellowstone National Park, where his parents worked as park rangers. "When we got snowed in, the only way to get around was on skis or snowmobiles," he remembers. A nationally ranked distance runner while at Western State College in Gunnison, he earned a degree there in biology. He has taught himself German and Norwegian and often speaks to Bjontegaard in his coach's native language. He is intense and something of an introvert.
•Carow was raised in Putney, Vt., home of cross-country skiing gurus Bill Koch and Tim and John Caldwell. When Carow was three, his mother taught him to ski. She also signed him up for piano lessons. A music major at Dartmouth, he played French horn with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.
•Glen Eberle, 23, lives in McCall, Idaho. At Dartmouth he majored in history, with an emphasis on foreign policy. He's a woodworking fiend who crafted a guitar while in college. With a $5,000 U.S. Olympic Committee grant for equipment research, he designed the revolutionary lightweight wooden rifle stock the U.S. biathlon team uses.
•Raimond Dombrovskis, 24, is a Latvian immigrant who settled with his mother in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in 1979. Back then he spoke little English, but by 1984 he was proficient enough to begin studying civil engineering at the University of Alaska. During the past two summers he biked and rode a motorcycle across America "to experience my newfound freedom."
Thompson's silver medal even brought smiles to the faces of some members of the foreign contingent. Ruger was out on the steepest hill on Thursday afternoon, at the 7-and 16-kilometer marks, barking out times and target information to passing U.S. skiers. Because the U.S. team didn't have a powerful radio—they still can't afford some things—Ruger got his numbers from two Soviets standing next to him. When Thompson finished second, Ruger and the Soviets embraced and exchanged high fives.
Thompson celebrated the silver on Thursday night by returning to Highland House, the U.S. team headquarters, and placing his medalist's bouquet of red carnations, blue irises and purple asters in a mayonnaise jar on the dining room table. "I know I won't be the only one to win a medal," said the U.S.'s first biathlon hero. "It might be tomorrow. It might be years from now. Or it might be the next Olympics. You can expect only good things from this team."