Tales of black bears and grizzlies are a birthright for Josh Thompson, the first American to have a shot at an Olympic medal in the biathlon, the exotic sport that combines cross-country skiing with marksmanship. Thompson's parents were—and still are—national park rangers. Take that cold March night when Josh, an only child, was three years old and he and his parents were snowed in near Old Faithful in Yellowstone. While his father, Peter, was reading a bedtime story, Josh noticed some curly brown fur rubbing against the cabin window. "That darn grizzly ripped the shingles off the roof, one by one," Thompson recalls. "It broke into our storage room. We had to blockade ourselves in the basement. I've never been so scared in my life."
Then there was that summer afternoon in Yosemite a few years later. From a kitchen window Josh's mother, Thea, saw a small black bear pawing through the garbage cans. She grabbed a pot and a broom and, madly clanging and banging, attempted to scare the bear away. The startled animal scampered into the woods, stopped, turned around and ran after Thea. "It must have thought, 'Whoa. Wait a minute. Why is this crazy lady chasing me?' " Thompson says. " 'After all, I am a bear!' "
The lesson of Thompson's bear tales: survival of the fittest. And in many other ways Thompson, the man, has been molded by the wilderness adventures of his youth. He has simple, nonmaterialistic desires, and he thrives on the remote and the solitary, whether that means living in the town of Gunnison, Colo., (pop. 6,300) or training for the biathlon, a sport in which only 400 Americans compete. At Calgary, biathletes—all male—will take part in three events: the 10-and 20-kilometer competitions, and the 4 x 7.5-km relay. In each event the Olympian skis for a distance, stops to fire several shots from a rifle at a target and then skis on. The tough part occurs when the skier, panting from his efforts, tries to hold still to fire accurately.
At 25, Thompson is unquestionably the best U.S. biathlete ever. Last February he got the silver medal in the 20-km race at the world championships, the highest finish for an American in international biathlon competition.
January 27, 1988
Thompson, who is 5'11" and 147 pounds, is fanatical when it comes to conditioning. He works out four to six hours a day and trains hard in as many as nine sports—Tae Kwon Do, kayaking, hiking, cycling, soccer, running, swimming, roller-skiing, weightlifting—at altitudes from 7,000 to 10,000 feet. He's also meticulous when it comes to keeping records. His training log is a 200-page collection of charts, graphs and comments. Workouts are logged by time spent and distance completed and then further broken down into categories that focus on endurance, strength, speed or aerobics.
The diary is full of heartfelt critiques. On May 17, 1987, for instance, he wrote: "Get enough rest. Be systematic and ruthless!!! Feel good about what I'm doing—all aspects. I know what I have to do for '88..." On April 11, 1987: "Shooting consistently well was not my trademark. Two misses were both puzzling, and I am furious over them."
"Josh is so far ahead of everyone else when it comes to training," says Sigvart Bjontegaard, the 30-year-old coach of the U.S. biathlon team and a three-time Norwegian national champion in the sport. "He has the cardiovascular fitness of the Norwegians and Finns; he varies his training like the Russians; and he's systematic like the East Germans. I wouldn't be surprised if he wins an Olympic medal."
When Josh was a child, cross-country skiing was only a means of traveling through the woods in the winter. By the time he was six, the Thompsons had relocated 13 times in Yellowstone, moving from one ranger station to another. "I got very bored," Josh says. "I read a lot. Mostly I was jealous of every kid who had a TV."
He went to a five-room schoolhouse while in Yellowstone and later attended a private, progressive boarding school, Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, near Aspen. There he signed up for such courses as trigonometry, French and solar energy. "I got my butt kicked academically and had to learn discipline," he says. "That's where I grew up."
Under coach Mark Clark, Thompson developed into a top junior cross-country skier. In 1980, while competing at the junior nationals in Devil's Thumb, Colo., he watched his first biathlon, then took up the sport with his usual intensity. Western State College of Colorado, a small liberal arts school in Gunnison, gave Thompson an athletic scholarship, and in 1982, as a junior, he led the Mountaineers to a national collegiate cross-country championship. But he was plotting his biathlon debut. In the winter of 1983, Western State coach Ken MacLennan set up targets and a special loop for Thompson at John Rozman's ranch, site of the Western State ski-training center. Thompson would go out to the ranch whenever he had time to ski the loop and work on his marksmanship. The intense work paid off in 1984, when he became the U.S. champion in the 10- and 20-km biathlons and made the Olympic team. In Sarajevo he finished 40th in the 10 km and anchored the American 4 x 7.5-km relay team that finished 11th.
Now Thompson and girlfriend Carolyn Bachstrum are channeling all their energies into his preparation for the Calgary Olympics. Neither has a full-time job, though Bachstrum teaches gymnastics in the afternoon. They share a one-bedroom shack in Gunnison, and their meals are variations on a theme: Oriental noodles au gratin; stir-fry noodles; scalloped noodles. "It doesn't feel like I'm making sacrifices," says Bachstrum. "After all, how many people have a chance to compete in the Olympics?"
Thompson plunges into other endeavors with the same ardor. One racing season he spent his spare time studying German, and in the last couple of years he has been learning Norwegian, his coach's native language. They have become good friends. Two summers ago Bjontegaard came to Gunnison. They ran, roller-skied and cycled together. At the end of one training session, Thompson put his arm around Bjontegaard and whispered a phrase in Norwegian that told of how far Josh had come: "Jeg vant ditt hjerte."
"It is a very old saying," Bjontegaard says with a smile. "It means 'I have won your heart."