Perhaps because no U.S. competitor in the biathlon has ever
finished higher than 14th at the Winter Olympics, most Americans
still think the term biathlete refers to a jock's sexual
preference. But even snow-savvy sports fans who know that
biathletes compete in an arcane event combining riflery and
cross-country skiing may not have been aware of last weekend's
national championships in Lake Placid, N.Y. Amid incongruously
balmy weather and on man-made snow that thawed into a pasty,
brown roux, 18 women competed for five remaining spots on the
U.S. team and the chance to race on the World Cup circuit in
Europe, where the biathlon is a hot--or at least
warmish--ticket. (The men's event had 42 entrants, five of whom
qualified for the national team.) The top American woman,
Dartmouth alumna Stacey Wooley, skipped the nationals. She had
already qualified for the World Cup and was competing in
"Women with attitude" is how national team member Cory Fritzel
describes the biathlon sisterhood. "When we visit Manhattan, we
keep our rifles by our beds."
"Don't say that!" says Ntala Skinner, who finished second in
Lake Placid. "Now we'll never get dates."
Women biathletes already have a modestly fearsome
reputation--you can hardly race around with a .22-caliber rifle
strapped to your back and expect to be thought of as dainty. Yet
not one Thelma or Louise competed in Lake Placid. Still, the big
guns of the sport are the big guns. In general, biathletes would
rather be crack shooters than schussers. During competition
they're penalized for every missed target. Skinner had the
fastest time in Friday's 15K event but hit three fewer targets
than winner Kristina Viljanen-Sabasteanski and finished second.
"You've got to stay steady," Skinner says of the difficult
transition from the heart-pounding intensity of skiing to the
instant calm of shooting. "Biathlon racing is like turning a
rabbit into stone and then back into a rabbit again," says
teammate Joan Smith. "Or running up four flights of stairs and
then threading a needle."
At Lake Placid the female runners and threaders ranged from age
22 to 29. A handful were married; none had kids. Many belonged
to the National Guard, which helps bankroll its biathletes.
Joining the national team is like signing up with the Green
Berets, except that sometimes you have to pay your own way to
battle. Coach Walter Pichler demands total commitment and
requests an eight-year enlistment. Most of the '94 team quit
after the Olympics, including one Joan Guetschow, who persevered
through two Olympics despite having lost her big toe to a lawn
mower. "Joan was trying to make a little extra cash," Fritzel
says. "She did it for the team."
The squad trains and races together 11 months a year. "The sad
part is that when we go on vacations, we often go with each
other," says Fritzel. But the sport has its consolations. "We
don't make much money in the biathlon," says Fritzel, "but we do
get more out of James Bond movies."
The only team member with a license to kill is Skinner, who was
born in Wyoming and has been a hunter since she was 13. "We all
prosper from Ntala's ability to shoot," says Fritzel. "She makes
a mean antelope fajita."
For all the attitude shown by members of the women's national
team, their favorite pastime is knitting. Five of the six have
formed a support group they call Knitters Anonymous. Skinner has
been known to suddenly put down her yarn, rise from her chair
and announce: "Hi, my name is Ntala, and I have a Pearl Jam."
That's biathlete talk for someone who purled when she should
To the American public, however, biathletes might as well have
been cable-stitching. Despite the pleasant 34[degree]
temperature, spectators at Saturday's women's 7.5K sprint barely
outnumbered the letters in Viljanen-Sabasteanski. At least it's
a long name.