Steamboat athletes go to great lengths to compete in biathlon
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Two years ago, in the final Nordic race in Vail, Steamboat Springs skier Tristan Thrasher saw people shooting electric rifles. They were demonstrating the other half of biathlon, which combines Nordic skiing and rifle shooting.
“I had already been shooting, and it was one of my favorite sports, and I couldn’t find a place I could really enjoy it, and I’d been skiing, which was really fun for me,” Thrasher said. “It kind of brought that to my knowledge.”
Now 13, Thrasher won the sprint in the U15 age group at the U.S. Biathlon National Championships in Montana last weekend. He took second in the pursuit and super sprint events over the next two days.
He was joined by 17-year-old Steamboat skier Tinsley Wilkinson and Jon Schafer, who competed in the veteran men category.
Wilkinson had her best finish in the pursuit event Saturday, taking third in the youth women category.
“Shooting that day was really good. I shot clean (no misses) on one of my bouts,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson got into the sport three years ago after she watched a biathlon event at Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby. She isn’t sure where the sport will take her, but Thrasher’s already got his sights on the Olympics.
“I don’t think it’s too young to have a level of intensity. If you look nationally or even just the Nordic side of it, this is about when youth really start to focus in and narrow their focus from many sports down to one or two,” said Tristan’s father, TJ Thrasher. “He might be a little bit ahead of the curve, and we don’t want to push too hard. When he’s showing enthusiasm, I don’t want to stifle that by not having opportunities out there for him.”
What is biathlon?
Biathlon comes from a word meaning two contests in Greek. It evolved from old survival tactics of hunting on skis with a rifle. Men’s biathlon has been an Olympic sport since 1924, and women have competed in the event in the Olympics since 1992. New biathlon events have been added to the Olympic program as recently as 2006.
Athletes ski a certain distance leading to a range, where they lay down or stand and shoot at a target. Depending on the event, each competitor gets a certain amount of shots to hit the targets. Any misses are followed by a penalty lap, which adds to the skiers time and fatigue.
At his age, Thrasher doesn’t carry his rifle while racing and only shoots prone, but at any other level, athletes must ski with the surprisingly-heavy rifle and shoot in both positions.
Going the distance
Opportunities are where biathlon is lacking, at least in the United States. There are very few places in the country to train in both aspects of the sport in one location.
Right now, Wilkinson and Thrasher practice their Nordic skiing in Steamboat, but in order to shoot, Wilkinson travels to Casper, Wyoming, and Thrasher and his family drive to West Yellowstone, Montana, almost every month.
“It is a little frustrating that really in Colorado there’s not a youth program at all,” TJ said. “There are some good youth programs in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, New York, Alaska, but those clubs are isolated. … That’s a challenge for anybody aspiring to be a biathlete.”
TJ and his wife, Tasha, are supportive and willing to put the miles in because of how seriously their son is taking the sport and how much he seems to love it.
“It’s just so great to see someone be so passionate about something,” Tasha said. “And at such a young age, he’s gained confidence, and he’s learned to balance school, sports, life, friends. It’s just great.”
Tasha has seen Tristan choose a shooting practice over taking some time to relax on the couch. His dedication impresses and awes her.
To ensure there is some sort of outlet, there is a small, unofficial group in town called Steamboat Biathlon, but they don’t have a coach who could provide next-level training for athletes like Tristan who are looking to make it big.
Wilkinson and Thrasher have no trouble finding exceptional Nordic training at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. They train with the club year round, using trail runs and roller skis to keep their endurance up in the warmer months.
Shooting is the struggle and likely will be for some time.
“It would be wonderful if Steamboat would develop a range or if Winter Sports Club would pick up biathlon as another sport,” Tasha said. “But that will take time.”
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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