Skiing and shooting: It’s not just for Olympians

The Winter Olympics are the crazy games. There’s slopestyle — an event I watch while holding my breath because I expect someone to die at any second. Then there’s ski jumping — the same. Skelton — the same. With the exception of curling, it seems the chance of disaster is huge all throughout the games.

Then there’s biathlon. The only winter event in which athletes compete with a gun. It sparks my imagination. Skiing all out and then stopping dead to shoot precisely at a target — who wouldn’t be fascinated?

I’m especially interested in biathlon after watching a race at Stevens Pass earlier this year. So I called up Bob Vallor, president of the Washington Biathlon Association, to learn some more about this sport in the Northwest.

Vallor explains that, while biathlon is pretty obscure in America, it’s very popular in other areas of the world. He says it’s the No. 2 TV sport in Europe. (On Saturday, during the 10-K biathlon, 84 percent of TVs in Norway were tuned to the event. The most recent Super Bowl, for comparison, had 69 percent in the U.S.)

Vallor says that most of the biathletes in his group come from a skiing or running background. Yup, there’s a running version of biathlon. Also a mountain biking version. Who knew?

Interested biathletes must first learn how to safely handle the rifle. There is a United States Biathlon Association safety certification process. Learning to shoot is a real learning curve for many of the athletes, and learning to shoot while exerting yourself is even more challenging.

“There’s a combined challenge of cross-country skiing, running or mountain biking, and then the shift to shooting. There’s a great deal of exhilaration, it can be very humbling sport, but when you’re on, it’s just wonderful,” Vallor said.

The WBA is a small group, of about 75 members. But they’re well organized and very active, Vallor says. They host several races each year. They own 10 rifles, which they can lend to interested new athletes while they try out the sport. They also bring in experts, such as a well-respected instructor from Norway, to help members improve their skills.

If you’re interested in trying out biathlon for yourself, you can get more information on the Washington Biathlon Association website.

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