Monday, January 28, 2002
Updated: January 30, 4:53 PM ET
Olympic diary: Move over hockey
By Rachel Steer
Special to ESPN.com
Rachel Steer, a 24-year-old on the U.S. biathlon team, shares a weekly diary on her preparations for the Olympics.
What do you get when you give a 14 year old a gun? Every parent would hope their kid was as lucky as me. My first gun was an Anschutz biathlon rifle. Instead of causing trouble, I was out at Kincaid Biathlon Range in Anchorage, Alaska, hitting 4cm targets from 50 meters with a heart rate of 180 beats per minute.
Ten years later, I am still cross country skiing and shooting, America's top ranked biathlete, going to my first Olympic Games. Normally biathlon is lost in Olympic coverage, somewhere around curling and ice dancing, but this year things are going to be different. The Salt Lake Games will be an excellent opportunity for the United States to see Europe's most watched winter sport.
Yes, NHL fans, biathlon gets ten times more coverage. Our World Cup races are the highlight of weekend TV programming. I am currently racing at the Oberhof, Germany, world cup. The stadium fills daily with over 15,000 people and the 2km course is lined three deep. Every time I ski on the trails, whether I am warming up or racing, fans cheer and call me by name.
There are fan clubs that travel the World Cup circuit like groupies, waving their banners and flags and yelling "GO RAKEL" (they can't quite get my name right). It makes me think some die-hards are as crazy as Packers fans -- without cheese heads and painted beer guts, of course.
I am part of a new generation of U.S. biathletes who were fortunate to join the sport at an early age. Cross country skiing in Alaska is quite popular, and I was introduced to biathlon through my brother. I became serious about biathlon when I was 14. That summer I went to a summer training camp and by 15 I was on my way to Slovakia for my first of five World Junior Championships. At that time, the U.S. Biathlon Association made it a priority to focus on its junior development programs, creating a strong pipeline for a successful senior team in 2002. Soldier Hollow, in Heber Valley, will be the busiest venue of the Olympics hosting an event every day of the Games. Cross country, nordic combined and biathlon will be highlighted every night at the medals ceremonies.
At the age of 23, I find that being a full-time athlete in the United States is not the same as in Europe. Few people understand how important it is for me to do the correct training and it is even harder to convince people I need rest in between training sessions.
A typical training day starts at 6:30 a.m. with a run or yoga. After breakfast I head out to the range for "combo" training. This is any aerobic training (usually rollerskiing, running or biking) and shooting. After training I head home, get a good lunch and rest. Around 3:30 p.m. I dryfire (standing with my rifle, simulating my shooting procedure) and by 4 p.m. I am off to my second workout. Usually the afternoon is strength training, either in the weight room or on a bike or rollerskis. I am done by 6 and then there is only time for dinner, TV or some reading and sleep. Every third day I have a long morning workout, usually 3 to 4 hours long and then I get the afternoon off. Sundays are off completely, I try to sneak in a round of golf as often as possible!
Because biathlon is not a collegiate sport, there are few opportunities for full-time athletes to pursue school. I have put off my college degree until I can focus my energy on academics.
I depend a lot on the support from my family, coaches, sport scientists and of course, sponsors. This year my estimated budget was over $20,000. As you may imagine, there are not a lot of income opportunities for biathletes in the United States. I was lucky enough to be featured alongside Ivory, a WWF wrestler at a Super Kmart Grand Opening in Alaska. I found it very ironic that I was going head to head with a WWF chick and thought of the headlines the next day, "Girl with gun takes Ivory in Kmart Smackdown!"
Biathlon is an incredibly exciting sport. Just today, the women's pursuit came down to the final shooting stage. Six women from five different countries were battling it out over 10km and four shooting stages (five shots each stage). The lead kept changing after every stop at the range and Magdalena Forsberg of Sweden showed incredible composure and focus to shoot clean and lead the final 2km loop to the finish.
There is a compression downhill here that is so fast they put a speed gun on the athletes and get readings of over 70 km/hr and if you crash your misery is shown over and over on the big screen! The television commentators are all famous retired biathletes; at least half are women, too. They spend time breaking down technique, using camera footage to show the viewer the nuances of shooting and close ups of skiing.
If you wonder why biathlon has not been embraced by the United States, it comes down to media coverage. The people editing biathlon in the United States have little idea about the sport. As a result, they are not using quality footage and there is no explanation of how it works. My parents have to get up at 3 a.m. to get on the Internet for a live broadcast of my races, otherwise, they would never know how I was doing.
If you were to have your Saturday sports programming interrupted just once with Eurosport instead of professional team sports, you would surely become a biathlon fan. When you see me in the games, take a moment to watch, you just might find yourself caught in the excitement, cheering "GO RACHEL!"