History of U.S. Biathlon
By Rob Sherwood
In this space, we hope to bring to light some of the very interesting historical elements of Biathlon in the United States. Each entry will be only a brief snapshot of the incident, story or person highlighted. If you have further information, memories, or biathlon related material that needs a home, please contact Rob Sherwood, USBA Archivist at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jay Bowerman Recollection
The following recollection comes from Jay Bowerman who competed with the US Biathlon team in the late 1960s and early 1970s and served as a US Biathlon administrator in the 1970s. He was assigned to the Biathlon Unit after completion of college at the University of Oregon. After his competitive days, his love of the sport helped encourage the development of multiple biathletes from the Bend, Oregon area. Jay was recently enshrined in the US Biathlon Hall of Fame along with his teammates as part of the 1972 US Biathlon Olympic Relay team. The following is a memory of his, used with his permission.
In the fall of 1967, the "Olympic year curse" of no snow settled over the U.S. Biathlon Training Center at Ft. Richardson, Alaska. The usually reliable snow at Independence Gold Mine in the mountains north of Anchorage was nowhere to be seen as those of us at the Biathlon Unit moved ever closer to departure for the "lower 48" and the Olympic trials. We made the weekly ride to the mine on wooden benches in the back of canvas-covered deuce-and-a-half troop carriers. But instead of getting on skis, we spent each successive week running on the frozen hummocky muskeg. A couple of weak storm fronts moved through, but left only an inch or two of snow on ground that needed at least two feet of snow before there was any chance of setting a track.
Then coach Sven Johanson found a small lake set deep in a glacial cirque [near Hatcher Pass, thanks Jon Chaffee for that memory]. The ice, at least 6" thick, was smooth and so clear that if you swept the thin layer of snow aside, you could see fairy shrimp, half an inch long and bright orange, swimming below the ice. With steep sides around the lake to block both wind and sun, there was perhaps an inch of undisturbed snow on over the ice--too little to actually ski on--so Sven fashioned a scraper out of scrap lumber at the gold mine. Nearly 20 of us were hitched to Sven's contraption like a dog team and we pulled it around the perimeter of the lake, scraping the meager snow covering into a windrow perhaps 3 feet wide and 4" deep. We then lugged Sven's track sled down the steep talus slope from the road to the lake. This was long before the advent of commercial track making equipment so the sled was another of Sven's hand-made inventions. Once we had the sled on the ice, Sven again harnessed us up in two files on either side of the precious mound of snow. Sven riding the sled for added weight, we successfully set a track, perhaps 1/2 to 3/4 of a kilometer long around the perimeter of the lake. Despite the thickness of the ice, the weight of the entire team in one location resulted in new stresses on the ice. As we moved around the lake, there would be a sudden loud "CRAAACK," almost like a rifle shot, as the ice fractured under us and the fracture would propagate outwards from the stress point, with sound radiating outward like distant thunder. Although the ice was easily strong enough to drive a car across, these sudden explosions of sound were unnerving to some who were unaccustomed to the sounds of a frozen lake adjusting to changing stresses. Left untouched over night, the snow bonded with the ice and the track set up hard enough for us to put in several hours a day on this tiny oval. Some found it monotonous, but it sure beat running over the uneven frozen ground of the barren ski trails.
Added note: Rob Sherwood has been collecting stories and information on the history of U.S. biathlon, there are many stories from behind the scenes that need to be recorded that have been shared among us but which will be lost forever when those who were present grow old and die. In the interest of helping fill in some of the more obscure history of our sport, I'd like to invite or challenge you to write up recollections of events or people from your involvement in biathlon. Stories need not be limited to training or racing--there's so much more that goes on among any collection of athletes than just the training and racing, and such stories will help add spice and sauce to the rich history of our sport. Please take some time to record your reflections. Send these to Rob via email at email@example.com
McKinney Creek, California: just south and east of the current Homewood Mountain Resort hosted the first international biathlon race in the history on the United States in March 1959. Biathlon, now one of the most popular events in the Winter Olympics, were included for the first time in the 1960 Olympic Games. As part of the logistical and technical preview for the Olympic Games, a “soft opening” for the venues happened in the winter of 1959, about a year prior to the Olympic Games. The goal was to simulate on a smaller scale the logistical and technical demands the Winter Olympics would require.
The trails at McKinney Creek were constructed for both the Nordic skiing races as well as the one and only biathlon race. The biathlon race, the 20km Individual was very different than now. Unlike modern biathlon, the 1960s Olympic event was contested with large bore rifles and a varied distance to the target. Instead of the standard 50 meters ranges of today with a .22 rifle, there were four separate ranges with shooting distances of 250m, 200m, 150m and 100m. The final shooting bout was contested in the standing position, the others in either the stand or prone position. Instead of rapid response targets where all could see how a biathlete has done in the shooting, paper targets were used and scored after the race was over.
Many nations including Sweden, Finland, Norway, Great Britain the USSR and obviously the United States committed to attending the event. The hope was that first-hand experience with the venue, the elevation (over 6,200 feet above sea level), and the conditions would prepare the competitors, and allow them to have an advantage for the 1960 Olympic Winter Games.
Birger Torrisen, the technical advisor for the Biathlon event advocated prior to the race that “We have the best Biathlon layout at Squaw Valley as anywhere in the world.” The course had a “typical Scandinavia in pattern. They take the racers through heavily wooded, slightly open, and twisting terrain, a real test of endurance, technique and … waxing.”
On 3 March 1959 the North American Biathlon Championships were contested in much warmer that ideal temperatures. 19 biathletes competed in the race, 17 from the United States, one from the UK and another from Sweden. For some of the contestants, this was their only foray into biathlon, for others, they enjoyed a lengthy career.
Lawrence Damon from Burlington, VT the winner of the race, initially did not plan on racing in the 1960 Olympics. He eventually did and finished in 24th place. When asked after his race if he thought he won, he said, “If I did win, it was pure luck because I have never hit the targets that well before.” Dick Mize also qualified for the Olympics in 1960, and became a very influential member of the Nordic community in Anchorage for many decades. Norman Shutt of Falconbridge, Ontario where he was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force police represented Great Britain in this race and returned for the 1960 Olympics. In addition to the biathlon, Shutt skied in the 15km and Nordic Combined events.
Of the 19 who competed in the race, nine were from the Ft Richardson unit. The trio of Leo Sjogren, born in Helsinki, Finland, Walter Walton and Hans Aune lived in the Winter Sports hotbed of Los Angeles, CA. Sjogren had previous Olympic as a member of the 1952 Summer Olympic team for the 50 km walk. He was one of the best race-walkers in the United States in the 1950s. Walton, worked for the State of California Division of Engineers and served as a vestryman in his local Episcopal Church. He was also a Lieutenant Commander who had won an archery contest in 1950 while stationed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyards.
Klas Lestrander used the experience to win the 1960 Biathlon competition over the heavily favored biathletes of the USSR. Will Spencer would go on a have a very lengthy career as an athlete, coach, and team official with Biathlon in the United States.