Grace Castonguay: A New Pathway to Biathlon
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There are many routes into biathlon. Grace Castonguay is part of a new generation of athletes who are finding the sport and moving quickly up the ranks. A passionate runner, Castonguay only got into cross-country skiing when an injury curtailed her running. She loved it! Just a few years later, she made her World Cup debut in December 2023, racing in Hochfilzen and Lenzerheide.
When Castonguay first stepped onto skis during high school in 2019, she passionately embraced the sport. Together with her younger brother Theo, they traveled around the New Hampshire high school circuit. In her senior year, she helped the Kennett High School Eagles – Sean Doherty’s alma mater – win a state title.
The vital step in her storybook tale came when she accompanied Theo to a fall biathlon camp at Utah’s Soldier Hollow in October 2020. There, she caught the attention of coach Zach Hall, who invited her to the biathlon range. Now she was really hooked!
She progressed quickly. The next March (2021), she raced in her first biathlon event – U.S. Nationals at West Yellowstone. In October 2021, she was the second and third junior in races at the Soldier Hollow Schutzenski trials. While she failed to make the Junior Worlds team out of trials, she doubled down on cross-country, transferring mid-year to ski for St. Michael’s College.
That December (2022), she posted strong results again during trial races at Craftsbury, qualifying for the IBU Cup and eventually the IBU Youth and Junior World Championships in Kazakhstan, where she had the top U.S. women’s results in both sprint and pursuit.
Her success on the college carnival circuit and with biathlon has created a bit of a juggling act for Castonguay, which she is embracing. As the team captain for the Purple Knights, she’s committed to the college schedule in January and February. But she is also looking to take advantage of her biathlon opportunity, going to Europe for the first races of the second trimester before heading back to ski for St. Michael’s. In the back of her mind, she realizes that the NCAA Championships in Steamboat Springs overlap with the IBU World Cup in Soldier Hollow in early March.
Needless to say, it will be a busy season. But for a young athlete who only slid on a ski track four years ago, she’s anxious to embrace every single opportunity, be that as a member of the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club, the St. Michael’s Purple Knights, or the U.S. Biathlon Team.
Here’s a sampling of what you’ll learn in this episode of Heartbeat. This is a remarkable story of a young athlete’s passion for sport and the emotions that athletic success can bring.
So, Grace, that was a long road trip!
This was my longest span of time in Europe – my longest time away from home forever. It was about a month and a half on the road.
How did you originally get into skiing?
So the punchline of this story is that I actually did not learn to ski, or step foot on skis, until four years ago. So, I am pretty much a baby in this sport. I grew up playing soccer and running cross country. When I was 14, I broke my leg playing soccer, and that kind of switched me fully into the endurance mode or lifestyle. I ran high school cross country and was really into running. I wanted to run Division 1 in college. That was my big goal. And then, because of the lasting, effects of my broken leg – I broke my tibia and fibula, which caused my growth plates to close. – running just really did not suit my body. I broke down a lot. My mom became the high school Nordic coach for our team so my brother could enter races. My indoor track season ended a little early and she was like, ‘Come on. Like, don't you want to join the team? It will look good on college resumes.’ And I figured, hey, why not? I entered my first Nordic ski race about three weeks after I learned to ski. I looked like Bambi on ice skates.
What clicked for you when Zach Hall invited you to the range in Soldier Hollow?
I had shot a biathlon rifle before because my brother was a biathlete, but I hadn't really caught the biathlon bug at that point. So I figured, okay, why not? I'll go to this practice. I'm here. Something to do. And I went to that practice that day, and things clicked for me. I really started to see why people love this sport. One of the big things was that Zach identified that I am left-eye dominant despite being right-handed. And when I had shot a biathlon rifle before, I was shooting righty and I couldn't hit the broadside of a barn. So once we figured out that I was left-eye dominant, that made a huge difference to how I felt about the sport. And I also just really enjoyed the way he explained the process. Zach is a really phenomenal coach in a multitude of ways. He's really great at the mental aspect of sport. I remember going home that day from practice, and I said to myself, ‘I want to be really good at this.’ And I remember watching videos of Dorothy Revier and her extremely fast standing shooting time. And I was like, ‘I want to be this good someday.’ So, from that point, my goal is kind of shifted gears all in towards biathlon. There was no operating biathlon range in Jackson at that point, so my brother and I built a little range in our backyard because we live kind of in a pretty remote place, and I would just shoot.
What was your biggest takeaway from Junior Worlds?
The biggest thing I took away from competing at Junior Worlds was just how amazing the IBU sport family is. It was my first Junior Worlds. It just felt so wonderful to be part of such a rich and large group of really high-level junior athletes. I remember going to the opening ceremony, and it was it was just really cool to be there.
You’re passionate about biathlon. What does it mean for you to dig deep?
There's there's this place that has – it's a really fun place to go, and I don't get it very often. You can only capture it for a couple of races a season, where you're just like, you have this moment and I need to dig deeper than I've ever dug before. You can see it like I was never passing out at the finish line, like laying on the ground after a cross-country running race. But you push yourself so hard in Nordic skiing, and I really enjoyed that.
Did you watch videos?
Oh, yeah! YouTube basically taught me how to ski. YouTube was my best friend. I would just watch technique videos religiously and then try to capture that image in my brain and replicate it on skis the next day.
What was your debut like on Hochfilzen?
Going into the training day, I showed up and I was just, like, star-struck. There are so many cameras. There are so many superstars. And it was really hard to not get distracted on the range – like following in awe of some of the greats like Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold and Lisa Vittozzi. It was really a super cool experience. Then getting to the race day, just the noise. Oh my gosh, the noise is so incredibly loud. The sound just kind of envelops you and it's hard to hear your own thoughts. And also another really surprising thing is how many USA fans there were. I was I remember warming up on the course and just hearing USA, USA and people knew my name and that was really special.
What was your emotion when finishing your first World Cup?
I remember finishing the race and my only goal going into my first World Cup start was I wanted to recapture the feeling of pure joy that I had felt in my very first Nordic ski race four years prior. I remember finishing this the race and my whole body was just shaking from the energy and the noise and the thrill of having this huge, huge accomplishment under my belt. I mean, making the World Cup has been the dream since I started. So it was really a huge culmination of emotions crossing that finish line. It was also really special because my mom flew out to watch the race and I actually could hear her yelling for me above all the fans!