FAR FROM HOME, THE YOUTH U.S. BIATHLON ATHLETES KEEP THE EXPERIENCE OF RACING ON AN OLYMPIC COURSE CLOSE TO THEIR HEARTS
by Brendan Rourke via TeamUSA.org
GANGWON, South Korea — As 16-year-old U.S. Biathlon athlete Elias Soule described his experience competing in biathlon at the iconic Alpensia Biathlon Centre, he spoke a phrase frequently stated both by athletes and spectators who see this massive course for the first time in person.
“The hill is bigger in person than it looks on TV.”
Roughly 90 minutes later as the women’s sprint finished, Emily Campbell said the same thing word-for-word.
As daunting as it is to climb, the infamous hill — which rises close to 50 meters (164 feet) — that’s featured shortly after the starting line of their multiple races also holds a special place in the hearts of all six youth Olympians that represented Team USA at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024.
It’s the same one that their idols climbed in 2018.
“It’s really special, a really cool experience,” said John Lohuis, who finished in the top half of the field in both the 12.5km and 7.5km distances.
“Doing (part of) the same sprint course that (Jessie) Diggins and (Kikkan) Randall got their gold in here, and to see some of the hills and the range we got to see on TV…it’s special.”
Since cross-country skiing does not include rifle shooting, the finish lines are at different concourses that are adjacent to each other. However, the inner parts of the course that cut through the pine forest are used in both events.
“On TV, (Olympians) look like they’re just casually going up the hill,” added Molly Maybach with a laugh. “They make it look so easy! And then when we do it, it’s just so, so hard.”
“It’s pretty insane to see the whole Olympic chalets right in the venue,” said Noa Kam-Magruder on the same subject. “It’s way bigger than any biathlon range that we have in America.”
The sport, which combines shooting and cross-country skiing, is another small sport in terms of recognition in the U.S. Although, it does have its faithful fans, particularly in the Northern states. Not only has Diggins and Randall’s historic gold medal in 2018 brought eyes to the cross-country aspect, but two-time Olympian Clare Egan and four-time Olympian Tim Burke have also done their best to improve biathlon’s recognition as well. Both competed on this very course in 2018. Additionally, Burke coached the men’s and women’s teams here at Gangwon 2024.
Alexandria Taylor, who represented Team USA on an international level for the first time at these Winter Games, revealed that she used Burke’s experience to calm herself down as she ran the same course he did almost six years ago.
“Before the race…I talked to Tim about how he skied it and what advice he had,” she began. “But while I’m racing, I embrace the idea of how other people have skied here. Other people have had good days here. Other people have had bad days here.
“So, either way, you’re going to be okay.”
Before the event, the six athletes had hardly spent time with each other. In fact, Taylor did not know Campbell or Maybach at all. However, after rooming together and sharing the same experience of competing on an official Olympic course, the group has become friends. Additionally, they’ve also become friends with athletes from other nations.
“All of us are super connected,” said Campbell, who finished in the top half of the field in the women’s 10-kilometer race. “And going into a dining hall where every team eats, it’s super fun to have this connection with not only our team but every other country.”
“I think the dining hall is a great example,” added Maybach. “It’s fun when you’re just eating, and then you meet someone from a new country or a new sport that you would never normally meet. I think that’s a really cool thing.”
“Usually, biathlon camps are pretty short,” said Taylor. “So, it’s cool to have a longer time to meet other people.”
Of course, as with nearly every athlete, all biathlon athletes got into the pin-trading game. Maybach proudly offered her lanyard for a photo, which was littered with colorful pins from around the world.
Gangwon 2024 provides a comfortable atmosphere that helps teenagers gain valuable world experience and grow the sport on a youth level. It is especially important for sports such as biathlon, where entry into the sport can be difficult to find.
“I think it’s cool when we see our pictures on Team USA or the Olympics’ Instagram pages,” said Maybach. “But, I feel like just talking about it more, and letting people try biathlon helps.”
“A lot of people that I know, at first when you meet them, they have no clue what you’re talking about,” said Campbell. “But when they learn what it is, or watch a competition they always say, ‘Wow! That looks really hard and really fun!”
“It’s really cool to race at a level where you have to be very focused,” Taylor added on the impact of the games having on the growth of the sport.
“One of the coolest parts about racing this is being around people that have biathlon be a huge part of their culture,” Soule said. “Over in Europe, biathlon is the second-largest winter sport…so it’s been cool to learn about the sport.
“Maybe we can bring more of that back to the U.S.”
To learn more about biathlon and the athletes that represent Team USA, you can visit U.S. Biathlon’s website here.
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