MIDWAY, Utah – Crisp mornings and sunny days set the tone for a week of fierce competition as Soldier-athletes from 22 states convened at Utah's famed Soldier Hollow Resort for the 2020 Chief National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships Feb. 28-March 5.
The normally quiet resort and town were abuzz with activity as competitors traversed winding trails, climbed relentless slopes on Nordic skis, and flew down monolithic hills at breakneck speeds while maintaining the physical strength and mental discipline to fire custom .22 rifles at targets ranging from the size of a quarter to that of a grapefruit from 50 meters away.
"Biathlon is a really strange sport," said Maj. Barbara Blanke, a veteran member of the Utah National Guard Team and top-place finisher in the Master Women's 7.5 km sprint competition. "It combines the rigors of cross-country skiing – a very demanding athletic event – with rifle-precision marksmanship."
Biathletes cross-country ski between 7.5 and 12 kilometers during any given event, while regularly climbing hills with well over 25 feet in vertical rise, on average, and then immediately apply their marksmanship skills.
"Athletes will ski from the course and go directly into the target area and shoot targets with an elevated heart rate," said Capt. Matt Hefner, the National Guard Bureau sports director of the biathlon. "Sometimes, those heart rates are between 160 and 170 beats per minute. That creates a stressed shoot, and they're on skis while doing it."
Ready and Resilient (R2) is the Army's strategy for strengthening individual and unit personal readiness by fostering a culture of trust through shared trial. This event for Soldiers is inspired by that mantra and builds upon it through challenges and competition.
"As company commanders, we try to get our soldiers to shoot with an elevated heart rate and being exhausted," said Hefner. "This sport forces that on them. It's fantastic!."
Historically, Soldier-athletes who compete and train for the biathlon have demonstrated higher physical fitness and marksmanship scores than their counterparts. Hefner attributes that to the dedication required by this event .
"Those who compete do tend to have higher PT scores and are better marksmen than their fellow soldiers," Hefner said.
As physical readiness proliferates while training in this grueling sport, another benefit for competitors is building relationships with teammates and opponents.
"You want to do well, but you want other people to do well, too," said Spc. Siena Ellingson, a member of the Minnesota National Guard team and first-place finisher in both the women's pursuit, open sprint, and team relay races. "I race most of the year; this race is different. The camaraderie is different in this setting. Having your teammates' support, but also the support of the competing athletes and states, is huge."
"It's easy to become addicted to this sport," Sgt. Maj. Shawn Blanke said during the closing ceremony. ... I look out at this group and I see a bunch of tremendously fit marksmen and Soldiers who serve their country and do amazing things."
The top 10 females and males will move on to form the All-Guard team and compete at the U.S. National Races in Yellowstone this spring and in the Chilean Military Championships in Chile in the summer.