This article originally appeared in the 2022 1st Quarter edition of Reserve & National Guard Magazine.
When the U.S. Biathlon team arrives at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, four members of the Vermont Army National Guard may be pursuing a different kind of “chest candy” than “M-Day” counterparts with more typical day jobs.
Army athletes Spcs. Sean Doherty, Leif Nordgren will compete on the men’s team, while Spc. Deedra Irwin will compete on women’s team in her first Olympic venture. Spc. Vaclav Cervenka was named an alternate to the men’s team.
The 10-member Team USA will be composed of four biathletes and one alternate on both the men’s and women’s sides. The contingent has been vying for selection this winter by competing in International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup races throughout Europe, as well as two-time trials this month.
Biathlon requires ‘pretty savvy’ competitors
An Olympic event since 1960, biathlon combines cross-country skiing with small-caliber rifle marksmanship. A uniquely grueling sport that requires endurance, precision and mental fitness, biathletes compete on courses up to 20 km (roughly 12 miles) long for men and 15 km (roughly 9 miles) for women, as well as on relays, all of which include at least two shooting bouts at targets 50 meters (164 feet) away. If targets are missed, either penalty minutes are assessed or competitors ski a penalty loop.
While breathing techniques help athletes calm themselves and lower their heart rates as they switch from racing to shooting mode, Doherty said the “nuances to getting a great shooting stage” are numerous. Wind can be a major factor, but a cheering crowd, a slippery shooting mat and other distractions also can impact a competitor’s precision.
“The wind is a challenge since we shoot relatively, in terms of bullets, slow ammunition, and the wind affects the shot quite a lot,” said Doherty, a two-time Olympian who made his first “podium”– a top-three finish – last March with a third-place finish in the BMW IBU World Cup mixed relay in the Czech Republic. “We have to be pretty savvy in our ability to adjust the sights and compensate for the wind, and then you have a lot of other factors … I usually just try to keep it simple and control what you can.”
Cervenka maintained the mental challenges of biathlon are often under appreciated by those outside the sport.
“At the end of the day, it’s just hitting targets,” he said, “but that’s the difference between a good result and a bad result. So, the mental game is way more than you think it would be in a sport that is one of the most athletically demanding sports there is.”
Meet the team
All four Olympic hopefuls joined the National Guard in 2019, with a place on the National Guard Biathlon Team awaiting them. The National Guard Biathlon Team’s headquarters are at the Camp Ethan Allen Training Site (CEATS), a Vermont National Guard installation in Jericho, Vermont, which also is home to the Army Mountain Warfare School.
Like his teammates, Cervenka was competing full time on the IBU circuit before joining the Guard. In a sport that demands not only elite athletic ability but also deep pockets to fund travel, equipment and facility fees, Cervenka said the Guard has been a financial lifeline as he works his way to the top tier of U.S. National teams.
“It was one, ‘What else am I going to do? Screw it,’ moment. And, I went for it,” the 22-year-old said of his decision to join the Guard. “Since then, I could arguably say it’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. Financially, it has let me not so much worry about how am I going to pay for this trip. Now my worries are how can I get the best training. At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to separate you at the highest level.”
Unlike most of her competitors, Irwin was a latecomer to biathlon. Her early focus was on running, and she originally joined her high school ski team as a way to improve her fitness for track. She wasn’t introduced to biathlon until age 25, after competing on her college track and Nordic ski teams.
“For me, it’s definitely a catch-up game on the shooting side,” said Irwin, 29, who quickly ascended up the ranks on the U.S. National Team. “What is nice is I didn’t really shoot before, so I didn’t have a ton of bad habits. But overall trigger time, compared to a lot of people on the World Cup or even in the United States, I’m pretty far behind because I got started in biathlon so much later.”
Most members of National Guard Biathlon Team live at CEATS, where athletes’ dorm, strength-training facility, gym, shooting range and competition loops create a top-notch training center. A typical training day involves morning and afternoon conditioning sessions focused on cardiovascular endurance, shooting exercises and combination shooting.
Cardio workouts can range from long-distance running to cycling and roller skiing, a sport that replicates the movement of cross-country skiing. Athletes also must remain in good standing with their Guard units, which might mean attending weekend drills or completing courses to maintain an MOS or vie for promotion.
‘We’re not a total underdog’
National Guard members who make the U.S. National Team are placed on full-time orders, which Cervenka said motivates soldiers to continue to race at a world-class level.
“Do well and you are going to continue to be on full-time orders,” said Cervenka, a 12W Carpentry and Masonry Specialist. “For the people who are trying biathlon and trying to make it through the hierarchy of national teams, it’s something to strive for. So, it’s a good setup.”
At age 32, Nordgren is the “old guy” on the U.S. National Team. During the 2021-22 season, he is writing the final chapter in his biathlon career. Nordgren plans to retire at season’s end so he can attend Warrant Officer Candidate School, with the goal of being selected for helicopter flight school next summer.
While the National Guard has provided him much-needed support as an athlete, he said his motivation for joining the Army always included creating options for life after biathlon.
“Even though this is going to be my last year competing,” he said, “I already have a great setup and a great path for next year.”
But before that day arrives, Nordgren hopes to conclude his biathlon career on a high note.
“Biathlon is a sport that is especially rewarding of experience,” he said. “So, that’s one thing that helps me going forward. I have 12 or 13 years of experience, which isn’t the end all, be all, but it definitely helps in this sport.”
Doherty, 26, made his name in the sport at an early age, racking up 10 medals at the Youth and Junior World Championships. As the 2022 Olympic Winter Games approach, Nordic and European nations will remain the favorites to take home medals, but Doherty likes Team USA’s chances.
“We have some really competitive guys,” he said. “We’ve had a great summer of training. I’m quite optimistic that we’re in a position to mix it up. We’re not a favorite, but we’re not a total underdog.”