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Ready, aim, fire

Mon, Jul  20, 2009 - By Peggy Shinn, USOC

At 8 p.m. on a rainy evening in June, Haley Johnson is lying on her stomach on the floor, legs splayed behind her as if she were wearing her cross-country skis instead of red Crocs. She supports a rifle in the crook of her right shoulder and in her left hand. A hook near the rifle's mid-section is clipped to the protruding ring of a thin leather arm cuff above her left bicep. A wire connects the barrel of her rifle to a laptop that sits on the floor nearby.

Haley Johnson skis in the Relay at the 2008 Biathlon World Championships in Ostersund, Sweden.
Haley Johnson skis in the Relay at the 2008 Biathlon World Championships in Ostersund, Sweden. (photo Christian Menzoni/Nordic Focus)
She aims at a quarter-inch black dot at the other end of the small room and pulls the trigger five times. There is no noise. Instead, pink dots appear just to the right of the black dot's bulls eye that is projected on the laptop's monitor.

Nearby lies a thin white cardboard box that says S.C.A.T.T., infrared shooter training system.

Johnson and Armin Auchentaller, who shares the U.S. biathlon team's head coaching job with Per Nilssen, look at the tiny yellow lines - called aiming traces - on the pink dots on the monitor. These lines show how much she is moving the rifle while aiming it.

"It's good," says Auchentaller in an Italian accent, pointing to the aiming traces and adding that any movement between shots is only slightly horizontal.

Over her long-sleeve workout shirt, Johnson pulls another arm cuff - this one a Velcro-ed strap worn above her left bicep to which the rifle clips when she shoots prone. She brushes back her short blond hair, lies prone again, and takes another five shots. This time the yellow aiming traces are longer and the pink dots more scattered on the target. Johnson now knows which arm cuff she will be wearing in biathlon competitions this winter.

She puts back on the first cuff, and Auchentaller begins the fine adjustments. Lying in front of Johnson and looking down the rifle's barrel (it's not loaded), he realizes that she tips the rifle ever so slightly to the right. They talk about what she can do to further modify her custom-made walnut and maple stock - perhaps a thin shim under her left hand. She adjusts the rifle's butt plate, plays with the position of the arm cuff, and tries more shots.

Finally, they call it a night. "One hour's work for that much," says Auchentaller, holding his fingers about an eighth-of-an-inch apart.

But in biathlon, "that much" could mean the difference between a top 10 finish and a trip to the penalty loop. (Biathletes shoot at five targets in two positions - prone and standing - in various sequences depending on the race. For prone shooting, the targets aren't even two inches in diameter; for standing, they are about 4.5 inches across. For each missed target, they must either ski a 150-meter penalty loop or they are penalized one minute, depending on the race.)

While other multisport disciplines such as triathlon and duathlon combine endurance sports such as running, cycling, and swimming, biathlon combines what's considered one of the toughest aerobic sports - cross-country skiing - with a skill that demands surgeon-like precision. A biathlete's pounding heart can move her body just enough that she might miss a target.

On the women's team, 2006 Olympians Lanny Barnes and twin sister Tracy Barnes-Colliander grew up hunting in Colorado and pride themselves on their marksmanship. Vying with them for spots on the 2010 Olympic team are at least four women who never knew much about shooting .22 caliber rifles until they tried biathlon in their teens and 20s. They all came to biathlon with what development coach James Upham calls "big engines," or high aerobic capacity.

Two of these women - Johnson, 27, and Laura Spector, 21 - raced with the Barnes twins in the women's 4 x 6km relay at the 2009 World Championships. The team finished 10th in that race, the best relay finish for the U.S. women since 1997 when they took ninth.

Laura Spector

Laura Spector (photo Christian Menzoni/Nordic Focus)

Both Johnson and Spector have much in common. They didn't start cross-country skiing until their teens. Johnson's high school science teacher, Chris Seymour at the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, N.Y., convinced her to switch from alpine to Nordic skiing, which he coached. "I liked it immediately and cut alpine cold turkey," she says.

Spector, from Lenox, Mass., first tried cross-country skiing in the eighth grade. "I was into running, and my mom suggested I do something over the winter to keep in shape," says Spector. "She suggested I go to the first practice and if I didn't like it, I didn't have to continue."

Fortunately, Spector's friends were on the team, so she stuck with it.

Both women then discovered biathlon when the U.S. Biathlon Association hosted summer recruitment camps in Lake Placid. Although neither had ever shot a rifle  Spector says her family is strongly opposed to hunting - they both took to the sport immediately. Spector liked that it added another element to Nordic skiing. Johnson says it was "something different," and that, living in Lake Placid, she had easy access to it.

Spector attended the Green Mountain Valley School, a ski academy in Fayston, Vt., where the Nordic coach was a former biathlete and she could train twice each week at the Ethan Allen Firing Range, where the Army and National Guard train soldiers in mountain warfare. The facility features an internationally sanctioned biathlon course.

Then both Johnson and Spector attended top liberal arts colleges with renowned Nordic ski teams. After spending a post-graduate year training and racing in Sweden, Johnson entered Bates College in Maine in the fall of 2000. Spector went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in the fall of 2006.

Both scored podium finishes at the highly competitive Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association races (part of NCAA) - with Johnson winning the Eastern Championship freestyle race in 2003. In the past decade, several women have used the EISA circuit as a launch pad to the U.S. Ski Team.

"It's a fantastic race circuit," says Johnson, who credits the two years she spent on the Bates Ski Team with teaching her to ski fast. "You race for six weekends in a row."

No other cross-country race series in the East offers such regular - and stiff - competition.

In fact, Upham says NCAA skiing has served as a pipeline for the development team. "What we are looking for is engines and attitude," says Upham, meaning he's looking for skiers with high aerobic capacity and a strong mental outlook to handle the long hours of training.

"They come here already pretty good skiers, and I try to make them world class," he adds.

But both Johnson and Spector found that they couldn't compete simultaneously in cross-country skiing and biathlon. In 2003, Johnson took a hiatus from Bates and moved to the Maine Winter Sports Center in Caribou to train biathlon full-time with her former coach Chris Seymour. After four years, she moved back to Lake Placid and now calls the Olympic Training Center there home. In 2008, she was named to U.S. Biathlon's A Team.

Spector is using Dartmouth's quarter system to work her studies around training and racing. She takes two quarters off and attends college during the spring and summer (although this year, she is also taking off the summer quarter to prepare for the 2010 Olympics). She will graduate with a degree in biological sciences in the fall of 2011 - "People think I'm on an eight-year plan, but it's only five," she quips. She, too, lives at the Lake Placid OTC.

Both women say shooting is their weakness and work hours each day - in the firing range or dry firing in the gym with S.C.A.T.T. When asked what an inexperienced shooter's biggest challenge on the firing range is, Upham says patience. "They're going to screw up a lot the first year, a lot a lot," he says. "When you're just learning to shoot, nothing is automatic. You're constantly thinking."

To make shooting automatic, they have to "get a lot of rounds through the barrel," he adds.

The intricacies of shooting accurately aren't evident until you see the sport up close. On the TV, biathletes look like motionless snipers - able to hit a target however small or distant. But listen to a coach's comments, and it soon becomes evident that they are not as movement-free as they appear. And any wobble, no matter how small, can hurt accuracy.

"Don't let the rifle pull you forward," Upham cautions one aspiring biathlete. "Bring the rifle in to you."

He advises another that his elbow is dropping after the third shot. Then there's Auchentaller, who noticed that Johnson was tipping her rifle very slightly to the right while shooting prone.

"It takes years and years [to become a world-class biathlete]," says Spector.

One glance at the top biathletes' bios and this is evident. The top Germans and Russians, such as Kati Wilhelm, Simone Hauswold, Andrea Henkel, and Olga Zaitseva, list "soldier" or "police officer" as their profession. Most picked up the sport in the late 1980s and early '90s.

In late June, Johnson was logging 14-hour training days, which might include dry firing in the morning, rollerski intervals at the hilly biathlon shooting range near the OTC, and a three-hour bike ride (this day, in the rain), intermixed with stretching and naps, and followed by rifle positioning with S.C.A.T.T. in the evenings.

All the work is paying off. At the 2009 World Championships, the Russians may have won the relay with the Germans as runners-up. But on a windy day, the U.S. team, in finishing 10th, shot far cleaner than the Germans and was only one shot off the Russians. The U.S. women needed only 10 extra rounds; the Germans collectively had to shoot 17 extra rounds.

(In the relay, each biathlete carries eight rounds of ammunition per five targets. If all the targets are hit with the first five rounds, the athlete can continue skiing. If not, she must hand load the extra round one at a time. Each extra round takes about 5-7 seconds to load and fire, thereby acting as a partial penalty.)

Spector only needed three extra rounds, Johnson five. Lanny Barnes required two extra rounds in the second shooting, and Tracy shot clean in both.

"We had the third best shooting performance of the day and those were really tough conditions," said head coach Per Nilsson after the relay. "I am really proud of the ladies."

Next February at the Vancouver Olympics, Johnson and Spector hope to have another breakthrough race like the relay at Worlds. Women have raced the biathlon relay since the 1992 Winter Olympics, and the best the U.S. women have finished is eighth at the 1994 Lillihammer Games.

"Our result in the 2009 [World Championship] relay has been a motivator because it shows that we can do it," says Johnson, adding that she is particularly focused on becoming more competitive on the shooting range "in close race situations."

Which explains why she's lying on the floor with her rifle plugged into a computer long after other resident OTC athletes have called it a day.