By Kris Haines-Sharp
She came with two kids, two guns, and a dog. The dog and children stayed. The guns? Another story. One sold to a man in his forties who had taken up biathlon. The other, propped in a case in the back of our bedroom closet. I stopped reading the stickers, plastered on the outside of its case long ago—Summer Biathlon, Quebec-Lake Placid 1999 World Cup, POLSKA. If I even asked to glance at it before she buried it at my request, I’ve forgotten.
It’s an ordinary evening in a most unusual year. Dinner is over and we chat about our days. From my vantage point, with her short brown hair, dressed in a t-shirt and Levi’s 30-32—I buy them, so I know—she reminds me of my teenage son before he sprouted and smiled a bit less frequently. I’m hesitant.
“Why would you want to do that?” she asks, vigorously scrubbing the frying pan.
This is already going south. “Because it’s a great idea,” I say, full stop, purposely not asking if she agrees with me.
Gill turns her slip of a self and sighs, her chest rising, a second silent sigh following. Hands still soapy, she wipes them on her jeans.
“You should write about them and not about me,” she says, referring to the young biathletes and attempting to sidestep what she knew was likely coming—my typical, rapid-fire justification for why she should go along with yet another one of my ideas. “Kris,” and I hear her reluctance.
Forging ahead, words now tumbling— “I need you to fill me in,” I say. I want to know more, more meaning pretty much everything, about biathlon and her attempts to make the Olympic team. “I don’t want to look like I don’t know anything,” which was clearly the case.
I’ve asked Gill to bring her rifle out, assemble it and show me how to hold it. I am embarrassed that this request has taken 11 years. I am determined that my enthusiasm will redeem me.
She turns back to the sink and I see her reflection in the window. “Kris,” she says again, looking into the ice spitting in the night sky, a welcome change to a December feeling all too warm. “Kris, it was almost 30 years ago,” she says, hands still dry. “It wasn’t a big deal.”
I’m preparing for interviews with teenage biathletes, curious why they’d pursue a sport reliant on the snowy, cold winters that seem to be shifting and changing. A grueling, exacting sport with a small following of determined, tenacious athletes. I have my first moment of doubt amidst a growing sense of regret.
I had to convince Gill, my mysterious wife, to share what she knew about shooting technique, race courses, road trips with the National teams. How had she trained without a coach? Why did she stop competing in a sport she loved so readily? What had she seen happen to winters?
These were the questions that two people just falling in love might ask of each other. Questions I hadn’t asked.
“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or does it explode?” ~Langston Hughes
As luck would have it, Gill and I are driving to Lake Placid the following weekend from our home in Ithaca, NY. It’s late fall. The trees have lost their burgundy leaves and the rock walls near Keene are coated with thin sheets of ice. We are hiking from the Adirondak Loj to Avalanche Lake, an easy day hike made more challenging with boot-sucking mud and ice covered with a veneer of snow. Thirty years ago, before I knew Gill, she had competed at the Lake Placid biathlon venue to a sparse but energetic and loud crowd, two handfuls of them firefighters and immediate family who had made the trek to cheer her on. Hers was a family that traveled to Gill Events to watch her, voices booming—”Go, Gill”—followed by picture time, Gill with arms embracing whoever was close.
In the years since I’ve known her, I have joined the “Go, Gill” contingency. There have been plenty of opportunities for those who cheer her on—biathlon, the mile, cross-country running races, summer biathlon championships, and now she’s taken up rowing and races in her scull at the Head of the Charles. Rick Costanza, a friend from the days of biathlon, writes to me, “At the risk of embarrassing Gill, a bunch of us skiers had an informal club called FBBGC or, the Frequently Beat By Gill Club. She was that good.” Through his eyes, I was getting to know her all over again.
The five-hour drive gives me plenty of time to ask about Gill’s attempts to make the Olympic Biathlon Team in 1992 and 1994, and about the sport itself. In the 1700s, Scandinavian border patrol trained in two disparate skills: cross-country skiing, a physically demanding sport, and target shooting. Biathlon made its debut as an Olympic sport in 1922 but it wasn’t until 1992 in Albertville, France that women were allowed to compete. This was Gill’s goal—to be one of the first.
There are different length biathlon races. For women, the sprint is a 7.5 K and the individual race is a 15K. The men, one third longer in both. In the sprint, skiing is three equidistant loops, punctuated by a firing range where athletes take five shots at five targets—first from a prone position atop a mat, and then from standing, hips thrust forward, one elbow steadied at the waist. Athletes enter the firing range with heart rates up to 180 bpm. Within seconds, they are setting up for their shots, razor -sharp focused, stilling their minds, breathing shallowly between shots, hearts rates still hovering around 140 bpm.
Gill was a full-time career firefighter—still is—the second woman hired in the Ithaca City Fire Department. As a young recruit, she was, at times, the only firefighter in a small station since converted to a home. It’s not hard for me to picture her channeling the fear all firefighters know—responding to a blaze at a downtown building or rappelling in a gorge rescue, focused, every street memorized and wooded path mentally mapped. Young women have followed in her footsteps and now 10% of the fire department is female. She’s climbed about as high as one can but true to character, she tells me, “It just feels weird when they call me Chief.”
“They need to,” I tell her every time and I think to myself, are you kidding? A firefighter who teaches herself how to shoot a biathlon rifle, qualifies for the Olympic Trials, twice—no coach, no sponsor—all the while working her way up the ranks to Chief?
Her bar is high as a role model for women and athletes.
The cross-country skate skiing came naturally, a childhood of competing in winter “citizen races” with her father and siblings, pigtails flying behind her wool cap, allowing her to focus on learning to target shoot, a skill she taught herself in the woods behind her home. Her training was arduous—she says “somewhat haphazard”—and often followed a 14-hour night shift. She spent hours roller skiing, chasing Nordic and biathlon races on the weekends, and running loops in Sapsucker Woods near her home, ending at the range she’d set up in her backyard so she could practice target shooting.
“When you shoot clean,” her voice animated, her eyes bright, “it’s just exhilarating, like nothing else.” Shooting clean, I found out, is vernacular for “nailing” all five of the targets. “Sheer adrenaline launching me into the next loop.”
I’m hit with a mix of envy and wonder.
Competitive biathletes take their heaving, burning chests and legs shaking with lactic acid, down to bodies stilled and focused enough to shoot at targets the size of Oreos or a dessert plate, all within seconds. It’s a ying-yang dance between stillness and speed. “I just focused on each breath,” she tells me when I ask how this is even possible.
She’s talking and I hear her passion-speak tone. Her words are coming faster. “I took deep, quick belly breaths as I came into the range,” she says, “and I’d see the wind flags and be calculating adjustments for my rifle sights before I skied up to the mat.” She continues, briefly pausing as if she’s back on the range itself, hearing the shot next to her, taking a breath and holding it. “If I didn’t settle within seconds, there was no way I could avoid feeling anxious,” she says, “so I had to shoot before that happened.”
I wonder if firefighting gave Gill an edge up on younger biathletes. Fire is a moving target, after all. I think I’m onto something but Gill says it’s a stretch. “If it did, I’d have been better at it,” she says, laughing. It’s all the confirmation I need.
Guns. Burning buildings. Hearts pounding. Calm minds.
Shooting is a draw for the young biathletes of the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club, or EABC, in Jericho, Vermont. Sarah Lehto, former National Guard biathlete and Head Biathlon trainer for the National Guard Biathlon Team, competed in biathlon from 1993 to 1998, crossing Gill’s path on numerous occasions. Lehto now coaches the EABC biathletes at The Range, the National Guard’s training ground in Jericho. Her wife, Patrice Jankowski, was a “member of the ground-breaking team for female biathletes in the U.S. in the mid to late 80’s,” Lehto writes to me. Jankowski made the 1992 Olympic team, the team Gill trained so hard to join.
The evening we talk, Lehto has just returned from dropping off a club rifle at Kate Carson’s house. Kate is eleven. Lehto doesn’t usually take athletes this young but she is impressed with Kate’s maturity and her motivation to learn the sport. She is to practice dry-firing with her older brother, Taylor, a freshman in high school, an already competitive biathlete. Lehto tells me his work ethic is clearly evident in his rigorous and single-minded training. Lehto supports her athletes reaching their full potential in biathlon, gaining life skills that will support their future goals. She is proud of each of them.
This winter, training impacted by COVID-19 as well as climate change, has necessitated a long drive to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Craftsbury, Vermont for members of the Ethan Allen Biathlon Club. The National Guard Range was closed.
The Craftsbury Outdoor Center is a non-profit educational and outdoor recreational center committed to sustainability and minimizing environmental impacts through its use of alternative energy and building design. In 2014, the COC opened the new Activity Center, a beautiful and welcoming space covered by 3000 square feet of solar panels. Passive solar heating and an EarthTube air exchange keep the building comfortable throughout the year.
The Craftsbury Outdoor Center offers year-round programs for athletes of all ages and levels of experience. School groups, Master level racers, novice Nordic skiers like myself are all welcome—there is no pretension here. Programming is explicitly mission-oriented. The Green Racing Project biathlon team, a program bridging collegiate and national and international competition, requires that its member athletes give back to the land and systems that support their sport. Athletes record trail maps, engineer building projects and coach younger biathletes.
One such coaching clinic, Girls with Guns, is run by biathletes with national and international stature. Here, girls ages 10-18 learn rifle safety and the beginnings of shooting technique. Rowan MacArdle attended this clinic, leaving at its conclusion all fired up about adding marksmanship to her already skilled skiing.
Rowan is 45 years Gill’s junior. She is up early on a grey Vermont morning before a hike with friends later in the day. The six inches of snow covering the ground just a few days prior has already melted. Winter temperatures in Vermont are labile and biathletes have to rely on venues with machine-made snow, nature-made snow a bonus. This year, Rowan trains with her EABC peers at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, a three-hour round trip for Rowan and one of her parents.
Gill and I are seated at our kitchen table as her father, Sean, a self-described “hyper-involved” parent, says, “Hi.” We are just meeting on zoom and he is clearly proud of Rowan, talking with her about her upcoming workout. She is one of the fortunate during COVID—a coach lent her a target which her parents then bought as a birthday gift. Rowan and I have talked a couple of times—she seems familiar and I picture Gill at 15.
Rowan warms up—jumping jacks to boost her heart rate—and runs over to her mat. Her rifle is holstered on her back. She reaches her arm around, pulls the rifle out of its harness and lays prone on her mat, left elbow on the ground, steadying her rifle. From 50 meters, she clears four of the five targets. “I like to get the rush of hitting targets,” she says, “and the adrenaline,” she continues. Her words echo Gill’s.
“Do you shoot in a particular order?” Gill asks. I haven’t thought of that question.
“I just do it left to right,” Rowan doesn’t hesitate.
They banter a bit until Gill adds, “Me too, unless I was standing.” She starts to laugh. “I’d be shaking too hard so I’d shoot whatever I aimed at.”
Rowan chuckles. “Yeah, me too,” she says and their rapport is clear.
She describes a moment that sealed her love of the sport. “It was the US National Championships, I think, and I was very excited, but also very nervous.” She continues, her eyes holding mine steadily, her voice strong. “I had a habit of over holding my trigger finger. I would be just about to take it then wait a second two long. I’d begin shaking.”
I smile at her unabashed grin. “I cleaned my targets for the first time in a race,” she continues, “and obviously that felt really good.”
Gill pulls the case out of our closet and opens it. I wrinkle my nose at the pungent odor of gun oil but Gill is nonplussed, only seeing her rifle, a German Anschutz that cost $1900 thirty years ago. “It was the best I could buy,” she says when I ask if Anschutz is a reputable rifle company. Gill attaches the harness to the stock with an Allen wrench and hands it to me. A Lilliputian, I am dwarfed by the rifle as I sling it onto my back. Despite patient coaching, I can’t get the process down—grab it off my back, lay down, attach it to an arm band, and aim. What takes biathletes seconds takes me five minutes, easy. The ease with which biathletes ski and set up to shoot seems an impossibility. I offer to put the gun away. “I’ve got it,” Gill says patiently, laying it just so in its case, carefully lowering the lid.
Virginia Cobb, age 15, her cheeks burnished with exercise, is a member of EABC. She has grown up surrounded by biathlon. Her father is Max Cobb, President & CEO of US Biathlon. She is committed to biathlon, wanting to progress as far as she can. “I’m driven by the possibilities of improvement,” she tells me, sounding older than her years. “Working at something and then seeing the outcome is really satisfying.”
Rowan and Virginia don’t hesitate when I ask what they do to save their sport from climate change. These two remember when a 60-degree day followed the next by a blizzard was rare. Acknowledging they can’t vote, they want politicians and environmentalists to ensure that they can ski as adults, that their children will enjoy winter sports and they believe that Protect our Winters, a 501 nonprofit, will lead us all in the right direction.
Protect our Winters aims to use “passionate outdoor people” as climate change advocates, solving the climate crisis with intention and purpose. It’s not going to be long before Rowan and Virginia are featured on the website, “Biathlete” above their names. Just like the Norwegian soldiers of the 1880s, we are in a fight against climate change. The time is now.
There is something magical and inspirational about watching junior biathletes work to perfect their sport as these young people do. Aware of climate change impacts, they act in spite of crisis—in fact, they are the way forward. Their passions are distilled to razor-sharp focus and a propensity for paying attention. Leaning into the future, this is what the climate crisis asks of each of us. Train for battle and fight like hell.
There are powerful biathletes who have broken through the barrier of exclusion. Women who have trained hard, against many odds, making their way forward as competitive athletes, agitators and activists.
And then there’s a couple, sitting at their kitchen table at the end of the day, getting to know each other all over again.
Kris Haines-Sharp is an educator and writer living in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. She was a 2020-21 Craigardan writer-in-residence where she was selected to study with Kate Moses in the Bookgardan writing program. Her work has appeared in Entropy Magazine and Adelaide Literary Magazine. She is writing a memoir.
3 thoughts on “Their Time: Female Biathletes, a Landmark Anniversary, and the Battle against Climate Change”
Thank you, Jim.