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Biathlon ‘Like Two Sports’ – Ski, Snowshoe Biathletes Challenged to Excel at Both

Tim Ellis/KUAC

Arctic Winter Games, Day 4: Today is the busiest days of competition so far, with action scheduled in 19 of 20 event categories. As the games accelerate towards completion Saturday, the competition for medals is intensifying. So far Team Alaska has the most with 89 followed by Team Yamal with 73 and Alberta North with 50. Athletes in some events had the day off yesterday to train for final competitions, including Team Alaska’s snowshoe and ski biathletes.

We caught up with the youth biathletes as they were rotating in and out of the shooting range. They removed their skis or snowshoes, fired at targets from either standing or prone position, then quickly got their gear back on continued on around the trail.

Head snowshoe biathlete coach Simon Gilliland explains the routine:

“When the race starts, they ski or snowshow a loop,” Gilliland said. “Then they come in and shoot once – the first stage is always prone. Then they go out for another loop, and in relays and in sprints, they shoot one more standing station for the juniors, juveniles shoot prone. And then the third loop and they’re done.”

The youths were relaxed – it was practice, after all –but it was clear to see by how well-trained they all were as they methodically rotated through, a half dozen shooters at a time.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Head Team Alaska snowshoe biathlon Coach Simon Gilliland, left, and Zach Hall, head ski biathlon coach, help athletes at the shooting range during Wednesday's practice.

Ryan Rieser is a 15-year-old junior snowshoe biathlete from Anchorage. He was kind of bummed-out about his performance so far, but he’s looking forward to the next round, which he believes will enable him to make a comeback.

“The next race is going to be a time-penalty, which will give me a little bit of an advantage,” he said, “because I’m not quite as good as some of the other people in snowshoeing, but I’m a bit more of a better shot.”

That’s one of the reasons he likes the sport – it enables athletes to use their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses.

“Biathlon is like two sports,” Rieser said. “Usually there’s one side that people are better at, and mine’s shooting.”

Katie Daniels is a junior women’s snowshoe biathlete from Unalakleet. She says she’s trained year-round since she was 7, mainly on skies but also with snowshoes as of about a year ago, in order to be selected for the Games.

“I do cross-country running in the summertime,” she said. “And then I snowshoe every other day of the week, except Sunday, from whenever we get snow, which is usually November and December, until the Games start in March.”

Daniels says just getting here is a thrill. Even more so to place well in the competition.

“Yeah, I’m getting the most I could ever ask for,” she said. “I got third place twice in a row. I was quite happy with that.”

Unalakleet is a small town in a remote area on the coast of western Alaska, so Daniels doesn’t have access to trainers and coaches that kids from cities have access to. But Daniels says she’s got a strong support group in her community – and online.

“I have a cross-country running coach – his name is Nick Hansen,” she said. “He’s actually here at the games also, competing in NYO – Native Youth Olymics. My parents – definitely my dad – he’s helps me target practice all the time. Even when he doesn’t have time. And then my ski coach. And then I also have people who help me over e-mail.”

Her support group extends even further to others who’ve helped out by contributing such things as the mukluks that Daniels was wearing with the traditional wood-frame-and-rawhide snowshoe.

Gilliland says there some concern in his coaching community over the use of mukluks and traditional snowshoes for the sport.

“In the past, we’ve seen injuries flare up,” he said, “because of the way that they’re attached. Whereas with the modern aluminum (snowshoes), the binding system is different, and it doesn’t put the same stresses on the foot.”

Gilliland says youths like Daniels get a shot at competing in the Arctic Winter Games through a policy set by an organization that he’s a part of that helps with the biathlete training program.  

“The WISA – Western Interior Ski Association – they have four slots that we reserve for them, for the kids that are off the road system,” he said. “Generally, they’ll send a snowshoer and skier in both the boys and girls in the junior division.”

This year, those slots went to Kaleb Korta, from Galena; Isaac McElwee, from White Mountain, Rosa Schmidt, from Nome, and Daniels, from Unalakleet.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.