Biathlon and paintball make a popular combination

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(Host) Biathlon is an event the combines the sport of cross country ski racing with rifle marksmanship.

It’s one of the most popular winter sports there is in Europe. Yet it remains relatively obscure in the United States.

Cross country ski enthusiasts in Vermont are trying to change that and generate more interest in Nordic skiing and events like the biathlon.

They’ve found the best way is to start young and as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, throw in some paint.

(Keck) Bill Reuther coaches Rutland High School’s cross country ski team. He also runs a program that gets grade school kids involved in the sport.

But with so many competing activities like: hockey, figure skating and downhill skiing, Reuther knew he needed a hook to get kids to give cross country skiing a try. The paintball biathlon was born

(Ruether) “It just occurred to me that paintball would be perfect because they’re safe their kid friendly and it just made sense.”

(Keck) Reuther says he’s heard of ski clubs holding bee bee gun biathlons and pellet gun biathlons – and even events where competitors throw snowballs. But he says as far as he knows, no one has used paintball guns.

(Ruether) “I mean skiing is the big draw, ultimately, but the paintball is enough of a draw to get kind who were on the fence to try it out and kind of raised the coolness factor a little bit.”

(Keck) Sure enough almost 200 kids aged 7 to 18 turned out for the second annual Paint Ball Biathlon. It was held last month at the Mountain Top Nordic Ski Center in Chittenden.

(Sounds of tournament)
(Announcer) 5-4-3,2,1.. . . . Bib 7 at 1:30 Bib eight at 1:45. . . . .

(Keck) Gretchen Szaja, a cross country ski coach from Woodstock, brought ten kids to the event.

(Keck) “Were they excited when they heard paint ball was involved?”
(Czaja) “They’ve been waiting all year for this because they did this last year and the newcomers heard about it from the veterans on the team (laughs) so this is their favorite event.”

(Keck) Twelve-year-old Jeff Tucker, of Woodstock, has been racing for several years. He says the target shooting adds a fun, new twist.

(Tucker) “Instead of going all out like you would in a regular race – you have to concentrate and take your time. And if you miss a target you get ten seconds added onto your time. So if you miss all your targets you’re not going to do very well.”

(Keck) Chaz Lyons, the cross country ski coach for Middlebury Union High School, says that balance between going all out and holding something back is what makes the biathlon such an exciting and challenging event.

(Lyons) “It’s the contradiction. You’re doing a hard fast endurance sport. You’re getting your heart rate up and you’re breathing extremely heavily. And then you ask your body to stop and calm down and slow your heart rate down and be extremely accurate. That combination really pushes people to their limits.”

(Keck) The race course had kids skiing up and down hills, through trees and around a pond. Starts were staggered so that each skier took off individually. Older kids had to ski more laps than the younger ones – but everyone got a chance to shoot.

(Shooting sounds)
“Come on in here ladies – ahoop ahoop – blue jacket – blue jacket – right here.”
(Man) “All right Amanda. Five for five!”

(Keck) The firing range had ten stations. Paintball guns were at one end resting on hay bales at one end. Large wooden backboards stood thirty feet away with white paper plates for targets.

(Jay Slenker) “Right here buddy!”

(Keck) Jay Slenker, of Chittenden, was one of about 40 volunteers on hand to help.

(Slenker) “All right. Come on in. You get five shots. Take your time. Remember, put your hand up here on the grip. There you go. (bang) Right on.”

(Keck) Grant Braddish, from Peru, Vermont was also on hand to help racers with the finer points of paintball marksmanship.

(Braddish) “And as soon as he hit the first one, I kept thinking – pull the trigger – pull the trigger – bap-bap-bap- bap!!!!(laughter)”

(Keck) Seventeen-year-old Bowman Potter of Ira, was one of days’ sharp shooters hitting fourteen out of fifteen shots.
(Potter) “You really have to get a breathing pattern when you shoot, because if you’re just really huffing and puffing the gun goes everywhere.”

(Keck) And it wasn’t just the racers who were having a good time. Jonathan Bigelow’s job was to make sure there were fresh targets up for each skier. His yellow rain slicker was covered with bright blue paint and the grin on his face was huge.

(Bigelow) (laughs) “The paint – it’s just fun. Even in Vermont I think a lot of people would say there are less and less of us who are deer hunting. It’s less and less a culture of hunting sports. And so I think a lot of people are afraid of guns. And there’s something about paintball that diffuses anxieties, particularly parent anxieties.”

(Keck) Max Cobb is also psyched. He’s Executive Director of the United States Biathlon Association and he says events like this are tremendous recruiting tools.

(Cobb) “And I don’t know of another youth biathlon event that’s this big anywhere in the world.”

(Keck) He and most everyone else at the race say they’re already looking forward to next year.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Chittenden.

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