This Athlete Skis, Shoots and Heaves

"Too tired to spit": Carolyn Treacy lies exhausted after the women's biathlon relay. The U.S. team finished 15th out of 18. (By Ezra Shaw -- Getty Images)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006

CESANA SAN SICARIO, Italy -- Biathletes often collapse in the snow after they cross the finish line. They lie there for a bit trying to get air into their ragged lungs, and sometimes someone covers them with a blanket.

This, after a half-hour or hour of endurance skiing, up and down and up and down, the athletes stabbing at the snow with poles, stopping to shoot a gun as quickly and true as possible, then back on the snow again. Biathletes experience exhaustion of a sort most of us will probably never feel. (And if we do, it probably will mean we're racing a bear, and we're about to lose.)

Biathletes drool when they're skiing a course, says U.S. team member Carolyn Treacy, shortly after she competes in the women's relay Thursday and then -- like all three of her teammates -- falls to the earth. "You're just too tired to spit."

Imagine working your body like that, working it so hard you need two days to recover, only to come in 15th out of 18 teams, as our women did yesterday.

If you're looking for purity in sport, for those who compete for the sheer thrill of the race, look to the American biathletes, who surely aren't competing for love or money. This sport is unforgiving: If you miss your targets, you have to ski a penalty loop. (This feels very prison-y, very "Cool Hand Luke," very Dig another ditch, Luke .) It is all the more unforgiving for the Americans, who have never won an Olympic medal in the sport, who don't have the coaches and the sponsors and the breadth of talented young people just clamoring to become biathletes, as occurs in, say, Germany.

The Americans just attack the snow with their fierce wills, the lactic acid burning up their legs, past the stands filled with exuberant fans waving flags from many nations, but not theirs. This is a sport for the stubborn and the strong.

"In some sense the only reason I'm doing this is because nobody else was doing this when I was young," says Rachel Steer. She is considered the finest female biathlete in America, but when Steer is asked about this, she says: "I hadn't thought about it." Then: "It doesn't matter." Then: "I certainly hope I'm not the best ever."

Somewhere along the line, the United States missed the biathlon boat. It is an old sport, conjuring images of long treks by lonely soldiers through the woods of Northern Europe. The first known competition was held in Scandinavia in 1767, and it became a military exercise. The "military-patrol ski race" was a demonstration sport in the early Olympics, and -- according to an Associated Press report from St. Moritz in 1928 -- so exhausted the athletes that there was speculation it might be eliminated:

"Two of the four members of the Finnish team collapsed after crossing the finish line and had to be carried tot [sic] a hotel, where hot grog and other stimulants were administered."

In Europe, the sport is wildly popular. Germany, Russia and Norway vie for the top titles. At the women's relay, for example, the stands are packed; people wave flags from Germany, France, Italy. There's a banner that says "FAN-CLUB Sven Fischer." There's a guy shouting "Roos-i-ya."

Hey, look! There! Two American flags waving in the stands! They disappear quickly, like the American team's hopes.

Biathlon has a split personality; it demands the physical challenge of skiing and the cerebral challenge of shooting. Run up five flights of stairs and then try to steady your breathing and your hands enough to, say, put in a contact lens. The athletes train to shoot with a high heart rate -- American Lanny Barnes, who competes with her twin sister, Tracy, says her heart pounds 180 times a minute when she's shooting. The real challenge, she says, is steadying her legs, which tend to shake after all that skiing. It's tough on the body, Lanny says, all that stop-and-go, much the way it would be on a car. Then there's the thin air of these mountains. (One of the women biathletes even has asthma.)

"You're pretty much toast at the end," she says.

"Today I was really hungry during the last loop 'cause I was afraid to eat too much lest I puke," says Treacy, who sometimes gets big headaches after races.

"Last year one of our guys threw up," says U.S. coach James Upham. This was in the middle of a race. Then he kept going.

Rachel Steer says she'd love to make a living at the sport she loves, but for now that seems impossible. The media seem to be drawn to figure skating and its stable of "young, vulnerable women," she says. (Steer imagines audiences of women tearing up when some delicate figure skater falls on a triple lutz, then the television coverage cutting to a Kleenex commercial.) In any case, Steer is planning to retire after this season. She is asked -- after her team's poor finish -- whether she feels her 15-odd years of hard work in the biathlon have been worth it.

"Right now it would be so easy to say no, it wasn't worth it," she says. But maybe in time, she says, she'll be a little less hard on herself.

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