Kari Swenson runs like a deer through the woods these days. But she never runs alone.
Here in the Green Mountains last week, training for this winter's world women's biathlon championships, she made a perfect picture, jogging lightly among the golden, high-country maples, her long, auburn braid bouncing with each stride.
But you won't find her alone.
"Not in the woods," she said. "Not even in the cities. Running, hiking, anything like that. I even bought a dog this spring that's being trained for protection.
"Those guys," she said, her eyes ablaze as she recalled the kidnapers who shot her and abandoned her in the Montana woods last year, "stole my freedom."
Fifteen months ago, on a mountain trail near Big Sky resort in her native state, Swenson was running a six-mile course when two men armed with rifles, pistols and knives accosted her.
Mountain men they were, or so the media later dubbed Don Nichols, a social outcast, and his 19-year-old son, Dan. They lived in mountain caves and wilderness camps like nomads, poaching game and growing and storing root crops for food.
The father had long wanted a mate for his son, and when they spied the fit, attractive Swenson on their turf, they intercepted her and dragged her back to their lair.
You probably remember the story. They kept Swenson overnight, chained to a tree like a dog, and planned to move deeper into the woods with her the next day. But in the morning, her friends came looking. One was shot in the face by Don Nichols, who recently was sentenced to 85 years in prison for the slaying.
Swenson was shot, too, apparently accidentally, when her first would-be rescuer turned up. Dan Nichols, the son, who was later sentenced to 20 years in jail, swung his .22 pistol, and it fired. The round hit Swenson just below the collarbone and exited low in her back after ripping through her chest cavity and breaking a rib.
Her lung pierced by a bullet, Swenson was left to die by the mountain men, who vanished into the woods. It was five hours before she was discovered and airlifted out, and she says now that her lonely battle for life that day depended on one thing.
"I knew that if I lost consciousness, I was a goner," said Swenson.
So she ate and drank what she could -- calm despite the presence of her friend Alan Goldstein's body a few feet away -- and wrapped herself in a sleeping bag to stay warm. She remembers that when the medics arrived, her vision was blurred and her blood pressure so low "they couldn't find a vein to start an IV."
Some heroes and antiheroes were spawned in the hunt that ensued as it took the law five months to track down Don and Dan Nichols. Somebody might even get rich, but it won't be Swenson, who simply wants to forget.
This month's Esquire magazine has a feature article on Madison County Sheriff Johnny France, the laconic former rodeo cowboy who made the capture, sneaking up alone on the Nicholses as they fried deer meat in the snow, and getting the drop on them, "Gunsmoke"-style.
The Montana legislature passed a law barring the Nicholses from profiting by selling their story. Johnny France is talking about movies, New York agents, and picking a ghost writer to do his book, according to Esquire.
And Kari Swenson, who has not yet fully recovered and probably never will, is running in the woods again. But never alone.
Associates say Swenson is doubly scarred. There was the trauma of the kidnaping and near-fatal shooting, then an ordeal by interview as news and entertainment outfits across the country demanded that she retell the story she was trying to put behind her.
In a letter to friends a few months after the incident, Swenson's mother, Jan, described the media as "intolerable and insufferable." The family slammed the door, and it pretty well stayed slammed until last week, when Swenson agreed to an interview here.
"The terms," said biathlon team program director Dale Rodgers, "are these: You don't discuss the incident. Kari's willing to talk about her training and her athletic status, but if you bring up the incident, I'll warn you now that she'll just get up and leave."
Swenson was working out that morning on a practice range, running trail laps with her teammate, fellow Montanan Pam Nordheim. On the ground lay a pair of .22-caliber rifles, and 50 meters across a field stood two sets of targets with five bull's-eyes on each.
It was cool enough in the mountains that when Swenson ran in from the trail and shouldered her rifle, the breath exhaled to steady her pulse came out as vapor.
She shot five times. Five times the targets went down. Dead-solid perfect.
Later, Swenson said it has been lonely at the National Guard training headquarters here, where she and Nordheim stayed. She looks forward to formal training camp for the whole team, which opens Saturday in Colorado.
Where does she stand, going in? "Low man on the totem pole," she laughed.
Her training coach, Sigvart Bjontegaard, agreed. But, he said, "she has the ability to win the gold. I compare her to the best in Norway, the one that holds the world championship."
Rodgers said, "If you looked at pictures of our top women, you couldn't help picking out Kari as the one with the most athletic potential."
Swenson, tall and lean and perfectly proportioned for the rigors of Nordic skiing, proved she could compete at the top when she was fifth in the 10-kilometer biathlon at the 1984 world championships in France, behind four Soviets. That's the best finish ever for a U.S. woman and made her No. 1 on the team.
"I beat all the Swedish and Norwegian women, and it's their sport," said Swenson. "People were walking around saying, 'Swenson, Swenson. Isn't that a Swedish name? Isn't that a Norwegian name?' "
Those were good times, but no one knows now, least of all Swenson, whether she'll ever regain the top of her sport, which combines cross-country skiing with rifle target-shooting.
Bjontegaard, too, wonders whether Swenson can reacquire the mental and emotional toughness needed for world-class competition.
"That's her problem, and her problem in the future, too, because of her incident," he said. "Under mental pressure, she can't concentrate. When she is free, when it's for fun, she can concentrate very much. But when she is under pressure, she is out of balance."
"It's an interesting struggle," Swenson said.
Swenson figures she is about 70 percent what she was two years ago.
"I'd love to be as good as I can be," she mused, "but I don't know if I ever can be."
When an animal is shot and wounded by a hunter, it heads for thick cover to hide and recuperate.
Swenson may be taking cover in her sport, said one who is close to her. "I think the support of her teammates and the routine of training are important to her now," said Rodgers.
"I'm still recuperating," said Swenson. The doctors at the pain clinic she went to in Seattle said she never would be free of pain from scar tissue that formed around the wounds. When she breathes heavily, she hurts inside, from her backbone around to her chest.
Emotionally, said Henley Gibble, head of Washington RunHers Unlimited and a longtime student of fear among women runners, a victim like Swenson "will have scars just like a person who's had child abuse. It's something you just don't get over. It's really very sad."
"It's funny," said Swenson. "The people at the pain clinic said, 'We're not used to people with such high goals.' They're used to dealing with people who are just happy to be normal. I want to be above normal."
So she runs. But never alone.