The Biathlon is a Winter Olympic event that combines the sport of cross-country ski racing with rifle marksmanship. It's one of the most popular winter sports in Europe. Yet it remains relatively obscure in the United States. Cross-country ski enthusiasts in the northeastern state of Vermont are trying to change that and generate more interest in both cross-country skiing and events like the biathlon. They've found the best way is to start young -- and throw in some paint.
Bill Reuther coaches the high school cross-country ski team in Rutland, Vermont. He also runs a program that gets young kids involved in the sport. Because many of them are already involved in hockey, figure skating and downhill skiing, Reuther knew he needed a hook to get kids to give cross-country skiing a try. "It just occurred to me that paintball would be perfect because they're safe, they're kid friendly and it kind of raised the coolness factor a little bit," he recalls. And so, the paintball biathlon was born.
Paintball guns look a bit like rifles, but instead of bullets, they spit out biodegradable balls of nontoxic, washable paint. They go splat in a rainbow of colors, which Reuther says kids love.
This winter, nearly 200 kids aged 7 to 18 turned out for the second annual paintball biathlon at the Mountain Top Nordic Ski Center in Chittenden, Vermont. Gretchen Czaja, a cross-country ski coach from nearby Woodstock, brought ten kids to the event. She says they were excited when they heard paintball was involved. "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. This is their favorite event!" she adds with a laugh.
Jeff Tucker, 12, of Woodstock, has been racing for several years. He says the target shooting adds a fun new twist to the sport. "Instead of going all out like you would in a regular race, you have to concentrate and take your time," he explains. "And if you miss a target, you have maybe ten seconds added onto your time, so if you miss all your targets, you're not going to do very well."
That balance between going all out and holding something back is what makes the biathlon such an exciting and challenging event, according to Chaz Lyons. The cross-country ski coach for Vermont's Middlebury Union High School says that pushes athletes to their limits. "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 your breathing down and slow your heart rate down and be extremely accurate."
At this year's course, the kids skied up and down hills, through wooded paths and around a pond. Starts were staggered so that each skier took off individually. Older kids skied more laps than the younger ones - but everyone got a chance to shoot.
The firing range had ten stations. Paintball guns rested on hay bales at one end. Large wooden backboards stood nine meters away with white paper plates for targets. About 40 volunteers were on hand to help, many of them sporting jackets splotched with paint.
Watching the paintballs fly, Max Cobb, Executive Director of the U.S. Biathlon Association, smiles broadly, and says events like this are tremendous recruiting tools. "The kids really do get a sense of the sport of biathlon," he points out, "and that's awesome. And using paintballs, it's so safe and it's so easy to organize. And I don't know of another youth biathlon event that's this big anywhere in the world."
Kids and parents are already looking forward to next year's event, mostly, they say, because the focus at this biathlon was much more about having fun and trying something new than about finishing first.