American biathlete Rachel Steer has a zest for living that comes through as soon as you meet her. The 27-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska, has been involved in competitive sports of all kinds since she was eight years old. She was part of the U.S. Biathlon team at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and she is aiming for improvement at the 2006 Turin Games.
Rachel Steer has been a versatile athlete her entire life. Beginning as a competitive swimmer at the age of eight, she later competed in track, cross country skiing and triathlons. She also loves sailing, fishing and hunting.
Biathlon, which means dual event, mixes two of her favorite sports by combining skiing and rifle shooting. Rachel explains what it's like to compete in two such different disciplines.
"There is really one great analogy that we all use," she said. "It is like turning from a rabbit into a rock and back into a rabbit again. I have been doing this so long that I do not think of it as shifting gears. To me it is all one thing - you ski and you shoot. But looking at it from the outside it is two totally different things."
Rachel says growing up in Anchorage, Alaska was great because there were lots of ski trails all around. Her parents were very recreationally oriented and got her started in cross country skiing. Rachel was in a junior Nordic ski program when her older brother started a biathlon program and she says she got into shooting by following her big brother around.
"They got tired of me waiting around at the range so they gave me a rifle," she said. "They put me way down at the far end and said , 'Oh, she will not shoot anybody down there.' Before they knew it, I was hitting more targets than the high school guys that were down at the other side of the range. So definitely skiing came first to me, but shooting came a lot more naturally to me."
Biathlon has its roots in Scandinavia, where skiers armed with rifles played an integral part in military defense as early as the 1700s. The earliest recorded biathlon competition took place in 1767 between so-called ski-runner companies that guarded the border between Sweden and Norway.
Rachel Steer was a member of the U.S. biathlon team at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where she finished a disappointing 31st in the 15-kilometer individual event, 60th in the sprint and 15th in the relay. But in the last two years, Rachel's career has taken off. In 2004, she placed in the top 20 at five World Cup events, including a personal best of 12th place in the Lake Placid Pursuit. She has been the top-ranked American biathlete for three consecutive years, and has captured three national titles, in addition to being the top American performer on the World Cup circuit. Rachel trains hard as she works to continue improving.
"I aim to shoot three to four times a week," she said. "When I do training with shooting it's called combo-training, and if I am running or biking or roller-skiing with shooting so my heart-rate is up, the duration of the workout is as much as three-and-one-half hours."
But Rachel Steer says being a biathlete has other special requirements.
"I joke around sometimes and say you cannot be too stupid and you cannot be too smart if you want to be a biathlete," she said. "Because if you start thinking too much, you are going to miss the target. But you have to be smart enough to look around at what is going on, to learn from your mistakes in other competitions and in training, to see what your competitors are doing and perhaps improve upon that."
No American has ever won an Olympic biathlon medal, and Steer told VOA Sports about her hopes for Turin.
"I would say my goals are set at having a top-10 [finish] at the Olympics. I think I am capable of doing better, but I will start my goal at top-10," she said.
It was as a 10-year-old being driven home from swim practice that Rachel first thought about becoming an Olympian. Rachel remembers telling her mom how one of her teammates got in trouble for slacking off. She vividly recalls thinking to herself, "I am going to train hard, and I am going to the Olympics." Rachel Steer thought it, but never said it out loud. Now 17 years later, it is about to happen for the second time.