National Guard trains biathlon team at NRA 3-Position Smallbore Championships
Camp Perry, Ohio - Two competitors are dominating the Biathlon at this year's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — Belarus' Darya Domracheva and France's Martin Fourcade. Winning four out of the first six events outright, Domracheva and Fourcade personify the marksmanship, discipline and stamina required to succeed at such a demanding sport on the international level.
Seven months earlier and 5,500 miles to the east, we met up with another group of biathletes who share those same characteristics. Those of the Ohio National Guard.
"The National Guard is actually the only DOD entity that provides servicemen the ability to compete for a spot on the Olympic Biathlon team," Major Dan Long told us during NRA's National 3-Position Smallbore Rifle Championships. "Most of us got into the game a little late, but we've got a number of young competitors with a chance to go all the way."
Everything is run out of the National Guard Headquarters in Vermont. Some programs have been around for years, some for decades. Ohio, for example, started back in 1983.
"I was part of that team," retired Air Force Master Sargent Bill Pifer said with a laugh. "That's how old I am."
The sport is a little older.
First run as a demonstration event at the 1924 Winter Olympic Games, all that's required is a rifle and a pair of skis. Competitors race to the shooting area and fire five round (rotating from standing shooting areas to prone shooting areas) and a target. Miss and you have to ski a penalty lap. Shoot five for five and it's off to the next group of targets. Fastest time wins.
"From prone we're firing at a target about the size of a 50 cent piece," Long explained. "The standing target is about the size of a DVD."
That's not the standard protocol for the Smallbore Championships in Camp Perry. Most of the shooters are aiming for a bullseye. The biathletes, however, are only aiming for the black. And that's just one of the differences.
"We don't have the exoskeletons or Iron Mans suits," said Long.
He's referring to the leather shooting jackets and pants worn by a majority of competitors. Each are molded with inserts and straps that make it easier for a shooter to maintain position while firing. Instead of the exoskeletons, the National Guard biathletes are competing in shorts and t-shirts.
"That's closer to what we wear when we're out on the course," said Pifer. "To stay within our objectives, we train the way we compete."
Then we go to the rifles. While most are sporting a high-tech, light-weight, space-age looking smallbores, these guys are shooting an Anschutz Biathlon Rifle. A little heavier, a little bulkier and a little more power. There are even slots along the stock to carry extra magazines. Talk about a balancing act.
Despite all the disadvantages, Long and his team were still finding success. With scores in the 380s (out of a possible 400), everyone appeared to be right on target. A benefit considering that this is more than a training exercise.
"Yes we're here to train, but we're also here to recruit," said Long. "To find those 18 to 20-year olds out here who want to add a little edge to their marksmanship. Those who want to find themselves in the middle of nowhere with skis on their feet and rifles on their back.
"How awesome is that?"
Hopefully awesome enough to bring them back next year.
For more on NRA's Competitive Shooting Programs, visit their website at compete.nra.org