I crouched down until I was flat on my stomach. I placed the target, about the size of a silver dollar, in the crosshairs of my Anschutz rifle. I took two deep breaths per the direction of my instructors, the father-son duo of Lynn and Brandon Adams, and squeezed the trigger.
It was the first time I had fired a gun. I missed, but only by a few inches. I was more relieved to have missed innocent bystanders than disappointed at missing the target.
That was my introduction to the Olympic Biathlon Experience, which is adjacent to Soldier Hollow Golf Course, the site of the 2012 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship.
The Soldier Hollow biathlon course was built for the 2002 Winter Olympics, which were centered some 45 miles northwest in Salt Lake City. Today, the biathlon course continues to thrive under the leadership of the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation and is open for use by tourists, youth organizations, corporations and elite athletes.
Each aspiring Olympian is provided with highly accurate rifles, similar to the ones used during the 2002 Olympics. After the participant completes range instruction and practice, the instructors create a competition designed for each age and skill level.
I settled into a comfort zone after my initial miss; by my third clip, I hit four of five targets from the prone (lying) position. Just as I thought I was getting the hang of it, we moved to the standing position. The target increased to roughly the size of a grapefruit, but without the ground to help steady my aim, I missed badly on my first four attempts before connecting with my last bullet.
With training complete, cardiovascular exercise was incorporated to elevate my heart rate, which makes the task of shooting these elusive targets even more difficult. Because it was summer, I ran 500 meters instead of the customary cross-country skiing that makes up the biathlon event.
Sweaty and catching my breath, I settled in behind my rifle. The target was bouncing around and much harder to focus on. I connected on three of five shots from the prone position and was taking a few seconds to admire my marksmanship when my instructors sternly told to start running again.
After another lap, my hands were shaking even more. From the standing position, I sprayed four shots well wide of the target before collecting myself to hit the target on my final shot. Four out of 10 – not bad for a first-timer, said Lynn, before quickly adding that an Olympic-caliber athlete would probably not miss a shot and could complete it in about half the time.
The History of Biathlon
While most people don’t try ski jumping, luge or bobsled because of injury risk or cost, the biathlon course at Soldier Hollow gives people of all ages a chance to feel what it’s like to be an Olympian, even if it is at a significantly lower skill level.
Nearly everyone that does the biathlon course, whether they hit a single target or not, comes out saying, ‘Wow, that was a great experience,’ said Howard Peterson, executive director of the Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation.
Peterson, who served as the president of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association for more than a decade and a member of the U.S. Olympic Site Selection Committee that recommended Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Games, said that among first-time biathlon participants, women almost always do better than men.
"Women listen to instructions better than men and don’t try to use as much muscle in everything," said Peterson. "Our best-selling shirt has the slogan ‘Girls Rule at Soldier Hollow.’"
My instructors, Lynn Adams, 54, of Heber, Utah, and his son, Brandon, 27, of Midway, have been involved with biathlons for over a decade. Brandon was a member of the Army National Guard Biathlon Team and has competed in events in Europe and South America.
During the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924 at Chamonix, France, the biathlon competition took the form of a military-patrol race. Klas Lestander from Sweden was the first Olympic gold medalist in biathlon. The modern biathlon competition was introduced at the 1960 Winter Olympic at Squaw Valley, Calif.
When the 2002 Winter Olympics were awarded to Salt Lake City, the original site for the biathlon was to be Little Dell canyons. But environmental and wildlife concerns necessitated a move to Soldier Hollow.
Now, many elite athletes come to Soldier Hollow in the fall to train before competing in Europe during the winter. Soldier Hollow is an ideal site not only for the weather, but also its 1,750-meter elevation, just below the 1,800-meter legal limit for Olympic and World Cup biathlon races.
Unlike most Olympic venues that have struggled after the Games ended, Soldier Hollow has thrived. The Soldier Hollow Legacy Foundation continues to make the region an attraction – in addition to the Olympic Biathlon Experience, Soldier Hollow boasts a 1,200-foot tubing hill, 31 kilometers of cross-country skiing trails and two golf courses. It also hosts competitions such as the Soldier Hollow Classic, the world’s foremost sheepdog championship, which attracted 26,000 spectators in 2011.
"Preserving these venues and running these events is our way of being part of the community," said Peterson. "Grandparents bring their grandchildren and show them a part of their culture. It connects us to the land and to future generations."
Michael Trostel is the curator/historian for the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.