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NEWS | March 5, 2015

Kentucky Guardsmen compete in biathlon finals

By Staff Sgt. Scott Raymond, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

For the first time, the Kentucky Guard sent a team to ski and shoot against the best of the best biathlon athletes in the National Guard. Guardsmen from 23 other states joined Kentucky at the 40th National Guard Biathlon Championships at Camp Ethan Allen Training Site in Jericho, Vt., Feb. 28 to March 5.

"Competing in a biathlon is a very unique experience for anyone and especially so for Kentucky Guardsmen," said Capt. Stephen Smith with the 41st Civil Support Team. "It's been a great challenge for the four of us, but also very rewarding."

Along with Smith were teammates Sgt. 1st Class Diane Mortenson, Joint Force Headquarters, and Staff Sgt. Joel Ray Campbell and Eric Shackelford, both with the 41st CST. They joined more than 120 other Guardsmen from across the country to compete in the National Guard's rendition of one of the oldest winter sports.

The five-day event pushed the Soldiers to their physical limits with daily races averaging 10km. With roots in Scandinavian military training, a biathlon is a rigorous test of endurance, speed and marksmanship. Athletes alternate racing cross country ski loops with target shooting from the prone and standing positions.

"Kentucky may be known for good shooters, but not for skiing," said Mortenson, who was the only team member to have previously participated in a biathlon event. "We were kinda like the Jamaican Bobsled Team up there."

According to Lt. Col. Brian Demers, team coordinator, Kentucky Guard Soldiers have attended regional summer and winter events, but they've not competed as an organized team prior to this year. In 2012, Demers was asked to put a team together, but without equipment, experienced athletes or a solid understanding of the sport. It was not an easy task.

Kentucky has some real potential to make a niche for itself in the National Guard Biathlon Program," said Demers. "Our inaugural team exceeded most people's expectations of what a southern state could accomplish."

Despite lacking a climate conducive to cross country skiing, the team practiced on skate skis and tried to learn as much as they could about biathlon in a short time prior to the championships. But some necessary skills are ingrained in each Soldier from basic training.

"Competing in such a demanding event calls upon Soldiering skills that are on the basic level for every Soldier, you have communicating, shooting and you have movement," said Smith. "And those three things we have done continuously all week."

Regardless of their preparation, the event was still an entirely different experience. Campbell has shot competitively for years and was excited to put some well-aimed shots downrange; after skiing several miles in between shots, the veteran shooter has a new respect for the sport.

"The pace of the biathlon is unlike anything I have done before," said Campbell. "Biathlon combines cross country skiing up to 15 kilometers, stopping and as fast as possible place a number of precise shots into a target no bigger than a silver dollar at 50 meters. It's said that biathlon is the most difficult of the Olympic sports and I am a complete believer after the week I spent doing it."

Campbell was also intrigued by the unique atmosphere of a military sporting event where everyone was the same, no rank, no uniforms, but same expectations. On the range and through the course, fellow Guardsmen were just athletes, including former Olympians and world class biathlon competitors. Campbell said no matter their skill level, everyone was helpful and volunteered to help the Kentuckians learn.

"Out of the 120 athletes we have here, there's over 30 novices, which I think is a testament to the program," said Maj. Gen. Steven Cray, adjutant general for Vermont. "We need to attract states like Kentucky, to make a commitment to the sport and allow it to grow. Not only is it a great program from the biathlon side, but the benefit to the states and units is dramatic."

The Kentuckians said they weren't expecting to win any event, but they were there to compete. And like most underdogs, the Kentucky team garnered their fair share of fans during the week. Even as the new kids in town, the team got caught up in the camaraderie of the event and benefited from asking questions and putting their best foot, or ski, forward.

"Our biathletes were motivated, competitive and willing to learn from others, and there was a remarkable improvement over the course of the week in their techniques, speed and marksmanship," said Demers. "We had more people cheering for us than I had expected."

"We had compliments on many aspects of our team, from our uniforms to our work ethic, and we earned the respect of our fellow biathlon competitors."

Team members agreed that is was a tough week, physically harder than a marathon event, said Smith. But the eye-opening competition has set a standard for the team and the state to meet and exceed in the coming years.

"The three Soldiers I'm here with have done a superb job and have represented Kentucky well," Smith said. "Everyone here in Vermont knows who Kentucky is now and by being here we have started a firm foundation for this sport to continue in Kentucky."

"I won't mention the number of times we've fallen and how silly we may have looked at times, but we were here, we competed, we learned and we had a great time," said Shackelford. "I can't wait for next year."

The National Guard Biathlon Program expects to hold training camps, an East and West region competition and the 41st championships next year. The Kentuckian team already has high hopes for their second season on the snow.

"We will be back, and we will be even more competitive," said Mortenson. "We may have not had the best team this year, but we did have the best attitude."

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