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Why Biathlon Is Worth A Shot

What a skier-golfer learned when she added this pressure-packed sport to her lineup.

February 17, 2014

Have you been watching the Winter Olympics?

Have you checked out any of the biathlon, that quirky, grueling event that combines two athletic opposites -- cross-country skiing and shooting?

The sport, which originated as a training exercise for the Norwegian army, always ends with gasping competitors heaving themselves toward the finish. For me, it is must-see TV -- and it should be for any serious golfer.

Why? Because golf and biathlon have similar DNA. In both, you need to find a state of calm amid adrenaline and a racing heart, all while executing a highly precise movement.

First, a primer. Depending on the race, the biathlete skis between six and 20 kilometers, and stops between two and four times to shoot a .22 caliber rifle at five circular targets 50 meters away. The targets are 11.5 centimeters in diameter for standing (the same width as a golf hole), and 4.5 cm for shots fired when prone. Every missed target means having to ski a 150-meter penalty lap.

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At 16, I was a competitive cross-country skier and golfer when a biathlon coach told me I might be good at his sport. I was skeptical but intrigued, and once I tried it, the similarities between the sports became obvious.

Right away, I started to look at biathlon as a series of three-footers that come in sets of five. It's easy to feel a heart-rate increase with the pressure of wanting to make a putt, but it gets a lot tougher to perform a similar task with a heart rate that could exceed 200 beats per minute from the physical exertion of skiing. Add in the pressure of wanting to hit targets to avoid penalty loops, and that target starts to look a lot smaller.

To me, coming into the range and preparing to shoot was very much like a pre-shot routine in golf, with the goal being to calm down and get into the process. When you're holding the rifle, shaking from exhaustion, the small black target will only fit perfectly in the sight for a moment, then an inhale shifts it above, and an exhale brings it back down. Lanny Bassham, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist in rifle shooting who has worked with many PGA Tour pros including Fred Funk, says the key to success in his sport is to "shoot in between the pulse beats."

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It's a lot like finding the right moment to take the putter back. As you aim the rifle, the pressure of your finger on the trigger is held steadily at 80 percent. When you're going well, the release of the trigger being pulled happens almost without you knowing. The sharp clang of the target going down temporarily jars your moment of stillness. Another breath, and you have to knock down four more. Sometimes you think you've fired a good shot, you wait for the target to go down, but it doesn't. You've missed. And that sinking feeling in your gut is the same as the one you get from watching a putt lip out. But as in golf, you have to teach your memory to be short -- the only shot that matters is the next one.

I enjoyed my experience with biathlon, but didn't end up pursuing it seriously. The biggest benefit I received was to my golf. My coach, Algis Shalna, was an Olympic gold medalist in biathlon for the Soviet Union in 1984, and is also a golfer. "Biathletes should [play] golf because it forces you to be even, stable, consistent, deliberate, relaxed," he says. "Golfers should try shooting to feel what it's like to be jerky with the trigger. "

I've found that there's nothing like being abrupt with your movements while holding a rifle to show you the importance of being calm and smooth, in both body and mind. And that feeling is about the best one any golfer can have.

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