Three Alaskan biathletes qualified in brutal weather conditions in Minnesota on December 30, 2017 to represent the USA at the Youth/Junior Biathlon World Championships in Otepaa, Estonia. The Biathlon World Championships attract the best biathletes in the world, being one step below the Olympics.
Among the qualifiers is 16-year-old Helen Wilson of Eagle River, who will compete on Team USA for her second time.
The biathlon race is a combination of cross country skiing and marksmanship that has its origins in northern Europe. Contestants start at varying times, covering ground as quickly as possible. Throughout the race, they stop to shoot at targets that are either the size of a nickel size or silver dollar. They shoot in prone and standing and must control their heavy breathing to make an accurate shot. If they miss the target, time is added to their final score.
Wilson, a junior at Frontier Charter School, was born and raised in Eagle River and credits her time in Alaska for preparing her mentally for the Youth/Junior Biathlon World Championship Trials in Minnesota.
“I think the temperature kinda helped,” Wilson said. “Being from Alaska I think really helped me because mentally I could deal with the cold. It was very, very cold when we got there. When we got there, it was negative twenty.”
Her extensive preparation also contributed to her confidence. Her first experience with the biathlon started in 7th grade when she competed in a biathlon at Kinkaid Park. Wilson’s father recently had taken the role as the coach of the Alaska National Guard’s biathlon team and told her how to fire her rifle prior to the race.
“My dad just kinda threw me in!” she said, laughing.
She recalls only missing three targets and enjoying the experience. Competing intermittently since, when she came to high school she had to decide if she wanted to commit to it or focus on other endeavors.
“I stuck it out in middle school and really enjoyed it but in high school I was like, ‘Am I going to get anywhere?’” Wilson said.
She decided to commit to the biathlon after her father encouraged her and meeting her potential teammates at a biathlon club meeting. Wilson cut things from her schedule that divided her energies.
She opted to enroll as a home schooler because of the flexibility with her schedule, spending many hours studying on the road as a result. For weeks at a time she did not see her friends but she improved while making new acquaintances from other countries.
Unfortunately, her biathlon coach accepted a position in Utah in the summer of her sophomore year. Not deterred, Wilson continued training with a friend.
Her efforts were rewarded last year when she qualified for the Worlds competition as a 15-year-old.
“After I made the team, I was shocked. I was like, ‘Wow! I can really do this.’”
More focused than ever, she threw herself into the year-round training of the biathlon. During the summer, Wilson focused on increasing her workout volume and intensity by attending training camps across the country.
She said, “I really like training camps because I feel I gain a lot from them and I get a lot stronger but they’re also a lot of fun because you’re somewhere new with new people.”
Wilson is eager to compete at the Biathlon World Championships again this February as she travels with Team USA.
Looking beyond February, she is unsure what the future holds but she hopes the biathlon will continue playing a big part of her life.
To watch the Youth/Junior Biathlon World Championships and cheer for local biathletes on the world stage, check www.teamusa.org/US-biathlon on February 26-March 4.
Jamin Goecker is a local writer who recently moved to Alaska. When he’s not writing about local events and personalities, he can be found hiking, running, skiing, or editing his manuscript for a novel. Email him at Jamin@echoak.com and follow him on Instagram at Jgoecker1 or Twitter at @jamin_goecker