I started learning to shoot this fall with Algis Shalna, a Lithuanian-born US Biathlon development coach who lives in Williston, VT, and drives all over northern New England and New York to introduce and recruit young skiers to the sport of biathlon. (I pause here to reflect on whether I can really justify classifying myself as “young”.) I always felt guiltily fortunate to have a coach drive three hours round-trip in order to give me shooting lessons, but only now that I’ve raced under Algis’ guidance a few times this winter and learned more about the sport and about him, do I recognize how lucky I really am. Not only is Algis an Olympic Gold Medalist and two-time World Champion, but he was the Soviet National Team’s head women’s coach for one year and the US National Team coach for fourteen years before taking his current position. Most importantly for me, it turns out that Algis is really, really good at teaching beginners.
So when he tells me, “Do not try to hit the targets!”, I go along with it. This counter-intuitive advice is Lesson #1 in biathlon. The logic is that the more you rely on your arm muscles to point the rifle, hand muscles to hold it in place, and finger muscles to pull the trigger at the “right moment”, the more opportunity there is for unsteady, imperfect movement, and the more likely you are to miss the target. And, if you think you are going to get a bull’s eye (or even come close to hitting that tiny black spot) by pulling the trigger when your site is lined up on it, think again. By the time you react to what you see, pull the trigger, and the bullet flies 50m down range, the image in the site and the result on the target will be, well, black and white. So Lesson #2 is “Don’t pull the trigger when you think you’re on target.” What you have to do then, is put your body in such a position that if you were to fall asleep and then pull the trigger by accident, you would have a perfect hit.
I am NOT QUITE THERE yet, but I am so intrigued with the process that my interest in training hard for another year has been revitalized! It also helps that I had two good races up in Fort Kent, Maine, last weekend at the Biathlon National Championships. I hit 50% of the targets and skied fast, which was enough to earn me a gold medal in the 12.5k mass start. I am looking forward to spending more time on the range with Algis, and to following in the footsteps of my star teammates, Hannah and Susan.