Shooting for the Bull's-Eye
The biathlon rifle range, little more than a graded sand pit cleared out of the pines near the base of the Presidentials just past Crawford Notch, was a swirling sea of snowflakes in the morning quiet; a study of opaqueness and varying shades of white interrupted only by the clusters of black bull's-eyes on target boards 45 kilometres away. The silence was cut from the left by the crisp sound of skis driving across the new snow and old crust, accompanied by the heavy breathing of a red-clad skier as he emerged from the woods onto the Bretton Woods shooting range.
Twenty-three-year-old Nat Lucy of North Conway, former University of New Hampshire ski team member and currently a promising competitor on the US Biathlon team, braced himself against the cold northwesterly wind and removed the .22 rifle from his back before lowering an eye patch over his right eye. A left-handed shooter, he steadied his pulse by exhaling a few times and then took patient aim at the dim targets through the driving snow.
A muffled "crack" resounded as Lucy squeezed the trigger, followed by four additional shots. It was his second and final visit to the shooting range during the 10 kilometer race. The results of that first round of shooting had been poor, scoring zero for five while shooting from the "prone" or lying down position. For each of those five misses, Nat had been forced to ski a penalty loop under the rules of the demanding sport, a time consuming factor which, due to his exceptional skiing ability, he had accomplished in short order.
Now Nat was hoping his shots would find their mark. Strapping the rifle once again onto his back, he heard more bad news: "Number 204 (Lucy) has three," the shooting scorer shouted to other race officials after inspecting Nat's target, meaning the only two shots had hit the bullseyes. Disgruntled but determined, Lucy grabbed his poles and raced off to the penalty loop- a circular course just below the shooting range-where he completed three round trips before skiing back into the woods for the last segment of the course, double-poling most of the way.
As he had predicted prior to the start of the 10 kilometer National Guard State Championship race, Lucy's skiing more than compensated for his inconsistent shooting. A biathlete for only one year but a competitive cross country skier since he was a junior at Kennett High School, Nat had not been worried about his skiing. His marksmanship was another matter altogether, however. The skiing would take care of itself--the goal was to improve his shooting.
Lucy won the race far ahead of his nearest competitor on the strength of that skiing, but he wasn't out to just win a race. The name of the game in the international version of the biathlon sport is not only to ski well, but to shoot consistently. Nat obviously had not been successful in attaining that difficult dichotomy in the race on Saturday, and he was consequently not overly enthused about his first place finish. European athletes - Scandinavians and Russians - are proficient in those skiing and shooting skills because they have devoted years - not months - to honing their abilities. Lucy is well aware that he will have to train many more hours, and race in a lot more races, before he can approach their competitive level.
Training for that goal has been Nat's obsession since he first traveled to Quebec last winter to watch a biathlon meet while on tour with the UNH ski team as part of the Dannon Cup series. He recalls that the sport appealed to him from the start as an exciting variation of cross-country skiing, similar to what he describes as being a "three-ring circus". full of activity and new skills. As a result of that first encounter, Nat sent a letter of interest to Dartmouth ski team coach John Morton, a former Oluympian and coach of the eastern section of the US for cross-country, about the possibility of trying out for the national biathlon team. Using his contacts, Morton placed Nat on the development team for the USBA, with the young Lucy traveling to Hanover a few times in the early summer to learn how to shoot the .22 rifles used in the sport.
Later in summer, he made trips to Vermont to train with the National Guard teams under the direction of Colonel Howard Buxton, head of the US Biathlon Association, national shooting coach Bill Spencer, and Art Stegen, former Olympic biathlete and team leader for the US Biathlon team. Their advice to the young athlete was to work on the shooting by running and then firing, exercising patience as much as possible. As Stegen noted back in December, "We look for people who are good skiers first, the shooting can always be developed later. Nat showed a lot of potential on the basis of his past skiing, the shooting will simply be a matter of time."
In late October, Nat traveled with other national and development team members to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to participate in a training camp at the US Olympic Training Site. It was his first introduction to the 40 other team members, and he used the experience to further his shooting proficiency and familiarity of training techniques. Returning to the University of New Hampshire after the week-and-a-half-long session, Nat continued to train by running and shooting, then, running again.
The first meet of the season took place at Craftsbury, Vermont, and Nat did not fare well in his inaugural race. Simply explained, he got lost on the race course, as he has in three of his 11 biathlons. At the next race at Underhill, Vermont, Nat won, solely on the strength of his skiing. As he says, "My strong point is my skiing. A lot of guys outshoot me, but I know that I can ski with the best of them. The shooting is sometimes good, sometimes poor- it seems the less I think about it, the better I do. It's a matter of concentrating better - you either hit the target, or you don't. The important thing is to block everything out, take your shots, and then ski whatever penalty loops you might have to take as fast as you can and then be off on the trails again. Too often, I'd get upset about my shots, sulk, and then ski the penalty loops. That's not the way the Europeans do it."
Nat found out first-hand how the Europeans "do it" a few months later after he'd won a place on the US Biathlon team following a strong performance at the try-outs in Underhill. He had also done well at a race at Rosindale, New York, against some of the best skiers in the country and was chosen as an alternate for the international team, finishing fifth in competition in late January. International competition calls for teams of four participants each, a structure which conceivably could have left the inexperienced Lucy sitting on the proverbial bench under the then current standings. The team traveled to the World Biathlon Championships February 10th-15th in Lahti, Finland, to try their luck against the more experienced Europeans, an opportunity which was well appreciated by the US team members as a good learning session.
The stadium in Lahti was a far cry from the simple facility at the Bretton Woods Touring Center. Instead of the quiet of the New Hampshire woods, competitors were cheered on by the fervent cries of 35,000 knowledgeable spectators, the majority of whom regard the biathlon as their favorite sport next to ice hockey. the championship format called for races of 20 kilometers, 10 kilometers and a relay race as well. Nat sat out the first race - the 20 km event - due to alternate status. A few days later, he participated in the 10 km race, finishing 56th out of the total of 80 skiers, and more importantly, the third of four Americans in the event. As a result of that strong performance, Nat was placed in the relay the next day holding his own once again. He could ski with these guys - perhaps the shooting would come after all.
Reflecting on that experience, Nat now says, "If I had turned around before shooting and just looked at the crowds, the huge scoreboards along the course telling how everyone was doing in the race, and at the size of the stadium, I probably would've dropped right there. You really felt like a gladiator in front of those crowds but I was able to shut it out pretty well, I think. "The most enlightening aspect of the international event was that it proved to Nat that there really was nothing between the European and the Americans except time and training. Elaborating on that subject, the UNH physical education major commented, "There's no physiological difference that separates us from the Europeans - it's simply a matter of their advance training techniques, their experience, and their support. The Europeans didn't awe me by any means - they've got the same arms and legs that I do; they ski fast, but so do I. The difference is that biathletes there are national heroes, and are supported financially as such in the Soviet Union, Finland, and East Germany."
The financial support given to the US Biathlon teams comes from the US Olympic Committee and from the team's own fundraising efforts. To compete against the Russians, US team members say that each biathlete must consider his training a full-time job, an arrangement which can be difficult under the present system of financing. "It has to be a full-time, year-round effort at the sacrifice of a full-time paying job," Lucy says, noting that Europeans don't necessarily receive exorbitant subsidies, but they are given enough to live on while training. "We don't even receive broken payments, the way the alpine ski team does, but that's just the way it goes. It'll take time for the sport to catch on, and for the support to build for it as well," he continued, adding, "Until it does, we'll all keep working as good-will ambassadors for the sport, educating the public about its nature as we go along."
The US Biathlon Association is currently the group in charge of the sport in the US. The sport originally had been under the jurisdiction of the US Pentathlon Association, but the biathlon segment broke away from the parent group in the summer of 1980 under the mutual consent of both parties. Working with the National Guard and touring centers, the fledgling US Biathlon Association intends to familiarize the public with the sport through clinics, citizen races, and meets such as the National Guard Championships at Bretton Woods Touring Center last weekend.
Nat Lucy intends to work with the USBA in that direction while learning from his experiences in the sport. His short-term goal is to practice his shooting over the summer after college while working part-time for his father, Chet. Making the national team next winter seems likely, an accomplishment which will qualify him to compete in the International Championships in Minsk, Russia, the site of one of the world's best biathlon facilities. The ultimate force guiding him is, of course, making the team for the 1984 Winter Olympics. After that date, it will be a time of re-evaluation to determine whether it's worth it to continue devoting his energies to the sport on a full time basis.
Prior ro 1984, Nat will be continuing to improve his skiing form and shooting technique. As he said before the start of Sunday's 20 km race at the Bretton Woods Touring Center last weekend, "I'm a skier first, but my goal is to be equally good at both my skiing and shooting. It's an incredible sport of degrees; precision marksmanship accompanied by the totally opposite skill of skiing fast."
The weather had warmed considerably form the day before the start of the 20km race, with the skies clearing into a sunny early spring-like morning. Lucy knew the race would be a shooter's event, and consequently was hoping to hit at least 16 of his 20 targets while skiing fast at the same time. Predictably, he crossed the finish line well ahead of the others once again, although no scoring was done until after the race.
Totally unaware of just how well he's shot that day, Lucy approached his targets with the official scorer across the snow with some apprehension. Any shots outside the bullring would result in penalty minutes subtracted from his skiing time, conceivably depriving him of his first place finish and sweep of the two-day event. Examining the target with the scorer, Lucy's arms were thrown up in the air as he let out a shout that could be heard 45 meters away. The score? Twenty fot twenty - a perfect record, Nat's first. As he whooped, "What a way to end a season!" For that metter, not a bad way to continues a promising career, either.