Methow Valley takes up biathlon in a big way
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
WINTHROP — His heart pounding after a 640-meter lap on cross country skis, 10-year-old Wiley Seckinger dropped to a small square of carpet on top of the snow, took the rifle from his sister, positioned it in a wooden rest and aimed.
“Pop.” He aimed again, carefully. “Pop.” Three more times, he fired the .22-caliber competition rifle, taking a breath, or maybe two, between shots.
Whenever he hit his mark, the black, round target the size of a CD flipped over and turned white. Four out of five were white before Seckinger got up and skied off. The minute he left, his 13-year-old sister, Maya — serving as his gun runner — hurried to the carpet and retrieved his rifle to make way for the next skier.
He would ski the lap and aim for the five black targets twice more before one last lap to the finish line.
Later, Maya would ski a longer course and shoot her own rifle at a smaller target — both prone and standing — with the older kids.
The Seckinger siblings, from Winthrop, were among 22 kids and 20 adults who entered the Methow Valley Biathlon individual races Saturday at Liberty Bell High School near Winthrop.
They are also among 30 active members of the Methow Valley Biathlon Team, which boasts the largest junior biathlon program in the western United States.
“I tell the kids the goal is always to be safe and have fun. And if you hit a target along the way, that’s cream. That’s extra,” said their coach Betsy Devin-Smith.
Most of the team is from the Methow Valley, but some venture from farther to belong to this program.
Terry Buchanan brings his sons, Jakob, 10, and Brayden, 12, from Seattle to practice and to compete when he can. They’re over in the Methow Valley a few times each month anyway, he said. His sons both like skiing, and the marksmanship that goes with biathlon. “They don’t seem that interested in picking up balls and bats,” he said.
Jerry Whites brings his 11-year-old-son, Quinn, from Omak. “He always liked to shoot, and skied downhill for years, so I figure this is a good combination,” his father said.
The biggest challenge in biathlon is in learning to shoot accurately when you’re breathing hard, and your heart is pounding.
“Anybody that’s ever gone hunting, if you run up the hill to get that buck, your heart is pounding, and that actually moves you,” said Methow Valley Biathlon head coach Betsy Devin-Smith. “If you’re breathing hard, your chest is moving in and out,” she said. “You can’t steady the gun.”
In biathlon, athletes are trained to control their breathing, so their chest doesn’t move in and out as much, she said. They also train for endurance racing, so when they are fit, they can recover faster, and their heart rate will slow down more quickly.
A biathlete does not want to wait for that, however. For every target they miss, they either add a minute to their time, or have to ski a penalty loop, depending on the race.
In training for biathlon, kids wear a heart rate monitor and practice shooting with their rates at different levels.
“We teach kids to shoot with a pounding heart,” she said.
— K.C. Mehaffey, World staff
Maya Seckinger said her parents “forced” her try biathlon when she was nine years old, the youngest age allowed to join the team.
“I was on cross country skis since I was like two, and on the (nordic) team since I was six,” she said. Now, she’s hooked on biathlon, and the challenge it presents.
“It’s really different. You have to be very physical, and then calm. There’s not another sport that has such a combination,” she said.
A Winthrop veterinarian, Devin-Smith started the biathlon program in 2002, partly because she had always been fascinated with the sport, and partly because she wanted to keep her son, Casey Smith, interested in cross country skiing. “It was a way to lure him around another time. ‘If you ski, you get to shoot the gun again,’” she said.
Smith is now 19 and a competitive biathlete who surpassed her ability to coach him, she said.
But she continues to teach other children in the Methow Valley and beyond about the sport she’s grown to love.
Devin-Smith said she was not raised with guns, and knew very little about them when she took up the sport.
“I joke that, at my first safety class, someone had to show me what end of the rifle the bullet came out,” she said. “Now, I’m a rifle safety instructor, and I know a whole lot about a .22 rifle.”
Coach’s son makes his way to the top
Casey Smith says he learned to cross country ski before he could walk.
But he didn’t learn biathlon until he was nine years old, and his mother wanted to keep him interested in the sport by luring him to the next target practice.
Now, at age 19, the Winthrop native doesn’t need luring anymore.
In November, Smith was named U.S. Junior Biathlete of the Year. And in January, he was named to represent the United States at the European Championships.
Right now, he’s in Europe training with the U.S. National Team, and looking forward to a third Junior World Championship competition, next month in Finland.
For the skiing part, Devin-Smith draws from a strong nordic program in the Methow Valley.
And with help from parents, she teaches them how to handle a rifle safely, how to shoot accurately, and how to meld the two so they can transition from the intensity of a race to the calmness of a marksman.
In addition to hosting two events in the Methow Valley this winter, Devin-Smith also travels with the older members of the team to biathlons, mostly in Alaska and Canada.
“Children and firearms I’m taking across the border. They’re both red flags,” she said. But as long as her paperwork is in order, she hasn’t had too much trouble.
Last year, she also convinced her local school board to permit a biathlon course on the grounds behind Liberty Bell High School, despite its status as a gun-free zone.
Devin-Smith said she has the largest junior program in the west partly because there aren’t that many.
“Biathlon is a huge winter sport in Europe. It’s the No. 1 spectator sport in the winter,” she said, with television coverage and lots of fans at every event.
“In North America, it’s just a really minor, unknown sport. But we’re trying to change that.”
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512
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