At the Mount Van Hoevenberg Recreation Area on the edge of Lake Placid, N.Y., history was made last week. Beneath the blue spruce and white birch of the Adirondacks, Josh Thompson, a 24-year-old from Gunnison, Colo., won a silver medal in the 20-kilometer race of the Subaru Biathlon World Championships—the best finish ever for an American in any major international biathlon competition.
Frank-Peter Roetsch, 22, of Altenberg, East Germany, won Thursday's event in 1 hour, .40 seconds, but Thompson, 50.60 back, finished ahead of the rest of the dominant East Germans and perennially strong Soviets, West Germans, Norwegians and Finns to become one of America's top prospects for a medal at the Calgary Olympics.
"This is a new era for the biathlon and a new generation of American biathletes," says Nat Brown, a Nordic coach who last week served as the mad waxing scientist of the U.S. biathlon team. "In the old days of international competitions, when the U.S. would be on the last page of the result sheet, 18 minutes behind the top finishers, the officials joked that they wanted the Americans to start early in the race, so the timers could be home for dinner."
Says John Ruger, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, "We used to be international laughingstocks. I can remember the world championships in Minsk in 1982, where thousands of spectators yelled, 'U-S-Ah! Ha-ha-ha!' "
No longer. Further signs of amazing progress were evident on Saturday as Thompson and Willie Carow, 28, of Putney, Vt., also achieved a breakthrough in the 10-kilometer event by finishing 18th and 24th, respectively, the first time two Americans have placed in the top 25 in major competition. Both skied well but shot poorly in the blustery winds and near-zero temperatures.
"We used to look up to the Soviets and Eastern Europeans as unbeatable," Carow says. "They were demigods. Now we believe we can beat them. We know how close we all are."
The demands of the biathlon are contradictory. A competitor skis at a furious pace, with a rifle weighing as much as 11 pounds slung over his shoulder. Then, with racing heart (about 160 to 180 beats per minute), quivering leg muscles, heaving breath and no time to spare, he comes to a complete stop, aims and shoots, from alternating prone and standing positions, at a configuration of five black dots 50 meters away. Those dots have diameters of 115 millimeters (4.76 inches) for standing shots, 45 (1.76 inches) for prone shots. Each miss in the 20-kilometer race adds one minute to the competitor's final time; each miss in the 10-kilometer and relay events means the competitor must ski a 150-meter penalty loop.
As recently as 1984, the U.S. Biathlon Association operated on a budget of $60,000. It often could not afford to hire qualified coaches or to send a team to Europe to compete in World Cup events. The situation changed in 1985, thanks to the USBA's $1.3 million share of the surplus from the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. That windfall enabled the national team to buy some important resources, among them head coach Sigvart Bjontegaard.
Bjontegaard, 29, is a three-time Norwegian national champion with a degree in biathlon instruction from the Oslo Sport Institute. He is demanding of both his athletes and the USBA. For several weeks in September, the team trained on a glacier in Austria. Bjontegaard insisted the Americans compete on the full four-month-long World Cup circuit. And he brought two wax coaches, one masseur, two sports psychologists, a nutritionist, an orthopedic surgeon, a physical therapist and two biomechanics to the world championships. These three steps toward building a strong U.S. team would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Bjontegaard and assistant coach Tracy Lamb have also quietly gone to work on the team's psyche. They have created a close-knit group of highly intelligent, extremely motivated—but very different—people: