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Utah Biathlon Team Dominates at Western Championships

CASPER, Wyoming — Utah National Guard biathletes braved frigid temperatures, high altitude, and a course that was often described by participants as “brutal,” to bring home medals in every event at the Chief, National Guard Bureau Western Region Biathlon Championships, held in Casper, Wyo., Jan. 9-15, 2017.

Often confused with triathlon (swim, bike, run), biathlon is an Olympic sport that combines Nordic ski racing with precision marksmanship. Biathletes are required to use freestyle, skate-ski techniques to navigate courses that typically require long, uphill climbs followed by fast, technical descents, all while carrying a rifle on their backs. Then, depending on the race format, they must hit very small targets from either a prone or standing position with penalty laps required for each miss. Due to the challenges inherent in the sport, many athletes consider Nordic ski racing and biathlon as two of the most difficult sports in the world.

The Utah National Guard maintains a robust and very active biathlon program led by three-time Olympian and coach, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Teela. Teela has created a diverse and aggressive training program that often includes team workouts one to two times a week at locations ranging from Camp Williams to the Soldier Hollow Olympic venue. This increased focus on training and development attracted talented Soldier-athletes from units both inside and outside of Utah and prepared the Utah team particularly well for the severe challenges faced in Casper.

Taking advantage of a full year of focused training, the Utah Women’s Biathlon Team produced best-ever results in the Western Regional races, dominating the podium in both the Sprint and Pursuit Races. Capt. Barbara Blanke, Utah Medical Command, won gold in both races followed closely by first-year biathlete, Sgt. Samantha Miller, also of the Utah Medical Command. Miller, in her first National-Guard-sponsored event, won silver medals in both races with solid shooting and aggressive hill climbing. Utah Air Guard’s ‘All-Guard’ biathlete, Staff Sgt. Trish Rich from the 191st Air Refueling Squadron, also turned in strong performances in both races to capture bronze medals for Utah. Predictably, Blanke, Miller, and Rich also won the overall awards for their combined-medal performances in the individual races.

In the Men’s Pursuit race, Teela stepped away from the coach’s box for one race to join the fray, and posted Utah’s best performance in the men’s field. Teela won the silver medal among a particularly difficult Western Regional field; a field that included Army Spc. Travis Cooper, who was on his way to Europe to join the International Biathlon Union (a European professional Biathlon organization) race series, and Capt. Robert Killian, best known for winning the Army Best Ranger Competition last year.

“I jumped into this race to motivate and push [Spc.] Cooper,” remarked Teela, commenting on his participation in the race. “My only disappointment is that there are not more young athletes in the National Guard biathlon program that are racing faster; we need to find a way to fix that.” Teela was referring to the National Guard biathlon program’s stated mission to identify and prepare talented athletes to represent the United States in international and Olympic competition.

In the 10-kilometer Sprint race, Maj. Dan Morken, Joint Force Headquarters, posted the best shooting of any athlete at the competition and earned a bronze medal in the process. Morken squared off against Killian, a seasoned competitor he has faced several times in the past. Morken used outstanding marksmanship and skilled course management to finish ahead of Killian, but it was a battle.

“Killian is a ferocious competitor, and [although] he was able to ski faster up some of the steeper hills on the course, I skied fewer penalty loops on the range,” said Morken, commenting about his race strategy. “It was a close race; I lost count of how many times we traded the lead and, by the end, we were only separated by seconds.”

Utah had other notable performances during the week of competition. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Eric Kreitzer, 211th Aviation Regiment and Sgt. Maj. Shawn Blanke, 640th Regiment both had top-ten finishes in the men’s races. Additionally, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Evan Ahlborn and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Nicholai Wedekind, both from the 211th Aviation, and Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Robison, Utah Training Center, consistently placed in the top twenty-five in a very large field.

In March, the Utah Biathlon Team will travel to Jericho, Vt., to compete in the Chief, National Guard Bureau Biathlon National Championships. Utah will send very strong teams to Jericho with the goal of bringing home medals and team titles back to Utah.

Story by Sgt. Maj. Shawn Blanke

Photo caption:

Members of the Utah National Guard Biathlon Team compete at the National Guard Bureau Western Region Biathlon Championships held in Casper, Wyo., Jan. 9-15.

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