Wednesday, February 18, 1998
America's top women biathletes fight the odds -- at home and abroadNOZAWA ONSEN, Japan (AP) -- The questions were always the same for Ntala's Skinner's parents.
"Doesn't your daughter have anything better to do?" people would ask. Did she really want to learn to ski hard and shoot straight?
All but born on skis, getting her first rifle at 13, Ntala did learn. She grew up in an Idaho community that gave her the support needed to make it in biathlon -- a sport that, at best, remains on the fringe in America.
Skinner and veteran Stacey Wooley are the top women biathletes in the United States, routinely trouncing the competition at home.
Go to international competition, however, and the situation changes radically. Skinner ranks No. 58 in the World Cup and Wooley is 63rd. Their best international effort was a fifth in a 1996 World Cup relay.
At the Olympics, they're finishing low on the list. Definite underdogs.
"When you look at, say Russia, Germany, Norway, they're so focused from the grassroots on, and their countries are so behind biathletes all the time," Skinner said. "They understand the sport and respect it. In America, there's still a bit of a stigma."
"It's difficult to compete with countries which have programs with so much money. I'm not trying to make excuses. That's the reality."
There's definitely no money to be made being a biathlete in America.
"Do I want to be poor and live out of my car or go to Wall Street, make money, buy a house?" Wooley asked herself in the jungles of Central America, where she was studying terrestrial ecology.
A Dartmouth graduate, Wooley chose this "weird sport." She now lives with her German boyfriend at a Bavarian biathlon center, getting poorer every year.
Skinner has had it a little easier. She frequented her father's wilderness camp in Wyoming, entered her first cross-country race at 7 and got biathlon tips from her older brother.
Her father, a onetime Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, moved the family to Sun Valley, Idaho, because it offered better training opportunities.
But biathlon races in the United States were few, and it was extremely hard -- especially for a woman -- to get into a national-level training camp.
These days, Skinner said, things have improved. Junior programs have attracted talent, and the U.S. military's two-year World Class Athlete Program provides jobs and training opportunities at the same time.
Four of the five women Olympians serve in the armed forces, a closely knit group living around a base in the tiny Vermont town of Jericho, America's biathlon capital, and training or competing year-round.
Wooley, 29, is the exception, preferring a less-regimented life and critical of the American effort.
"It's unpredictable. Every year the level of support is different," she said. "Three years ago the men's team couldn't even go to Europe for World Cup races because the money ran out."
So she lives frugally in the Alpine village of Ruhpolding, training with German biathletes and living rent-free at the house of her boyfriend's sister. Her debts mount, and she still owes $12,000 to Dartmouth, where she competed in cross-country.
"They call me 'almost a Ruhpoldinger, the little American girl,' and that's very cute. It makes me feel at home," said Wooley, who grew up the daughter of the police chief in Lebanon, N.H.
The next Winter Games are on home ground, Salt Lake City in 2002, but neither Skinner nor Wooley has decided whether to continue in the sport.
Skinner, 24, is thinking about marriage to Canadian biathlete Kevin Quintilio and may complete college. She wants to return to Sun Valley and repay her hometown by fostering young talent.
Wooley said she would stay "in a heartbeat" if there were a steady training stipend.
"I'm still improving," she said. "I can be in the top 10. I'm world class. Otherwise I wouldn't be here."