Kasilofs Taylor Karnikis aims for a target Thursday during the Arctic Winter Games 6-kilometer sprint biathlon race at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The biathlon range Arctic Winter Games athletes are using for ski and snowshoe events this week is top flight, with 10 sets of targets, 8-foot fluorescent lights for night shooting and hoods covering the targets to keep off snow.
According to Alan Miller, a biathlon organizer for the Games, there is only one other facility on par with the Games range, which is situated next to Tsalteshi Trails on Skyview High School grounds. That range is the U.S. Biathlon Association’s competition range in Fort Kent, Maine.
“We could show this to the folks who just got back from (the Winter Olympics in) Torino and they would go ‘This is great.’ They wouldn’t look and go, ‘This kind of looks like a little podunk Soldotna range.’ This is Olympic-caliber.”
Because of increasing safety concerns about guns on school grounds, though, there is a problem. After this week, the range at Skyview has no home.
“That range has to come down,” said Donna Peterson, superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. “That really is a just for the Arctic Winter Games event. Now the trail, and all of the things that have been done around the trail, those all get to stay, but the biathlon range does not stay.”
Federal law requires the one-year expulsion of any student in possession of a firearm on school grounds without written permission from a superintendent. Biathletes are students; rifles are firearms. This was an issue from the beginning.
“We tried everything to not have this on school grounds,” Peterson said. “Way back two years ago when we were looking at this, we tried everything, because there are all kinds of regulations.”
Alaska state law is even more strict and requires state approval for firearms to be in the hands of students on school grounds.
Collette Thompson, attorney for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, helped craft the strategy for obtaining permission for the biathlon portion of the Games.
“In order for the biathlon to occur, the superintendent obtained permission from the state ... provided that we had certain protections in place to make sure the guns would not get into the wrong hands.”
As per the agreement, law enforcement and coaches are always present. Coaches pack up the guns at the end of each day, then law enforcement officers store the rifles until the next morning. Biathletes are only allowed to hold a rifle in the presence of officials.
The agreement allowed for the opening of the range last Thursday, and requires the removal of the range part of a $250,000 Games-related upgrade for Tsalteshi Trails starting Sunday.
Salavat Sufyanov of Team Yamal makes his way up a hill after shooting at the Games biathlon course at above right.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
To Miller and other biathlon fans, that is a shame. Miller, who now teaches sixth grade at Sterling Elementary School, coached Kasilof’s Jay Hakkinen in the mid-1990s, long before Hakkinen would nab the best three Olympic finishes for a U.S. biathlete. The last came in Torino, Italy, less than a month ago.
The biathlon club that helped hone Hakkinen’s talent was dissolved in 1998 after Miller left the school in 1996 and volunteer support cooled.
Hakkinen’s record-setting performances and the Arctic Winter Games, however, have put the sport back in the limelight. The range could provide the opportunity for the Kenai Peninsula to train numerous future biathlon Olympians, Miller said.
“How many parents wouldn’t want to see their child grow up and compete in the Olympics like Jay did?” he said. “There’s no reason why on the peninsula we couldn’t have a culture of biathlon.”
Since Miller left Skyview, incidents such as the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., changed the national dialogue about guns in school. On April 20, 1999, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into the school, killed 12 students and a teacher, wounded 24 students, then shot themselves.
The climate change with regard to guns on school property is apparent in state law and public awareness. Any events that involve guns on school grounds get scrutinized, Peterson said.
“At times we’ve had 21 gun salutes at funerals on school grounds, so we have a very specific process that addresses that in the district,” Peterson said. “Whenever something like that happens, there are people who think that’s a good thing and there are people who don’t think that’s a good thing.”
Team Alberta Norths Matthew Velders makes the transitions from skiing to shooting during Thursdays 6-kilometer sprint race.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Biathlon, most agree, is a good thing. The sport teaches gun safety, for starters, and the sport is uniquely difficult. Biathletes may ski 5 kilometers, then have just a few moments to get into position standing or lying down and fire off five shots at targets 160 feet away. For every shot missed, the athletes ski penalty loops.
“It’s been compared to running a mile and trying to thread a needle,” Miller said.
The physical exertion required for skiing or snowshoeing coupled with the mental acuity and steadiness required to fire a rifle teaches lessons a sport like basketball cannot.
“We’ve got tons of sports for nervous energy, but not a lot for concentration,” said Mike Milhollin, the chief of range for the Games, who maintains rifles for the Alaska Biathlon Club of Anchorage.
Alaska Biathlon Club members make up most of the officials for the Games events. Milhollin and the 80 other members of the club have experience because they have something Kenai biathletes don’t, though: a training space off school grounds and away from the associated legal hassles. They practice and hold competitions at a 20-target range in Anchorage’s Kincaid Park.
There are options for the Skyview range. Soldotna Parks and Recreation Director Andrew Carmichael is in talks with the biathlon committee that could see the range moved to Centennial Campground for use during the winter. There are no groomed ski trails at Centennial, and there is no electricity, but the site boasts trails that could be modified for skiing and there is easy access to the Soldotna Sports Center.
Of course, making upgrades and setting up the range would be the financial responsibility of biathletes and volunteers.
“We’ll take it,” Miller said, noting that the old Skyview biathlon club had to hike for practice. “We’ll take anything they’ll throw at us.”
Also frustrating is the campground’s layout and a forced closure over the summer, when biathletes do much of their training.
“That will never be a competition facility,” Miller said.
Carmichael said talks are in the “very, very rudimentary stages,” but said he wants to see the equipment utilized. Carmichael said he’s proud of the achievements of Alaska’s Olympic biathletes in the European-dominated event.
“It would be a tragedy to see that equipment developed and built then have it disappear,” he said.
Miller said he and his wife, Joan, the biathlon chair for the Games and a former Olympic biathlete, try to think positive.
“We look at it as unfortunate, but it is awesome we had it for the Games.”
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