With the smell of gunpowder lingering in the frigid Burns Lake winter air, Cole Bender, Nisa Hofer and Ava Nealis aimed their .22 calibre rifles at targets the size of golf balls down a 50 metre firing range.
The young teenagers are part of the Omenica Ski Club biathlon team in Burns Lake. The sport is a Nordic ski and shoot that demands performance at a high level of athletic output with the ability to quickly control and regulate one’s breathing and heart rate before laying prone and shooting at a set of five targets, with penalties for missed shots.
The ski club has had a strong competitive record recently. Burns Lake resident Emily Dickson is currently training out of Prince George at the Canadian Sport School of Northern BC. She placed second at the 2012 Biathlon National Championship and is now training for a place on the BC Team for the Canadian Nationals to be held in Whistler in March, 2013. Cole had a second place finish last year at a BC Cup event in Burns Lake, and Ava a third place finish.
Maybe the willingness to training when it’s minus 16 on the truck thermometer has something to do with their success.
“We normally cut it off at minus 15,” said Waneta Nealis, one of the ski coaches. This day was an exception and they gave the morning an extra hour to warm up before gearing up for practice.
According to the young athletes, the best part about biathlon is the shooting. They talked about their experience of biathlon as they warmed up around the propane stove in the recently built hut at the shooting range.
“I like to hear the ping of the bullet hitting steel when I make a shot,” said Cole.
Ava liked the competition best, including beating the boys. “They can ski, but they can’t shoot, or they can shoot but they can’t ski,” she said. Either way, she enjoys the sideways looks she gets when she’s out-shooting everyone around her. As of Sept. 30, 2012, Ava was ranked first in the novice division of the national Biathlon Canada Precision Postal Shooting Contest, and Nisa second.
There seems to be as much parent involvement in biathlon at this development level as there is athlete involvement.
Whether they’re hauling gear, chauffeuring their kids or standing in the cold to encourage and coach, they share a lot of similarities with other parents involved in youth sport everywhere.
But biathlon parents sometimes polish bullets.
Wes Bender, Cole’s father, had, for the sake of shooting accuracy, cleaned and reboxed all 700 rounds that they expected the shooters to go through that morning. “Some people even track how different rounds react to being fired in different temperatures,” Wes said. Dirk Hofer, Nisa’s father, was quick to add that bullet and firing performance in different temperature and humidity levels was almost as exact a science as ski waxing.
The team practices year round and the club maintains rental rifles. The rifles are expensive and difficult to find. A rifle with sights can easily cost $2000 and the price goes way up from there.
Wes has a rifle on order from Russia for Cole. The bolt action is left-handed so it was hard to find, and it’s tied up in Germany over import/export regulations. He’s not sure it will ever make it to Burns Lake.
Shooting wrong-handed doesn’t seem to be slowing Cole down.
“I’m out of ammo, Dad,” Cole said as he blazed through rounds during a shooting game at the end of the practice. Wes crouched down on a knee and began filling a magazine with more of those straight-shooting polished rounds.