In biathlete's crosshairs, target illusory

November 24, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Rachel Steer shoots as well as she skis, which is good news for the U.S. Olympic team and bad news for the caribou.

The biathlete and avid sportswoman from Alaska is trying to make the squad that will travel to Turin, Italy, in February for the Winter Games. It would be a great finish to a career that includes a strong showing on the World Cup circuit and participation in the 2002 Olympics.

The leaders of her sport and the U.S. Olympic movement are promoting her as possible medal material. But when it comes to showing her some love in the form of decent financial support and treating her with the same respect as her male counterparts, Steer hears the sound of one hand clapping.

"It stinks," says the 27 year old from Anchorage. "It's just making it an especially bitter ending for me."

Steer is sitting on a raised platform at a media event for Olympic hopefuls sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee. As an athlete in a sport not embraced by TV or the public, Steer hasn't drawn much of a crowd. It's too bad. Her story needs a big audience.

Biathlon, with its roots in Scandinavia and Finland, is a combination of cross-country skiing and sharpshooting. It requires competitors to ski at top speed, then slow both breathing and heartbeat to squeeze off shots at targets 50 meters away.

The problem created for Steer by the US Biathlon Association is breathtakingly Neanderthal. To help biathlon's top athletes, the USBA allows "prequalification" for the Olympic team. It's not an unusual arrangement in the U.S. Olympic movement.

If you're a guy, you need two top-15 finishes in World Cup competition or to finish the season in the top 40 overall.

"It's a big benefit because I can concentrate 100 percent in preparing for the Olympics," says Jay Hakkinen, a 2002 Olympian who prequalified for 2006.

If you're a woman, however, you need two top-10 finishes or to finish the season in the top 35 athletes to prequalify. Steer did not make the cut.

"It's discriminatory. I did not prequalify for the women, but I would have prequalified for the men," she says. "I don't know how this criteria got passed all the way up from the USBA to the U.S. Olympic Committee and was approved."

Steer knows that sometimes it's tough for females to break into a traditionally male world. Early on, her father, Paul, refused to take her hunting with her older brother.

"It wasn't until my second World Juniors that he finally figured out that his daughter could shoot pretty well. Then he took me hunting," she says, smiling. "I don't get out much because of my training, but when I can, I enjoy it. I think being a biathlete helps. People are always looking to me to make the shot if it's a questionable shot."

Although she doesn't think of hunting as a form of cross-training, there's definitely some parallels.

"The basics you use with a biathlon rifle can be translated into any kind of shooting. The importance of the trigger pull. This finger is incredibly important," she says, holding up a curled index finger. "It's not so much are you exactly on the target. Are you pulling smoothly and solidly on the trigger. If you jerk it, you're more likely to pull off the target. Those things will translate no matter what caliber rifle you're shooting."

Steer is a natural lefty with a dominant right eye who shoots right-handed. (She's an ambidextrous angler, however.)

"The joke in the family is that we had to shoot right because my father wasn't going to buy two sets of equipment," she says.

She's helped fill the family freezer with caribou and moose, and yet all her practice hasn't made her perfect.

"I cannot hit bird for the life of me. I can't lead on any kind of target that's moving," she says, throwing her head back and laughing. "But give me a caribou, and I'll take it down with one shot."

Steer tried appealing the USBA decision to the U.S. Olympic Committee, but chief executive officer Jim Sherr rejected her request, saying it would be unfair to change the rules midstream.

"But if the rules are unfair at the core, is it fair to allow them to stand?" Steer asks.

At the beginning of her career, Steer received a great deal of support from the USBA. She was sent to international events on the junior circuit and received good coaching.

Now, no one is holding the sport's managers and coaches accountable, she says. Top athletes, like Hakkinen, use their own coaches rather than the U.S. staff. The USOC, with its pay-for-performance standards, has cut team funding since the last Olympics.

But that creates a Catch-22. A poorly performing sport gets less financial support, so it has no means to recruit and improve. The lack of support spills over into the private sector, too.

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