CAMP ETHAN ALLEN, Vt. - 1st Lt. Stephen Fiola (coach) shows Capt. Robert Charbonnier his target matches during pre-race training on February 26 during the 2012 Chief of the National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships at the Camp Ethan Allen, Jericho, Vt. (U.S Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kerri Cole, 102nd Intelligence Wing Public Affairs)
CAMP ETHAN ALLEN, Vt.-- -- Waking up to freshly fallen snow is something we have been waiting for all winter here in New England. Luckily, it finally happened before the official races began at the 2012 Chief of the National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships, Feb. 26, making for near perfect ski conditions.
The Massachusetts National Guard Biathlon team, as well as more than 100 National Guard competitors from 22 states, spent a week challenging themselves to shoot at targets between laps on the cross country ski course here.
The biathlon sport consists of various race formats, each with different distances and regulations. For example, during the Sprint competition format, biathletes start in intervals by skiing a minimum distance of 10 kilometers on a designated course and pause to fire twice in any shooting lane -- once while in prone position and once standing -- using .22-caliber rifles at targets from 50 meters, skiing an additional 150 meter lap for each target missed.
The Massachusetts National Guard Biathlon team, also known as "The Boston Ski Party," had five of its 11 team members qualify for the national championships. The team had not had finalists compete at the national level in nearly a decade.
"I'm excited to see Massachusetts here," said Maj. Andrew Parsons, National Guard Biathlon program coordinator, and former member of the Massachusetts National Guard Biathlon program. "All state programs tend to wane and wax depending on participation. There were certainly some years where Massachusetts wasn't active, but the Guard Biathlon program began in 1973 with only six teams and one of them was Massachusetts, so they go all the way back to the inception of the program."
To get to the National Championship level, the biathletes must go through a qualification round at the Regional level and must compete on an individual basis.
"To qualify you need to compete and complete a race on an individual basis at the Regional level," said 1st Lt. Stephen Fiola, the Massachusetts National Guard Biathlon team coach and coordinator. "Races are so very difficult the first time you do them that just completing one is a feat in and of itself."
The Boston Ski Party members who earned spots at the National Championships from the Army Guard were Capt. Robert Charbonnier, Staff Sgt. Michael Comforti and Sgt. Samantha Lord and from the Air Guard, Senior Master Sgt. Jeffrey Soja and Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Luke.
"It takes a lot of dedication and hard work outside of everyday life," said Fiola. "You've got the soldiers and airmen who, outside of their regular one-weekend-a-month duty have weekends, and in some cases, week-long training camps to prepare to get up to the national level."
Just like any other sport, it is not only about skiing and shooting. Originating as an exercise for Norwegian soldiers, the biathlete's challenge lies in their ability to calm nerves, heart and lungs long enough to steady a rifle in the midst of a race.
"What I enjoy most about Biathlon are the people and the challenge. National Guard biathletes are servicemen first and athletes second," said Soja, of the 202nd Weather Flight, Otis Air National Guard Base, and 2-year member of the team. "All of us work very hard to perform at the highest level for our team, but at the same time are willing to share training and equipment tips with our competitors."
The National Guard has both state and national biathlon teams that participate in national and international competitions. These competitions are both civilian and military. Starting at the state level, teams race at the annual National Guard Championships with the best competitors joining the National Guard team. The National Guard team participates in higher level competitions, all the way to the Olympic Games. The National Guard Biathlon program is the only Department of Defense organization that consistently sends soldiers and airmen to the Olympics.
"The elite National Guard athletes (who may go on to the Olympics) are inspiring and fun to watch. I wish them the best of luck in preparing for Sochi, Russia in 2014 and look forward to competing with them again at the next Guard Champs," said Soja.
Vermont, Minnesota and North Dakota placed as the top three state teams overall at the conclusion of the 2012 National Guard Championships, March 1.
One of the ways the National Guard Biathlon program adds value to the Armed Forces is by providing units with soldiers and airmen who are high quality, physically fit individuals and world class marksmen with the ability to train others in these critical combat skills.
If interested in joining the Massachusetts National Guard Biathlon team contact 1st Lt. Stephen Fiola at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (508) 233-7223.