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On your right, shouted one of my competitors as she zoomed by me in a blur of neon spandex. In another moment, she disappeared up a hill and into the trees. On your left! Another skier whipped past me as if the two of us were practicing wholly different forms of locomotion.
The first time I watched a biathlon was in 1998, during the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. I had joined my high school's cross-country ski team, admittedly for social reasons, and we had gathered at a captain's house to watch the men's 10km sprint event. The flurry of jokes about a sporting event that mixed shooting and skiing quieted down as we watched Ole Einar Bjørndalen glide through the course, stopping almost casually—pop-pop-pop-pop-pop—to hit each of his shooting targets. All of the Norwegian's movements looked utterly effortless as he cinched the gold in 27 minutes, 16 seconds, with zero shooting penalties.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was watching the undisputed best biathlete of all time, and one of the greatest winter Olympians ever. His form was powerful and perfect, and his economy of movement as he switched from skiing to shooting to skiing was a joy to watch. In that moment, the biathlon turned from a Winter Olympics punch line into a beautiful and awesome sport.
On your right!
On your left!
On your right!
As the Seeley Lake event wore on, I wasn't just being passed by the other skiers, I was being lapped. I may have been fondly remembering Bjørndalen's gold-medal sprint, but I certainly wasn't channeling it. He'd won 11 Olympic metals—the second most of any winter Olympian in history. His glory was the result of total dedication, decades of hard work and a complete devotion to his sport and craft. My current experience was the result of mistakenly thinking that a biathlon would be 33 percent easier than a triathlon. And that it would look cool to wear a biathlon T-shirt to the gym. In the distance, I could hear the muted sound of gloved clapping as the winners were already approaching the finish line.
I finally started to enjoy myself when it started raining—a calming pitter-patter echoing in my hat that took me away from my panic and back to my surroundings. At around the same time, the last of the other skiers had passed me, leaving me alone in the woods, just concentrating on skiing. The snow was wet but still good. I finally found my rhythm. The pressure was off. I was a ski-shooter!
By the time I made it to the finish line, there wasn't a crowd to greet me. Just my husband, with a paper baggie containing my free T-shirt and a beer he had just pulled from a snowdrift. It wasn't a gold medal, it wasn't the glory of winning, yet it was glorious.
When I watched Bjørndalen ski in 1998, I gained an appreciation for the biathlon as a sport. But as I caught my breath in Seeley Lake, I finally had a full appreciation for the biathlete himself. Like so many things we see during the Winter Olympics, it was exponentially harder than it looked on television. That didn't make it any less exhilarating.
Ole Einar Bjørndalen, now 40, says he will retire after competing in Sochi, his sixth Winter Olympics. He's not a favorite to place in the 10km sprint, but he's told reporters that he's not in it to win this time. "I think it's fun to take part," he told the Norwegian press. He's absolutely right. I bet he's also still very fun to watch.
by Sarah Aswell
Your handy Olympic viewing guide
Thursday, Feb. 6
7:00 p.m.– Bozeman's Heather McPhie competes in the women's moguls qualification round starting at 7 a.m., but you'll have to watch it live online. NBC will cover the event during its three-hour (tape-delayed) prime-time segment, the only Olympics broadcast of the day.
Friday, Feb. 7
6:30 p.m. – Catch the Olympic Opening Ceremony on NBC. The torch will finally arrive in Sochi after an epic, perilous and slightly ridiculous trip around the world, during which it traveled underwater, into space and to the North Pole.
Saturday, Feb. 8
1:30 p.m. – The men's individual 10km biathlon kicks off on NBC. You don't like the biathlon? Just read Sarah Aswell's essay on page 19, and you may have a newfound appreciation for the sport and Norwegian legend Ole Einar Bjørndalen.
7:00 p.m. – The women's moguls finals could offer McPhie another shot at Olympic glory after a disappointing disqualification during the 2010 games. The event will be broadcast (tape-delayed) during prime-time on NBC, but you can catch it live online at 11 a.m.
Sunday, Feb. 9
5 p.m. – Men's downhill—alpine skiing, traditionally one of the Winter Games'highest rated events, kicks off this NBC prime-time segment.
Monday, Feb. 10
7:00 p.m. – Men's moguls, including both the qualifying rounds and the finals, take up a big chunk of NBC's (tape-delayed) prime-time broadcast. Butte native Bradley Wilson begins the qualifying round at 7 a.m., if you want to watch online.
Tuesday, Feb. 11
2:00 p.m. – Watch Maggie Voison, the 15-year-old wunderkind from Whitefish, take part in her first Olympic competition when NBC airs the women's slopestyle qualification round on tape delay. Want to catch Voisin live? Qualifying begins Monday at 11 p.m.
7:00 p.m. – The women's slopestyle finals happen live at 2 a.m., but will be part of NBC's (tape-delayed) prime-time schedule. If Voison makes the cut, Montana—and the nation—will be tuned in to watch the nation's youngest Olympian since 1972.
Thursday, Feb. 13
3:30 a.m. – Dominica cross-country skier Angelica di Silvestri, who trained in Big Sky prior to Sochi, competes in the women's 10km live on NBCSN. The following day her husband, Gary, takes part in the 15km at 3 a.m., also live on NBCSN.
Saturday, Feb 15.
5:00 a.m. – Wake up early and catch a Cold War throwback when the United States and Russia face off in men's hockey on NBCSN, live.
Thursday, Feb. 20
8:00 a.m. – The women's figure skating free skate is an audience favorite, and this year the USA's aptly named Gracie Gold is leading the charge to bring home top honors.
10 a.m. – The women's hockey gold medal game will be broadcast live on NBC. The USA is favored to win gold.
Friday, Feb. 21
3:00 p.m. – If you are a member of Missoula's illustrious curling club, you will need to turn your dial to CNBC to catch the men's curling gold medal final. FYI: CNBC carries almost all of the curling coverage this year.
Sunday, Feb. 23
4:30 a.m. – The men's hockey gold medal game airs live on NBC bright and early, so get up, grab some coffee and tune in. Or just watch the replay on NBC at 9:30 AM.
7:30 p.m. – After 18 days of intensity, sportsmanship and Bob Costas sitting next to a fireplace, it all comes to an end with the closing ceremony on NBC.