A team of five Soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard competed in the Chief of the National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah earlier this month.
The competition represents a test of physical fitness, mental resilience, marksmanship and technical skills, all of which are critical attributes for any Soldier or Airmen charged with the National Guard’s critical mission of serving in the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force or as the state’s first military responder in times of emergency.
The biathlon has military roots — originating as a competition between Scandinavian countries conducting mountain border patrols on skis. What began as a friendly competition between military units from different countries eventually grew into an Olympic sport.
Maj. Bill Barthen from the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Sgt. Maj. Chad Herron of the 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jim Greenwood from the 724th Engineer Battalion, Staff Sgt. Jason Kirch from the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade headquarters, and Sgt. Greg Lewandowsky from the 357th Signal Network Support Company, made up Wisconsin’s team this year. Lewandowski competes at the highest level as one of the nation’s few full-time National Guard biathletes.
The Wisconsin team competed in a regional competition at Camp Ethan Allen in Jericho, Vermont in early February before moving on to the national competition in Utah.
According to Barthen, competing on the Guard’s biathlon team has a host of military applications. Both military service and biathlon require a culture of physical fitness and mental tenacity, he said. Furthermore, American service members could easily find themselves operating in snowy, cold, mountainous areas where traversing the land via ski with weapons on a Soldier’s back is the best option, he added.
“So the individual Soldier skills are absolutely critical and reflected in this sport,” Barthen said. “When you start looking at teams and how we operate in the military where a leader oversees and objective or an operation, it’s totally what we have going on.”
At the nationals in Utah, the teams competed in a variety of events ranging from the sprint, which is a 10-kilometer race with 50-meter targets every 2.5 kilometers that the athletes engage in both the standing and prone positions. The teams also participate in a pursuit race, a relay, a patrol race, and a shoot-off as they vie for the overall championship.
While Wisconsin’s team didn’t medal in the overall championship, the team hopes to continue to grow interest in the state’s team and eventually medal at nationals. Approximately half of the states — mostly from northern or mountainous states — fielded a team this year, and Wisconsin’s team placed fourth in overall team points behind Utah, Alaska, and Minnesota which led the way for overall team points in the men’s competition.
A full team is four participants and one coach, but ultimately each state can send its top eight from the regional competition onto the national level. This year’s Wisconsin National Guard team had the bare minimum to field a team, so Barthen and others hope to generate more interest in future years across the Wisconsin National Guard — both Army and Air — to make the team more competitive. The Wisconsin National Guard only fielded a men’s team this year, but states can field women’s teams as well.
“We would like to expand this,” he said. “We would like to improve recruiting opportunities with new service members.”
Barthen said he is open to working with recruiters to find high school athletes and cross country skiers interested in joining the military who could join the team.
The National Guard funds the teams, pays the participants, supplies the ammunition and equipment and foots the bill for travel. But training before the competitions is largely conducted individually by each participant, and according to Barthen and Herron, it helps tremendously to have grown up as a skier.
“What we need to be doing is to try to find those young Soldiers that have been in a ski club in northern Wisconsin,” Herron said. “I say northern Wisconsin, because that’s generally where we come from, who have been in club skiing or skate skiing specifically and get those guys reeled in.”
“You can train someone to shoot, but it’s difficult to train someone to ski,” he said.
Most of the Wisconsin team had a previous background in cross country skiing or endurance events. Barthen, for example, has skied the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, Wisconsin the past three years and ran in endurance events before that.
Herron grew up skiing, as did others on the team, but the shooting element requires unique training, because the athletes must control their breathing effectively to avoid missing targets resulting in penalty laps.
“There’s a stress shoot in the military where you drag a dummy,” he explained. “This is really a much higher level of stress. Typically a biathlete skis at a heart rate 90 percent their maximum. So when they’re shooting, they’re shooting at 75 to 80 percent of their maximum.”
The All-Guard team, which takes the top National Guard athletes from across the 54 states and territories trains at Camp Ethan Allen in Vermont year-round, and biathlon is one of the few programs that the military contributes directly to the U.S. Olympic team.
“It’s completely likely that a Soldier from Wisconsin could end being in the Olympics someday through biathlon,” Barthen said. “The Minnesota National Guard has produced Olympic athletes and there’s no reason why Wisconsin couldn’t.”
One could someday be Lewandowski, who is a member of the All-Guard team’s developmental team, meaning he is among the top eight biathletes in the military. Approximately 15-20 athletes are considered “All-Guard,” but the developmental team consists of the National Guard’s top biathletes that train full-time and represent the U.S. military at international competitions. And according to Lewandowski, the All-Guard team has produced Olympians for the U.S. national team in every winter Olympics except for the 2018 edition in Pyeongchang. The National Guard team is the only official military program that contributes to the U.S. national team and other national level teams.
Now 25, Lewandowski joined the National Guard when he was in high school with no intent of becoming a full-time biathlete, but after performing well at various National Guard biathlon events over the first six years of his career, he now competes for the All-Guard team and has spent the past year and a half in Vermont training full time.
When he first enlisted into the Minnesota National Guard, one of his first line leaders encouraged him to begin competing in biathlon events. Then he transferred to the Wisconsin National Guard and continued to compete until he was asked if he’d be willing to do it full time based off his prior results.
“It was never in my plans ever to do this full-time,” he said. “But when you have a talent for something sometimes it seems like a waste to not try and see how far you can go with it. And obviously, I wouldn’t be doing this sport if it wasn’t for the Guard.”
Many of the people on the All-Guard developmental team were recruited to be biathletes, but in Lewandowski’s case, he joined the National Guard to be a signal support systems specialist. Now he competes in biathlon at the highest level, and even though he is on the All-Guard team, Lewandowski still competes for the Wisconsin team during the national competition.
The members of the Wisconsin team hope to continue growing interest in the sport, so the state can someday win nationals, and perhaps put someone on Team USA.