When Hannah Dreissigacker was growing up in Vermont, she and her brother and sister were forever following their parents into the outdoors.
“They’re just lifelong athletes,” said Dreissigacker, who recently was nominated to the U.S. Olympic Biathlon Team that will compete next month in Sochi, Russia. “I think that’s just such a part of why I’m an athlete. I grew up where we just all went out and exercised every day. That’s how it was.”
What she didn’t follow was her parents’ path to the Olympic Games.
Her mom, rower Judy Geer, competed in the 1976 and 1984 summer Games, and was named to the 1980 U.S. team that boycotted that year’s Olympic Games in Moscow. Her dad, Dick Dreissigacker, rowed for the United States at the 1972 Games in Munich. And her aunt, Carlie Geer, was selected to row in two Olympics, including the 1984 summer Games in Los Angeles, where she won a silver medal in single sculls.
So how does a kid with all that rowing DNA wind up in the Winter Games on skis with a rifle?
Blame it on Vermont.
Hannah, 27, learned how to row about the same time she learned how to ski.
“My dad built us little kid boats, little kid sculls, so we could row around when we were really little, and I loved it,” she recalled. “I did it (rowing) throughout growing up. But I grew up in Vermont, and I mean everywhere it’s hard to get kids into rowing that much, but there was a really good ski program near where I grew up and so I just got more into competitive skiing than competitive rowing.”
By the time she was 12, Dreissigacker was competing in cross-country ski races, and she went on to ski through her high school years and then for Dartmouth College.
While she still rows as part of her cross-training program, she came to a point where she had to pick one or the other, and skiing won.
“It’s one of those things that could have easily gone either way, but for me I just happened to be growing up in an area where there’s a lot more skiing than rowing, and I really got into it,” she said.
Plus, she said, she got into a good, competitive group with her local Craftsbury Nordic Center that included two other future Sochi Olympians, biathlete Susan Dunklee and Nordic skier Ida Sargent.
“For a really small ski club in a small part of Vermont, we just had a lot of momentum going in a really small group of kids,” she said. “So I think that’s why I really stuck with skiing instead of switching to rowing.”
Hannah’s sister, Emily, went the other way. She rowed for Dartmouth and has represented the United States in the World Rowing Junior Championships and the World Rowing Under-23 Championships. However, their younger brother, Ethan, skis for Dartmouth and is also a biathlete, having represented the United States in the Biathlon World Junior Championships in 2012.
It was Ethan who played a big role in steering Hannah toward biathlon.
“My brother had gotten into biathlon a little bit,” she said. “He was into guns and he had tried it some. So I tried shooting some in high school, and I thought it was cool. It was fun, but it didn’t fit in with college.”
But after graduating from Dartmouth in 2009, Hannah took a run at the sport, encouraged by a U.S. development team coach.
She was fine on skis, but hitting targets with a rifle was a new challenge.
“Shooting was just this totally different, crazy, fun thing and so, yeah, it was hard,” she said. “It’s a funny thing, because with shooting your progress isn’t always linear. A lot of times, you haven’t been shooting that long, but you’ll hit all the targets and it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ And then the next day you’ll miss all of them. The consistency comes with time. That’s the hard part.”
But over the past couple of years, Dreissigacker has made great progress. Last year, she made the U.S. team for the world championships. Then just recently, she locked up her spot for Sochi. Over a series of four IBU Cup races in Riduan, Italy, earlier this month, she had solid performances in the first two, then finished 10th overall in the 15-kilometer individual and was the No. 1 American. That officially secured her spot on the team for Sochi.
“That’s when I could finally relax,” she said. “I knew that with those three races, that was good enough to qualify me.”
She knows she’ll compete in the 7.5-kilometer sprint at Sochi, and also the 15-kilometer individual, but some of the other events are up in the air and will depend on her early results.
She has no grand expectations other than to enjoy the experience and do her best.
“As far as my season has gone this year, I’ve had some really good races and also some really frustrating races, which is sort of how biathlon goes,” she said. “Because the difference between a really good race and a really bad race is a few shots that went a few inches off of the target.
“So I’m trying to really focus on keeping a level head, doing my best and just trying to make it a real representation of where I am right now in biathlon. I want to feel like I left it all out there and I gave it my all. That’s really my goal.”
For the next two weeks, she and her biathlon teammates will be training in Antholz, in northern Italy, in preparation for Sochi. She’ll have some time to train, paint — she loves to do watercolors of scenes across Europe where she competes — and let the idea of being an Olympian sink in.
Also, she’s had some time to spend with her parents, who flew over to spend some time with her before the Winter Games. They won’t go to the Games, but they’ll watch from their home in Vermont.
Earlier this week, Dreissigacker had the chance to spend another day out exercising with her mom and dad, just like all those days when she was growing up.
They all skied together up a pass toward the border with Austria. Just three Olympic-caliber athletes, past and present, out for the day.
“That was pretty cool,” says Dreissigacker.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.