Ginny Thrasher (L) waves after winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 6, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Jake Brown (R) competes during the men's 10 kilometer sprint at the BMW IBU World Cup Biathlon Hochfilzen on Dec. 11, 2020 in Hochfilzen, Austria.
Seriously, how can you get a winter sport confused with a summer sport? Apparently it happens a lot more than you’d think.
When Olympic precision shooter Ginny Thrasher won gold at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, she was the first gold medal athlete at those Games — and naturally, she got a lot of attention. Despite the intense spotlight on her sport, it still didn't stop people from asking if her sport is biathlon, a winter sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.
While shooting on the other hand, is a summer sport that dates back to the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. And was one of the original nine sports that was rooted in ancient practices of battlefield skills.
So to explain the differences between these two very different yet similar sports, we talked with Thrasher, 24, and biathlete Jake Brown, 29.
What is your experience with people confusing the two sports?
Thrasher (shooter): I think people confuse the sports because they are both pretty niche. Precision shooting in the summer Olympics is most known for having the first medal awarded at every Games, but despite that and its rich history and tradition, most people don't know it's a sport.
Brown (biathlete): Many times, people think that biathlon is biking and running. Sometimes they'll ask, is it biking and swimming, or biking and running? Or they'll say how their friend likes to do triathlons. That's kind of funny. You're like, no, it's actually cross country skiing and rifle shooting.
How did you get started in your sport?
Thrasher (shooter): My grandfather would always take my brothers and dad hunting, and I asked if I could go one year. He was thrilled, and I got my first deer at age 13. The year after, I went to high school and my school had a varsity air rifle team. I immediately joined and fell in love.
Brown (biathlete): Growing up, I started as a cross-country skier. I skied in college and improved a lot there. After I graduated, U.S. biathlon tried to recruit freestyle skiers, and I was excited about that because if I could figure out the shooting side of things, I knew I could be competitive in every race. I jumped in with both feet on the shooting side of things, and I was really bad for my first two years. It took until my third year until I started to figure it out.
The equipment is the easiest thing to compare visually. In what ways is it alike and different?
Thrasher (shooter): The same manufacturer makes our guns, and they're both 22 calibers. But the biathlon guns shoot with a magazine, which means you can shoot back-to-back without reloading — whereas, in ours, you have to reload. It's a single bullet, and you have to reload every time.
Brown (biathlete): For biathlon, something unique is the harness on the rifle. That's the thing that looks like a pair of backpack straps that we carry the rifle with on our backs when we ski.
What about the differences in scoring?
Thrasher (shooter): The scoring is very different! In biathlon, it's hit or miss. They're shooting at a target, and they either hit the mark, or they do not hit the mark. Whereas for ours, you are shooting at a target, and you are scored by how close you get to the center of the target.
Do you have the same amount of time to hit your targets in both sports?
Brown (biathlete): In biathlon, we do not have a lot of time because speed is a part of the ranking system. In precision shooting, time is a little more flexible. So you can go entirely at your own pace. You are not scored by timing — only your accuracy.
How come there isn't more of a crossover between the two sports?
Thrasher (shooter): A question shooters get all the time is how come we don't also do biathlon. To be honest, it would be hard to take a shooter and teach them how to ski and be competitive.
And also, the ideal body type is different. For instance, I am five foot one and pretty petite, which is great for the sport of precision shooting because I have a lower center of gravity. For biathlon, you need to have long legs to do cross-country skiing, right? And you need to be tall. I'm not saying either sport there's only one body type that will be successful, because that's not true. But there are definitely differences.
Brown (biathlete): You don't have a chance if you can't ski fast, whereas you still have a chance if you can't maybe hit every single target. There's something to being able to get on skis when you're a kid and getting used to that feeling of gliding on snow. If you don't have that, it's tough to master cross-country skiing later in life.
How expensive is your sport?
Thrasher (shooter): Precision shooting is a very expensive sport. We have our guns, which are very expensive. But guns don't depreciate, so that's nice. But we also have other equipment, like our suits, which if you've ever seen us compete you're like, why are they wearing a straight jacket? The suits give us a lot of support. They help prevent some of those overuse injuries, allowing us to shoot more accurately. So you have to pay for those, and then you're also paying for ammo every day. It’s not a cheap sport.
Brown (biathlete): It's more expensive to be a shooter than a skier because a ski company sponsors most biathletes. And we can get all of our equipment for free. For shooting, we're not so lucky. I don't know anyone who doesn't have to pay for their rifle. And a rifle costs about $4,000, so it's a big investment. My first year on the team, I rented a rifle, and then I bought my own.
Do many athletes in your sport typically need a second job?
Thrasher (shooter): I would say most Olympic shooters are doing something else in addition.
Brown (biathlete): No, not on the national team. U.S. Biathlon has done an excellent job of funding national team athletes, and it's primarily thanks to their partnership with the USOPC that many of us receive some sort of stipend. It's results-based, so it fluctuates year-to-year based on how well you're doing. And then what makes it possible for most of us is third-party support. For example, more than half of our team is on the National Guard team, so they're sponsored through the military.
What is one thing people don't know about your sport?
Thrasher (shooter): I don't think people have a good grasp of actually how challenging it is. I believe with a sport like gymnastics, you see someone flipping, and you think, that is insane! Whereas in my sport, people have experience in the shooting world, which is amazing, but they'll think, oh, that's easy to do. But it's an Olympic sport for a reason. That's one thing I wish people understood.
And how small our targets are. If you are typing on your computer in font size 12, the period at the end of your sentence is the size of what we are aiming for every single shot. And if you're at that world-class level, you're hitting that 90-100 percent of the time.
Brown (biathlete): As a cross-country skier, I never knew how competitive biathlon was and how popular it was in Europe. Biathlon is the number one watched winter sport in Europe, and in a lot of countries, like Germany, it's the number two watched sport on television behind soccer. So that makes it very hard for us to compete because it's very popular, compared to being relatively unknown in the United States.
What is the most challenging part about your sport?
Thrasher (shooter): More than anything, our sport is mental. I think that's the most challenging — trying to hit that dot the size of a period. Being able to hit that once — anyone can do that. But can you hit it twice in a row? Can you hit it when people are watching? Can you hit it with your heart pounding? Can you hit it 60 times in a row when you're on the highest stage in the world? Can you hit it when you know an Olympic gold medal is on the line? That's what's challenging.
Brown (biathlete): I have found it hard to be consistent in biathlon. You can have a good race where you shoot, and you don't miss a target, but it's just not any easier the next day. Biathlon keeps everyone humble; even the best have total meltdowns on the range. It's also really hard not to let those moments get to you sometimes, especially when it's a long winter on the road and you can get into a little bit of a slump.