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How The Craftsbury Green Racing Project Is Developing NCAA Athletes Into World-Class Biathletes — And Human Beings

By Peggy Shinn | Jan. 25, 2021, 8:51 a.m. (ET)

Susan Dunklee competes at the BMW IBU World Cup Biathlon on Dec. 11, 2020 in Hochfilzen, Austria.

 

Say the word “biathlon” and many people will ask, “Oh, that’s swimming and running, isn’t it? … Or is it cycling and running?”

But come to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center (COC) in northern Vermont, and it’s clear what biathlon is: cross-country skiing and shooting. Some of the country’s—in fact, the world’s—best biathletes belong to the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (GRP), the center’s elite team for biathletes, cross-country skiers, rowers, and most recently, runners. In the summer, especially, many of the biathletes are on campus training, roller skiing on a new paved loop and practicing in the 15-point range.

Two-time world championship silver medalist Susan Dunklee—a two-time Olympian—is a long-time GRP biathlete, as is Clare Egan, a 2018 Olympian who became the first U.S. biathlete to meet the early qualification standards for nomination to the 2022 U.S. Olympic Team after scoring two top-10 finishes in world cup sprints in December. Both women began competing in biathlon after successful NCAA cross-country ski careers—Dunklee at Dartmouth College, Egan at Wellesley, where she created the college’s ski team, then raced for a year with the University of New Hampshire’s NCAA Division I team. 

“Being able to train alongside Olympians, but not even thinking it is anything out of the ordinary, is incredibly special and a huge asset,” said Hallie Grossman, who picked up biathlon as a member of the GRP after competing in cross-country skiing at Bates College. She is currently in Europe racing on the IBU Cup circuit (a level below the world cup tour).

But the GRP—as its name implies—is more than a post-collegiate Olympic development program. GRP team members have a broader purpose, contributing to the Craftsbury community both at the outdoor center and in the town itself—a Currier-and-Ives-like hamlet sequestered in the high meadows and forests of Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom.

There are pros and cons to this unique program, admitted biathlon head coach Michael Gibson. For one, it’s remote—and mostly out of cellphone range. (The nearest movie theater is a half-hour away.) But for those who thrive in the intense training environment, enjoy the closeness of the community and finding ways to give back, and love the outdoors, it can be a “fantastic experience.”

“The best part about the GRP is being at the center when the skiers, rowers, and biathletes are all training full tilt at the same time,” said Raleigh Goessling, a UNH grad who’s also racing on the IBU Cup circuit this winter. “Being part of such a standout group across three sports is special. 

“But when these same people are also leading projects at the Center and in the town of Craftsbury, it makes you feel like part of something meaningful and larger than yourself.”

 
Being able to train alongside Olympians, but not even thinking it is anything out of the ordinary, is incredibly special and a huge asset.

Hallie Grossman, Biathlon

The Craftsbury Green Racing Project was born in 2009—a combined vision of Tim Reynolds, then a senior at Middlebury College, and Dick Dreissigacker and Judy Geer, two Olympic scullers whose family foundation had recently purchased the COC. One of Middlebury’s top cross-country skiers at the time, Reynolds wanted to continue ski racing after graduation and try for an Olympic team. 

“But there weren't a lot of options for skiers beyond the college years to have a good support structure to train and race,” he said by phone. “And I didn’t have the means to keep skiing on my own.”

So as a senior project, Reynolds wrote a proposal for a post-collegiate Olympic development program. He worked with renowned author and environmental advocate Bill McKibbon, who serves as the faculty affiliate to Middlebury’s Nordic team, and proposed a ski training program with a broader purpose. In addition to training and racing, the skiers would give back to the community and find sustainable ways to live. Reynolds presented his idea to a few Vermont businesses, as well as to NENSA (New England Nordic Skiing Association).

Geer attended one of Reynolds’s presentations and liked what she heard. She and Dreissigacker had had a similar vision when they purchased the COC. A cross-country ski center in the winter and sculling center in the summer, the COC had been attracting skiers in winter and top rowers in the summer to the campus since the 1970s. (Geer and Dreissigacker had coached sculling at the COC since the late 1970s, and their company, Concept2, which manufactures oars and popular indoor ergometers, is located in nearby Morrisville.) Many area kids learn to cross-country ski at Craftsbury, and the place has a family feel, where everyone knows everyone and feels welcome. With an on-site dorm (in a previous incarnation, the COC was a boys’ academy) and cabins, plus a dining hall renowned for its great meals, it would work well as a training center. 

"Since our goal was to provide a training program with room and board—and since sustainability was and still is part of our mission—it fit really well to adopt Tim's vision of a green racing team,” said Geer.

After graduation in 2009, Reynolds moved to Craftsbury and joined five other cross-country skiers, including Geer and Dreissigacker’s oldest daughter, Hannah, who had come up through Craftsbury’s Bill Koch League (BKL), a regional youth cross-country ski program, and had recently graduated from Dartmouth. The six skiers were charged with shaping the program and its mission—and naming it. They chose Craftsbury Green Racing Project; it placed equal emphasis on training/racing and the environmental/community component. 

The skiers earned their keep doing projects like mapping and building ski and mountain bike trails, supporting the center’s many events (like the Craftsbury Marathon, a popular ski race), gardening and composting, and working with young skiers in the BKL program, among other projects.

For Reynolds, these projects gave him purpose beyond training and racing—the “stuff that fills your soul,” he said.

Soon, the GRP added biathlon, then a sculling program. Gibson, along with Dunklee, Egan, and the Dreissigacker siblings (Hannah, Emily, and Ethan), were a few of the program’s first biathletes. Gibson had recently graduated from the University of Vermont with an engineering degree but wanted to pursue biathlon. Geer, a family friend who used to drive son Ethan, Gibson, and a few other boys to the Ethan Allen Firing Range in Jericho, Vermont, when they were young, emailed him out of the blue to let him know that the GRP now had a biathlon team.

Skiing at the COC as a kid, Gibson liked the “amazing community.” He also liked the GRP’s mission of balancing training with “interesting intellectual projects.” Along with Ethan Dreissigacker—an engineering grad from Dartmouth—the two designed an electric motor to replace the two-stroke engines used by the sculling coaches’ motorboats. 

The projects and sense of purpose in the community help give the GRP athletes a sense of balance in their lives—and a sense of satisfaction (especially important for athletes if they are battling injuries or having a tough string of races).  

Goessling—who serves as a liaison between the GRP and the COC staff, has archived COC pictures, and writes race reports—felt gratified watching kids having fun and challenging themselves on small mountain bike jumps that he built at the COC last summer. 

Grossman has found similar gratification coaching kids in the COC’s BKL program, volunteering at the local middle school, and during the pandemic, running a Zoom book club for kids. She also helped deliver food through a local food share program to neighbors in surrounding villages during the pandemic.

“The program has helped me mature as a person,” she said. “I went from an immature recent college graduate to becoming a member of a community with a solid group of people around me, a member of the national team, and I now have a clue what I want to do next in my life.”

Training, though, is still a priority. The GRP has already sent a handful of athletes to both the summer and winter Olympic Games, including Dunklee, Egan, Hannah and Emily Dreissigacker, and cross-country skier Ida Sargent. And GRP biathletes are regulars on the world cup and IBU Cup tours. In a one world cup relay last winter, the U.S. women’s 4x6km relay team was comprised of only GRP biathletes: Dunklee, Egan, Emily Dreissigacker, and Grossman, who described it as “a really special GRP moment.”

In the past year, the GRP’s biathlon program has made big gains. Gibson, who retired from competition in 2018, returned to Craftsbury last spring as the GRP’s head biathlon coach—“It’s the community, it’s the place that I wanted to be,” he said—and has made the biathlon program a separate entity from the GRP ski program.

In prior years, the two programs trained together, with the biathletes practicing in the range around ski practice.

The COC now has a paved rollerski loop that opened in 2020—a boon during the pandemic when athletes could not easily travel to other paved loops (the COC is located far from paved roads). The center also debuted a new 15-point shooting range—a significant upgrade from a smaller, more rustic range built in a field near the “ski house” (where many of the skiers and biathletes live). 

With the improved facilities, Gibson aims to improve the depth of the national team by recruiting talented collegiate cross-country skiers who might like shooting—and might like living at an isolated but idyllic sports center in northern Vermont. 

“The role that Craftsbury plays in the greater ecosystem of U.S. Biathlon is transitional talent,” Gibson explained, “taking cross-country skiers who are interested in biathlon or who never had exposure to biathlon and being able to give them good consistent coaching and equipment to try biathlon.

“If I can convert a couple biathletes, that’s fantastic.”

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.