US Biathlon History

By Rob Sherwood

In this space, we hope to bring to light some of the very interesting historical elements of Biathlon in the United States.  Each entry will be only a brief snapshot of the incident, story or person highlighted.  If you have further information, memories, or biathlon related material that needs a home, please contact Rob Sherwood, USBA Archivist at archives@usbiathlon.org

 

McKinney Creek, California: just south and east of the current Homewood Mountain Resort hosted the first international biathlon race in the history on the United States in March 1959.  Biathlon, now one of the most popular events in the Winter Olympics, were included for the first time in the 1960 Olympic Games.  As part of the logistical and technical preview for the Olympic Games, a “soft opening” for the venues happened in the winter of 1959, about a year prior to the Olympic Games.  The goal was to simulate on a smaller scale the logistical and technical demands the Winter Olympics would require. 

Topographical Map of McKinney Creek, California,

The trails at McKinney Creek were constructed for both the Nordic skiing races as well as the one and only biathlon race.  The biathlon race, the 20km Individual was very different than now.  Unlike modern biathlon, the 1960s Olympic event was contested with large bore rifles and a varied distance to the target.  Instead of the standard 50 meters ranges of today with a .22 rifle, there were four separate ranges with shooting distances of 250m, 200m, 150m and 100m.  The final shooting bout was contested in the standing position, the others in either the stand or prone position.  Instead of rapid response targets where all could see how a biathlete has done in the shooting, paper targets were used and scored after the race was over.

Many nations including Sweden, Finland, Norway, Great Britain the USSR and obviously the United States committed to attending the event.  The hope was that first-hand experience with the venue, the elevation (over 6,200 feet above sea level), and the conditions would prepare the competitors, and allow them to have an advantage for the 1960 Olympic Winter Games.

Birger Torrisen, the technical advisor for the Biathlon event advocated prior to the race that “We have the best Biathlon layout at Squaw Valley as anywhere in the world.”  The course had a “typical Scandinavia in pattern.  They take the racers through heavily wooded, slightly open, and twisting terrain, a real test of endurance, technique and … waxing.”

On 3 March 1959 the North American Biathlon Championships were contested in much warmer that ideal temperatures.  19 biathletes competed in the race, 17 from the United States, one from the UK and another from Sweden. 

Results from the 1959 North American Biathlon Championships: 

 

Place

Name

Hometown

Adjusted Time

Hits out of 20

1

Lawrence Damon

Burlington, VT

1:48.09.3

13

2

Dick Mize

Gilman, CO

1:48.21.9

19

3

Klas Lestander

Sweden

1:54.51.6

13

4

John Burritt

Hotchkiss, CO

1:58.06.6

16

5

Jim Mahaffey

Gunnison, CO

2:02.11.4

14

6

Gustav Hanson

Poughkeepsie, NY

2:03.09.7

12

7

Maurice Paquette, Jr.

Plymouth, NH

2:03.12.5

13

8

William Spencer

Salt Lake City, UT

2:03.27.6

12

9

Robert Collins

Sunapee, NH

2:06.32.9

12

10

Bill Rudd

Los Angeles, CA

2:06.54.2

11

11

Walter Jackson

Leadville, CO

2:09.32.4

8

12

Philip Jobert

Manchester, CT

2:13:12.4

15

13

Paul Schweikert

Naperville, IL

2:13.37.3

14

14

Norman Schutt

England

2:22.19.8

7

15

Bill Smith

Crested Butte, CO

2:26.11.1

8

16

Bryan Samuelsen

Santa Monica, CA

2:28.26.6

4

17

Hans Aune

Los Angeles, CA

2:39.27.2

8

18

Leo Sjogren

Los Angeles, CA

2:44.36,0

1

 

For some of the contestants, this was their only foray into biathlon, for others, they enjoyed a lengthy career. 

Lawrence Damon from Burlington, VT the winner of the race, initially did not plan on racing in the 1960 Olympics.  He eventually did and finished in 24th place.  When asked after his race if he thought he won, he said, “If I did win, it was pure luck because I have never hit the targets that well before.”  Dick Mize also qualified for the Olympics in 1960, and became a very influential member of the Nordic community in Anchorage for many decades.  Norman Shutt of Falconbridge, Ontario where he was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force police represented Great Britain in this race and returned for the 1960 Olympics.  In addition to the biathlon, Shutt skied in the 15km and Nordic Combined events.   

Of the 19 who competed in the race, nine were from the Ft Richardson unit.  The trio of Leo Sjogren, born in Helsinki, Finland, Walter Walton and Hans Aune lived in the Winter Sports hotbed of Los Angeles, CA.  Sjogren had previous Olympic as a member of the 1952 Summer Olympic team for the 50 km walk.   He was one of the best race-walkers in the United States in the 1950s.  Walton, worked for the State of California Division of Engineers and served as a vestryman in his local Episcopal Church.  He was also a Lieutenant Commander who had won an archery contest in 1950 while stationed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyards. 

Klas Lestrander used the experience to win the 1960 Biathlon competition over the heavily favored biathletes of the USSR.  Will Spencer would go on a have a very lengthy career as an athlete, coach, and team official with Biathlon in the United States.