Local biathletes stoked for Slovakia

Thursday, January 19, 2017 - 23:35
Gilliland, Wilson will compete on a big stage in February
  • Eagle River's Grace Gilliland, right, shoots at a target during a qualifying event for the U.S. Junior World Biathlon Team at the Ethan Allen Firing Range in Jericho, Vermont, in December. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Kilby)
  • Eagle River's Grace Gilliland skis during a qualifying event for the U.S. Junior World Biathlon Team at the Ethan Allen Firing Range in Jericho, Vermont, in December. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Kilby)
  • Eagle River's Helen Wilson poses with her third-place medal in the 6-kilometer sprint race at the Ethan Allen Firing Range in Jericho, Vermont, in December. Wilson and fellow Eagle River teen Grace Gilliland both qualified for the U.S. team that will compete at the World Junior Championships in February in Slovakia. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Kilby)
  • Eagle River's Helen Wilson skis during the U.S. biathlon team trials in Vermont in December as her family’s Norwegian exchange student, Marie Døhlen, takes a photo. (Photo courtesy of Catherine Kilby)

Two local athletes are about to become international shooting stars.

“I’ve heard stories that your skis will be waxed faster than they’ve ever been before, and everybody will be asking for your autograph,” said Helen Wilson, a 15-year-old from Eagle River who is one of two Eagle River athletes who made the U.S. Junior Biathlon team that will compete at the World Youth/Junior Biathlon Championships next month in Slovakia.

Wilson and Grace Gilliland, 17, made the four-person squad by virtue of their performances at national qualifying in Vermont at the end of December. Gilliland qualified in fourth and Wilson made it as the first alternate.

“I didn’t even know I had a chance,” said Wilson, who skis for Eagle River High School and the ANR program.

Gilliland said she was hopeful she had an outside shot in Vermont.

“I knew I had at least a small chance,” she said.

Biathlon isn’t huge in Alaska, but the state has produced some top guns, including Olympians Jay Hakkinen and Jeremy Teela. However, the sport is massively popular in Europe, and both Gilliland and Wilson are looking forward to the huge crowds expected at the world championships.

“It’s a really big deal in Europe,” said Gilliland, a home-schooler who skis for South High and the Alaska Pacific University junior Nordic team.

Both highly competitive Nordic skiers, Wilson and Gilliland got into biathlon through family connections. Wilson’s dad got her into the sport, she said, while Gilliland’s brother introduced her to the combination shooting and skiing event. Both were hooked immediately.

“I just love being outside and shooting and I like working really hard,” Gilliland said.

Biathlon requires high levels of concentration, the girls said. Skiers must make laps around a course with rifles strapped to their backs before returning to the shooting range, where they must quickly get a handle on their breathing and heart rate.

“Breathing’s the big challenge,” said Gilliland. “But it’s also almost easier because of the focus. If you’re focusing on the shooting the heart rate doesn’t really matter.”

The girls train every day with their Nordic ski teams and travel to Kincaid Park about three times a week to work on biathalon skills – namely, shooting after making laps on the course.

Neither athlete knows what to expect in Slovakia other than lots of fans and a high level of competition.

“Considering this is my first time going to an international race, I really don’t care too much how I do,” said Wilson. “I’m just happy I made it.”

Between now and the international competition, the two said they plan to enter high school races and continue training with their teams. The ultimate goal, both said, is to simply keep getting better at their chosen sport.

“We’re just going to keep working hard,” Gilliland said.

And, perhaps, dreaming of stardom in Slovakia.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Wilson said.

CORRECTION: This story has been changed to correct the spelling of Slovakia.

Facebook comments