By By Staff Sgt. Amy Wieser WillsonMarch 15, 2011
JERICHO, Vt. - North Dakota National Guard Biathlon Team members skied and shot their way to a 3rd place finish in a national competition that concluded Sunday at Camp Ethan Allen Training Site in Vermont. The Chief of the National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships pitted North Dakota, last year's overall champions, against other biathlon powerhouses, including Vermont, Minnesota and Utah.
The competition saw strong individual performances by North Dakota Guardsmen, but there was heartbreak with the first team race.
Two North Dakota Guardsmen competed well enough to earn a place on the prestigious All-Guard Team, an elite group comprised of the top biathletes in the entire National Guard. Capt. Eric Nordgren, a member of the North Dakota Air National Guard's 119th Wing, and 2nd Lt. Blake Hillerson, who serves with the North Dakota Army National Guard's 426th Signal Network Support Company, both are repeat team members. This will be Hillerson's fourth year qualifying for the team and Nordgren's second. As part of the team, they'll again have the opportunity to train with top-level coaches and compete internationally. All-Guard Team members also have competed with the U.S. Winter Olympic Biathlon Team. One of those former Olympians competes on the Vermont team, which shows the talent and skill North Dakota was up against this past week.
"After having a late start to training this year, I feel great and I have renewed energy and am excited to train harder this coming year," Hillerson said. "(I'll put) an emphasis on strength, core power and quickness, as opposed to my previous years of overdistance training."
Hillerson, of St. Paul, led the North Dakota team in the first race of the competition, a 10-kilometer sprint race, with a 3rd place finish and time of 36 minutes. Nordgren, of Duluth, Minn., was close behind, racing to a 7th place finish in a time of 38 minutes, 38 seconds. Kent Pulst placed 13th and his son, Spc. Brandon Pulst, garnered a 21st place finish. Lt. Col. Dave Skalicky, of Bismarck, N.D., came in 27th. In the novice competition category, which is reserved for first-year biathletes, Maj. Jon Wutzke, of Fargo, placed 8th and Sgt. Adam Walsvik, of Hazen, N.D., placed 19th.
The sprint race had been delayed a day due to a foot and a half of fresh snow, which made the race more grueling.
"Maj. Andy Parsons, NGB (National Guard Bureau) biathlon coordinator, described the competition best when he said the sprint race was best remembered as the 'Snow Race' with 18 inches of new snow, a very soft base and big hill climbs," said veteran team Skalicky. "The pursuit race the second day was the 'Wind Race' with blasts of wind up to 30 knots on the range. The patrol race the third day is best remembered as the 'Rain Race' as the snow turned to slush and the temperature peaked at 42 degrees. Finally, the last day was the relay race, which can be remembered as the 'Normal Race' with a dusting of new snow, a packed track, very little wind and temps around freezing."
In the so-called "Wind Race" - the 12.5-kilometer pursuit race - Hillerson again placed third with a time of 46 minutes, 27 seconds. Nordgren was a little more than a minute behind him, which was good for fourth place. Kent Pulst garnered a 14th place finish, Brandon Pulst finished 27th and Skalicky came in 36th. In the novice category, Walsvik placed 12th and Wutzke earned 13th.
After the two individual races, North Dakota was poised to capture the team silver as they headed into the patrol race. Despite an amazing comeback from an accident on the slushy course, the team couldn't bounce back in the standings.
"We recovered for 4th place in the 15-kilometer military patrol race after an early wipeout," said Spc. Jordan Becker, of Grand Forks, N.D., team coach. "In the first lap, Sgt. 1st Class Kent Pulst fell and the harness for his rifle broke. The group improvised a new harness to last one lap until a rifle swap could be made at the range. The crash pushed us back to seventh or eighth place after the first lap, but hard skiing and great shooting allowed us to make it all the way back up to 4th. The team made it through the only shooting bout of the race with no penalties (while) every other team had at least one."
Brandon Pulst was team leader for the patrol race, and he was joined by Kent Pulst, Blake Hillerson and Eric Nordgren. The remaining North Dakota team members joined with a Colorado biathlete to compete but, as a composite team, they were unable to earn an official placing.
The final race, a 4-by-7.5-kilometer relay race, "was an up and down race for us," Becker said.
Known for its strong shooting abilities, the North Dakota team was faced with the rarity of missed targets, which forces the biathlete to ski a penalty lap. The team fought its way to a 3rd place finish by the race's end.
"It was a very tough week of races," Becker summed up this week. "Rain and snowstorms in Vermont pushed the competition back a day and forced us to have four races on four consecutive days. The individual results showed how hard our team has been working this season with two athletes making the All-Guard Team and four finishers with combined results in the top 25. We had some tough luck in the team races, but managed to fight back hard and finish third overall. I'm very proud of how all our biathletes battled through a rigorous week of races to represent our state so well."
Even as the season wraps up, team members are looking toward more training and preparation to qualify again next year for the national competition.
"It was great fun and a great time of camaraderie and competition," Skalicky said. "Now our sights are set on training during the off-season and getting ready for another award-winning season next year. Watch out, Vermont!"
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the North Dakota National Guard has mobilized more than 3,500 Soldiers and more than 1,800 Airmen in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Currently, about a dozen North Dakota Guardsmen are serving overseas while more than 4,000 remain in the state for emergency response and national defense. For every 10,000 citizens in North Dakota, 65 serve in the North Dakota National Guard, a rate that's more than four times the national average.
Photos to accompany this release are available on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/ndguard. Navigate to the photo set titled "Chief of the NGB Biathlon Championships."