Gambell trio attends NSAA biathlon race in Anchorage
A whole new world was opened to several young Gambell students this weekend as they attended their first biathlon race in Anchorage. The event, titled the Sweetheart Relays, was hosted by the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage and featured two-person relay teams. Each member skied five kilometers and took 10 shots.
Using NSEDC funds procured by Gambell teacher Keith Carroll, Hugo Apatiki, 13, Kayla James, 12, and Pika Aningayou, 11, found themselves hanging out with Olympians and US National Team biathletes, and racing against kids from other parts of the state on Sunday at Kincaid Park’s world-class biathlon venue.
“Our trails are icy and bumpy,” said Aningayou, a second-year biathlete. “The only flat spots we have are around our snow fences. When we got ready for Anchorage, we skied all around the village,” she said.
First year ski coach Katie Nagel said Gambell skiers are tested by more than just the local snow conditions. “It is a challenge to pull off practices in our dark and very windy conditions.” Soon after her team arrived in Anchorage, they headed over to the Hillside Ski Area. The kids were amazed at the smooth trails. Although they were there during the day, they noticed the trails had lights for night skiing. And perhaps the most startling difference between Anchorage trails and those in Gambell were all the trees.
When the Gambell crew arrived for a day of pre-race rifle practice at Kincaid on Saturday, they were greeted by Simon Gilliland, who coaches for SkiKubiathlon. Gilliland is part of the dedicated group of Skikubiathlon coaches who are developing a competitive team in Anchorage, and also working to grow biathlon around the state. He is the head Snowshoe Biathlon coach for Team Alaska, and will be leading a team of athletes to Greenland in March for the Arctic Winter Games.
“Simon was amazing,” said Nagel. “The shooting day before the race was a highlight. The skiers couldn’t stop talking about it the rest of the trip. They even liked to quiz each other on all the parts of the gun, that he taught during the safety meeting.”
Gilliland introduced the kids to competition grade biathlon rifles that featured straight-pull action bolts, relay-round holders, and harnesses. This in itself was a big change for veteran racers Apatiki and Aningayou. They have become accustomed to using the less-intricate, bolt-action target rifles that are the hallmark of races run by the Bering Strait School District and the Western Interior Ski/Biathlon Association.
“I enjoyed helping these kids succeed,” said Gilliand after the event. “They knew how to shoot better than most kids that show up.”
Nagel said that although her team has a laser rifle, it is hard to get kids outdoors to shoot back home. The Saturday shooting practice at Kincaid will prove valuable to her squad, as they get ready for biathlon races with other Seward Peninsula schools in Koyuk and White Mountain next month.
Due to the introductory nature of rural races, the Koyuk and White Mountain meets, as well as the Western Interior Ski and Biathlon Championships in Galena in March, call for participants to shoot at 4.5-inch targets from 50 meters, while lying down in the prone shooting position. These marks, which are also called “open targets,” are typically reserved for biathletes shooting in the more demanding standing position.
Gilliland was impressed by how fast the Gambell shooters progressed in the prone position. “We gave up on the open targets when nobody was missing,” he said. The shooters still had great success after he switched them to the smaller, 1.5-inch targets.
While Aningayou partnered with her teammate James for the relay on Sunday, Apataki was paired up with a local racer. The rural biathlete’s ski times might not have matched up the more experienced urban skiers, but they were very competitive in the shooting aspect. After the competition, Gilliland spoke highly of his protégés, who used the smaller targets during the race. “Pika ‘cleaned’ (hit all the targets) once,” said Gilliland. “Hugo and Kayla hit four out of five.” The Gambell kids spent limited time doing the 150-meter penalty loops assessed for missed shots.
Apatiki, who is in his third year as a biathlon racer, won a bronze medal in biathlon and earned a gold medal in the marksmanship competition during the 2015 Bering Strait School District Ski and Biathlon Championships in White Mountain. “My dad taught me how to shoot,” he said. “We hunt birds and seals mostly.”
“This was farther away from Gambell than any meet I’ve been to,” said Apatiki. “My favorite part was the shooting.” Apatiki is excited to put his new knowledge to use in future biathlon races.
As they warmed up for Sunday’s race, Apatiki, James and Aningayou got to meet two-time Olympic biathlete Sara Studebaker-Hall, and got relay instruction from former US National Biathlon Team member Zachary Hall. They also received skiing tips from Nome Ski and Biathlon team members Bianca Trowbridge, 16, and Mallory Conger, 14. The pair of Nome biathletes had traveled to Anchorage to prepare for the Arctic Winter Games in Greenland. By winning the high school biathlon race at the 2015 WISA Championships, Trowbridge secured a spot on Team Alaska’s Ski Biathlon squad. Conger won the junior high ski race at the championships and earned a spot on Team Alaska’s ski squad.
“The relay race format was a bit more relaxed than what we usually find at races down here,” said Trowbridge. “So, this was a good weekend for the kids from Gambell to come down to Anchorage to learn about biathlon on a bigger stage.”