30 for 30 podcast -- How gender politics and tragedy changed Kari Swenson's biathlon generation

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FIGHTING A HEADWIND and her own pounding heart, Holly Beattie -- the American anchoring the three-woman biathlon relay -- lunged over the finish line and edged the Finnish athlete at her side.

It was March 4, 1984, and the U.S. trio of Beattie, Kari Swenson and Julie Newnam had just shocked the field in their European-dominated sport, winning a bronze medal behind the Soviet Union and Norway at the inaugural women's world championships in Chamonix, France. It was their debut in international competition, and it felt like the start of something promising.

The world championships were held in conjunction with the junior men's competition, far from any media spotlight. A beaming Swenson led the team from the U.S. -- one of 12 nations that participated -- into the opening ceremony, carrying a hand-stenciled sign bearing the words "États-Unis d'Amerique." Snapshots show a charmingly amateur podium ceremony held at the town's ice rink.

"I don't know that we really knew that it was that special at the time," Swenson said. "I mean, we knew it was really nice to win a medal, and we got lots of attention in Europe, but we didn't get any attention back in the United States. Nobody knew or cared."

Swenson, who had notably strong, graceful skiing technique, had finished fifth in the 10-kilometer individual race in Chamonix and established her potential as a contender on the world scene. There was hope that women's biathlon would be elevated to Olympic status in time for the next Winter Games, bringing resources and attention.

"We were so amped to get out there and train hard and compete again at the world stage next year," she said. "It gave us all more passion for the sport to know that we could actually go compete against international athletes and do well."

The night of the awards banquet in France, however, the Americans simply celebrated the moment and didn't dwell on what it might mean for the future. The U.S. Biathlon Association noted their "inherent enthusiasm" in a spring newsletter report: "They danced with French generals, sang with the Russian coaches, and laughed with the East Germans."

But two events would alter the course for that generation of U.S. women. In July 1984, Swenson was abducted while trail running near Big Sky, Montana, and seriously wounded by one of her captors during a rescue attempt in which another man was killed. She would heal and go on to compete in two more world championships, but the physical and psychic pain she experienced left a profound mark.

Meanwhile, despite a spirited lobbying campaign by the U.S. and Canadian biathlon federations, international biathlon officials and the International Olympic Committee stonewalled the effort to include women in the Calgary 1988 Games, according to multiple people involved. Swenson attended as an ABC commentator instead. Women's biathlon ultimately was added to the Winter Olympic slate in 1992, but many athletes from Swenson's era had moved on by then.

There's no way to rewind and reconstruct how well a healthy, whole Swenson would have performed after 1984, or whether the lure of Olympic competition would have kept her and other gifted athletes of that era in the sport. The only certainty is that it took another 33 years for an American woman to medal at the world championships.

SWENSON, NEWNAM AND BEATTIE were among a group of talented cross-country skiers who helped break barriers in 1980 when they were recruited for the first U.S. women's program. They mastered the art of steadying a .22 rifle and hitting targets 50 meters away, then learned how to shoot accurately in the middle of a race as they were pushing their physical limits. "Some people describe it as running around a block as fast as you can and then trying to thread a needle," Swenson said.

They had an accomplished coach in champion markswoman Marie Alkire, and they shared an irreverent, why-not spirit that made them ideal pioneers. "There was no fame or fortune, and a fair amount of obstacles were put in our way," said Pam Weiss, another member of that foundational group of U.S. women biathletes. "But everyone was very driven. It was 99 percent women helping each other."

They needed that mutual support. Gender equity in Olympic sport was a distant concept 35 years ago when the team landed in France. The month before, more than 1,200 athletes had participated in the 1984 Sarajevo Games. Women were a mere fifth of that total, competing in just five sports: Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, luge, figure skating and speedskating.

Biathlon, born out of military exercises, was a staunchly male stronghold rooted in Europe, and became an Olympic sport for men in its current form in 1960. Women's biathlon began to germinate in North America in the late '70s. Beattie, a Californian, saw men competing in Squaw Valley and asked if she could try it out. Swenson, who grew up in Montana, first picked up a rifle at a demonstration clinic when she competed at the junior national cross-country skiing championships.

In the fall of 1980, U.S. men's biathlon coaches Art Stegen and Bill Spencer invited a select group of women to a training camp in Squaw Valley -- 10 of whom were named to the first-ever national team. Many, including Swenson, had been spotted and recommended by local Nordic skiing coaches. But they shared something else more intangible.

Newnam began shooting as a casual hobby in college and initially raced with men in National Guard competitions in her native Pacific Northwest. She and her peers were used to elbowing their way into opportunities. "If we saw something we were interested in doing, we'd go do it, and not ask permission from men or society," she said.

That disregard for convention led to an unusual level of camaraderie among the early women biathletes, who were often on their own training at home, and enjoyed coming together informally or at camps. "We weren't as competitive with each other as the cross-country athletes," Newnam said. The women and their Canadian counterparts bonded at races in Montana, Wyoming and Lake Placid, New York. Parents often worked at the events. Former male biathletes Peter Hoag and Martin Hagen helped coach.

Over in Europe, countries such as Finland and the former Czechoslovakia also had encouraged women to compete by that time, but others resisted. Stegen recalls being "scoffed and laughed at" by some European coaches at the 1980 Lake Placid Games when he told them there were a few women interested in biathlon.

"The Italians, the Germans and the Austrians didn't view women [biathletes] the same way," said Canada's Lise Meloche, who also competed at the 1984 world championships. "They were soldiers first and then biathletes. They came from that world."

Those attitudes notwithstanding, by 1986, North American biathlon officials were convinced that the depth and numbers in the women's sport justified Olympic inclusion. Canadian biathlete Gail Niinimaa and her husband Veli, a former national team coach, were among the leading advocates.

"The [Calgary] organizing committee was behind it, and the course had been designed to accommodate women," Gail Niinimaa said. "I suggested mixed relays so small nations could compete. The international [biathlon] governing body formed a women's committee, which of course had no women on it." She began to understand her arguments would be largely ignored when a response to one of her letters arrived addressed to "Mr. Niinimaa."

"The old conservative men running the sport then didn't believe in equal opportunity for women," current U.S. Biathlon president Max Cobb said. "From what I understand, many of them never changed their minds -- they just got eventually outnumbered."

WHEN VERMONT'S SUSAN DUNKLEE won an individual world silver medal in 2017 -- the first for an American woman -- the 1984 team's largely forgotten accomplishment suddenly surfaced again, a bit of treasure long buried in a riverbed of statistics.

"It was a lot more difficult for them when it wasn't a legitimate thing," Dunklee said. "Women's biathlon came to the Olympics so late, it's wild. They paved the way. We owe them."

Several of the U.S. and Canadian women who blazed trails together in the early '80s did stick it out long enough for the 1992 Albertville Games, including Minnesotan Patrice Jankowski, who had been part of the first training camp. Weiss' bid was derailed by a serious car accident on the eve of the U.S. trials.

The initial Olympic competition was especially poignant for the Canadians who had seen the opportunity to compete at a home Winter Games slip away. Meloche, driven by "the fact that I had been denied once when I was on top of the world,'' qualified for the Canadian team. Her teammate Myriam Bédard won an individual bronze medal as Niinimaa watched from home "with tears streaming down my face." Bédard, a double event champion two years later in Lillehammer, remains the only Olympic biathlon medalist from North America, male or female.

The U.S. Biathlon Hall of Fame represented one of the few ways to acknowledge the team's achievement. The Hall was established in the early 2000s and went through periods of dormancy, but still, Stegen calls it "a shame" that the 1984 bronze medalists weren't inducted until 2015. Jankowski was part of the same class, and Weiss would follow three years later. Beattie had died of breast cancer the year before.

Swenson was unable to attend because of a family issue. Her biography on the Hall of Fame site makes no mention of the tragedy that changed her life. That is fine with Swenson, a veterinarian who remains involved with biathlon as a board member at a Bozeman-area club.

The sport is still a pure space for her, symbolizing focus, calm and achievement. She often quotes her late father, Bob, a physics professor at Montana State University: "You can't play the what-if game." What was is more important to her than what could have been.