Since its official Olympic debut at the Squaw Valley Winter Games in 1960, a biathlon podium at the Olympics has proven elusive for American athletes. But the American team is getting closer to that goal. In February, at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Vermont National Guard Sgt. Deedra Irwin has thrust American biathlon into the spotlight after her seventh-place finish in the women’s 15k individual event. Capturing our country’s highest non-relay result in biathlon at the Olympics, Irwin missed just one of 20 shots, and his time of 45 minutes, 14.1 seconds was just one minute, 1.4 seconds away. from that of the women’s 15 km. gold medalist, German biathlete Denise Herrmann. She missed a medal by one stroke. Even more amazing, it was just five years ago when she first picked up a biathlon rifle.
Deedra Irwin’s seventh-place finish at the 2022 Beijing Olympics is the best finish ever by an American biathlete.
A military-inspired Olympic event combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, biathlon is one of the most grueling sports. In the women’s 15km biathlon event, individual competitors ski five laps around a loop with guns strapped to their backs. Between rounds, they face two rounds of prone shots, plus two more from a casual standing position. Each trip to the range alternates between prone and standing targets. The four strings have five targets at 50 yards for both positions. Accuracy is paramount; in biathlon, standing targets are 115mm in diameter, and prone targets even smaller at 45mm. And unlike other biathlon events – where the penalty for each missed shot is skiing a 150-meter lap – individual biathlon events instead add a one-minute penalty to the final time for each miss.
During the 15km race in Beijing, Irwin was on fire. For his first Olympic event, the wind was calm at the National Biathlon Center in Zhangjiakou. Climbing to fifth in the pack on lap four after nine kilometers, Irwin’s only miss was on his final trip to the range. To get back into the zone, she followed her game plan to stay calm on the range and be ready for anything. “I train all year to be able to shoot as accurately and consistently as possible, with a heart rate ranging from 140 to 180 beats per minute,” Irwin said. “I’m still learning the nuances of biathlon, like shooting with precision and speed with a high heart rate. That’s the fun challenge of biathlon: finding a pace that works best for you.
Deedra Irwin trains for competition at the Windsor Biathlon Club in New Hampshire.
A lifelong athlete, Irwin, 30, ran cross country and track and field in college, and was a professional Nordic skier before taking up biathlon. She reflected on how humiliating the sport can be. “You can go from cleaning up a run and being top of the pack to missing three shots the next day and being bottom,” Irwin said. She also stressed the need to have a good attitude. “[You] Look at what you did right and what you did wrong. Having the ability to move on from setbacks and head to the starting line the next day is essential.
Her first exposure to the sport was a week-long American Biathlon Talent Recruitment Camp in Lake Placid, NY, in June 2017, which she attended on a whim. After camp, she received an invitation to train with the team full-time. “I was thinking of retiring after hitting my peak in Nordic skiing,” Irwin said. “Biathlon added such a cool aspect to skiing, a sport that I loved. Every race is different. »
Here’s one of Deedra Irwin’s 50-yard biathlon targets, with 39 of 40 standing hits.
She didn’t interact much with firearms before the biathlon. As a student at Michigan Technological University, one of her first experiences with firearms was at a girls’ night out held in the basement of a building on campus where she learned the basics. “I was so intrigued by it. That night was my introduction to the NRA. I thought it was a really cool community,” Irwin said. I was going to buy a sniper rifle for biathlon competition and join the army.”
She earned her college degree in exercise science in 2015. After joining the Vermont National Guard in 2019, Irwin spent more time training at Camp Ethan Allen, a world-class biathlon facility in Jericho. , Vermont. “The Vermont National Guard Biathlon Team helps develop National Guard biathletes nationwide, not just those in Vermont,” Irwin said. “They provided me with funding, training and a place to live while I competed in biathlon.”
Deedra Irwin fires an Anschutz Fortner biathlon rifle with various .22 LR loads from Lapua, SK and Federal.
Irwin trains every day for the biathlon. Not only is it a punishing sport, but the schedule is demanding. The US biathlon team has April off, and that’s it for the year. “Our training starts the first day of May and we go hard until we leave in November for our first competition,” Irwin said. “During the season, I pretty much pack my bags and head to Europe for the big competitions, and I won’t be returning to the United States until the end of March.”
Biathletes use custom lightweight rimfire rifles with straight actions and special folding stocks. Irwin has a modified Anschutz Fortner .22 LR rifle, a common action for biathlon. “The barrel is made by Anschutz, with a Sanseigne stock made in France,” Irwin said. “It’s a great beginner’s rifle that I bought a few years ago. The stock is ergonomic and I modified different parts like the cheek. While she was in Europe competing in the World Cup, some of her biathlon teammates employed Europe’s top stockers to build them highly customized stocks. There are even 3D printed biathlon stocks now. Irwin said she could improve her stock in the future.
The US Biathlon Team uses different brands of ammunition. Irwin mentioned that Federal’s .22 LR loads are a popular choice. With Lapua as the US biathlon sponsor, the team also uses the company’s cold weather Polar rimfire loads when training in Lake Placid and, in the summer, switches to SK Ammunition for accuracy. “Low-velocity ammunition is better for biathlon targets,” Irwin said.
In May, Staff Sgt. Deedra Irwin of the Vermont National Guard received the Meritorious Service Medal for her success in biathlon.
After coming closer to an Olympic podium than any other American biathlete, she plans to continue challenging herself and improving her game. You won’t find many people with a better attitude towards competition. “In Beijing at the Olympics, I was very lucky to have my best race ever, all coming together perfectly,” Irwin said. “But it doesn’t always turn out that way, so I still have so much to work on. I’m really excited to keep pushing forward and becoming more consistent in my shooting and more efficient in my skiing.
Next up for Irwin is the Biathlon World Cup, as well as vying for a spot on Team USA at the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan, Italy. In closing, she praises biathlon, but not just because of her recent Olympic success. “I learned a lot from the different sports I practiced. Biathlon taught me to forgive myself for poor performance and to celebrate good performance,” Irwin said. “It’s one of the most amazing sports I’ve ever participated in.”
Follow Deedra Irwin on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.