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Kari Swenson says she has owned only one gunthe one

on her back, which was made by the German manufacturer Anschutz. Her parents ordered the gun for her in
1979, when she was a junior in high school.

GIRLS WITH
GUNS
Biathlon in southwest
Montana ... and the rest
of the Kari Swenson story

BY AL AN KESSELHEIM
PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS LEE

f youve been around Montana a while, you know


the Kari Swenson saga. How in July of 1984,
Swenson, a promising biathlete earning respect
on the world stage, was out on a
training run near Big Sky and was abducted by two
faux mountain men with a bizarre plan to turn her
into a wilderness bride. How Alan Goldstein, stumbling onto the scene, was tragically shot to death by
Don Nichols. How Swenson was shot in the chest by
Dan Nichols and left chained to a tree, where she
spent hours waiting for rescue near Goldsteins
lifeless body.

Swenson leads biathlon students into the backcountry during a training


session at the Bohart Ranch course.

Sadly, for many people, that story is the only way they know
anything at all about the sport of biathlon. Also, sadly, that
sensational news spasm is the sum total of their acquaintance
with Kari Swenson.
Most people dont know or remember that after her ordeal
Swenson spent two years rehabilitating from her injuries and
came back to compete in the top echelon of her sport. Nor that
Swenson went on to become a respected veterinarian. They dont
know that Swenson, now in her early 50s, is part of the energy
infusing a heady resurgence of biathlon in Montana, serving on
the board of directors for the Bridger Biathlon Club and mentoring young athletes. Or that late last summer, Swenson suffered
an appalling horseback riding accident and survived a battery of
life-threatening injuries, including a bunch of broken ribs and
vertebrae and two brain bleeds, that required a flight-for-life
evacuation from the Montana backcountry.

Swenson got into the sport of biathlon for much the same
reason young people are signing up today. She was already skiing,
training and competing with the local Bridger Ski Foundation, but
when she heard about this quirky tangential sport, which involved
shooting at tiny distant targets, she was intrigued.
Id never shot a gun before, Swenson admits. It was a huge
challenge and responsibility, mental as well as physical. To ski
as hard as you can, and then still yourself and shoot. It caught
my imagination.
Also, Swenson adds, It was a sport that hadnt accepted
women. That was part of what provoked me, too. We were
pioneers.
My brother, Paul, got into the sport, Swenson remembers.
My parents volunteered. Dad built a range in the backyard with
railroad ties for a backstop. Our house was a revolving door of
skiers and coaches coming and going. It was like a youth hostel.

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Sabine Love, one of Keri Swensons students, brings


a target into her sights during a practice session.

The whole family skied together, says Bob Swenson, Karis


father. It never mattered to me whether our kids won. It was
about participating. If you participate, you win. Thats what its
still about.
Thirty years after her abduction, Swenson remains fit and
athletic, and she is still participating. She skis every winter,
preferring lonely backcountry tours with her dogs to groomed
trails and race events. She is engaged with the budding local
resurgence of biathlon. And she remains as outspoken as ever.
People say Im stubborn, she says, a little ruefully.
But then, when you think of the things shes overcome, maybe
thats what got her where she is.
At first glance, biathlon seems like a strange, conflicted
sport, something contrived by sadistic organizers to focus on
extremes. Skiers race as fast as they can using a skate-ski technique on a groomed course, then come into a shooting range
where they have to calm their bodies enough to shoot five tiny
targets 50 meters away from both standing and prone positions. Then they sling the 22-caliber rifle over their shoulder
and ski like hell again. Plus, they are assessed penalty laps for
every missed target. The crux of the challenge centers on pacing
energy output and finding the balance between all-out skiing
effort and the focus and accuracy it takes to hit a target.
It is all about strategy and overcoming problems, says
Stuart Jennings, a Bozeman biathlete who trained and competed
with Swenson 30 years ago. Its always somethingthe wind,
your scope steaming up, a rifle that jams. Its often not the best
athlete who wins, but the person who makes the best decisions
and manages the obstacles.
Contrived as it seems, there are practical roots to biathlon
that go back thousands of years. In fact, 4,000-year-old cave
art in Norway depicts two ancient hunters on skis, doing more
or less what modern biathletes doski hard in pursuit of prey,
then settle down enough to make an accurate shot, but with
more primitive weapons.
It probably happened in the Montana mountains as well,
says Jennings. There are sites that go back thousands of years
within a few miles of Bohart Ranch, where we train and compete
today. Those people had to get around in winter conditions,
presumably on crude skis or snowshoes, and they hunted to
survive.
Prehistoric biathletes, perhaps . . .
More recently, skiing and shooting has been featured as
a military discipline, especially in Scandinavian countries.
The rest of the world took note when, in the 1939 Winter
War, the Finnish Army, on skis, held off an invading Russian
force that outnumbered them 10 to 1. Notably, in the Battle of
Suomussalmi, 11,000 Finnish soldiers annihilated a force of
45,000 Russian troops. Nimble soldiers on skis could match the
speed of light cavalry, and were able to outmaneuver and decimate Russian troops and tanks for months. After that, ski troops
sprouted up around the world, including in the United States,

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with the famed 10th Mountain Division. Early biathlon competiby lingering nerve damage that crippled her with pain, and by
tions grew out of military training events.
reduced lung capacity. Despite all of that, she skied solidly in
A lot of the first push for biathlon in the U.S. came from the
the World Cup in Norway in 1986.
National Guard, Swenson says. I had friends join the Guard
After a lot of soul-searching at the end of the 1986 season,
not because they wanted to be in the military, but because they
in her mid-20s Swenson decided to leave competitive skiing and
could continue to train and get paid.
biathlon.
Back then, there was also a lot of chauvinism to overcome,
My coach was really angry, she remembers. But I was
says Swenson. It took a long time for women to be accepted in
still dealing with debilitating nerve pain, and honestly, I looked
the sport. In fact, womens biathlon didnt become an Olympic
ahead at the years of training and the prospects as a profesevent until 1992.
sional skier, and it didnt add up. I knew people who stayed too
I remember training in Italy in the 80s, Swenson says.
long in the sport and never really blossomed. Then they had to
We were in the rural countryside and local people were watchregroup and figure out what to do with themselves. As it turned
ing. The men started yelling at us. We didnt understand what
out, it would have been another six years before a chance at the
they were saying, so we asked an interpreter. They were shouting
Olympics would have come up. I couldnt wait that long.
at us to go home and cook and raise children, saying that women
In Europe skiers are on billboards and advertisements,
had no place shooting guns or ski racing. As if giving birth is
they can actually make money and have a career in the sport.
so easy! she laughs. Of course, now there are dozens of counIn America, even an Olympic medal in skiing doesnt get you
tries competing, including Italy, which has a proud tradition of
much.
women biathletes. It is a hugely popular sport there.
Swenson came back to enroll in veterinary school in Fort
It turns out that women are often better all-around biathletes
Collins, Colorado. She graduated in 1990, but her ties to biaththan men.
lon kept tugging at her.
Boys sports go all-out, all the time, says Eric Love, one
I did a stint as an assistant coach with the United States
of the cofounders of Bridger Biathlon
biathlon team after I got out of school,
Club. The idea of holding back
but I didnt stay very long, Swenson
doesnt come naturally. Girls are more
says. I think I might have been a
I
love
to
feel
Im
helping
coachable, better listeners, and they
little too outspoken, she says with
have that ability to pace themselves
a laugh.
to make kids better skiers,
and focus when they need to.
She returned to Colorado to start
When I was competing, it was
practicing veterinary medicine, and,
shooters, people.
common for women to outscore men on
on the side, helped build a biathlon
the range, agrees Swenson.
program in Winter Park.
If you give me 10 girls and 10
The biathlon theme followed
boys to train in an hour, the girls will be better every time, says
her back to Bozeman, where she relocated in 1995, and has
Jennings, now one of the local biathlon coaches.
now found an outlet in the budding biathlon club. No matter
The season before her 1984 abduction, Swenson competed
that Swensons life has many chapters unrelated to skiing, her
in the first womens World Championship races in Chamonix,
story, her triumph over adversity, and her inspiration remain
France. Swenson skied one leg of the womens relay team, where
undimmed within the biathlon community, especially in southher team surprised the world by capturing bronze. Then she
west Montana.
finished fifth, behind four Russians, in the 10-kilometer indiWhen Kari is around, or at a meet, you can just see the
vidual final.
young girls idolizing her, says Love. The fact that Kari is
Ive had two perfect races in my career, Swenson says.
willing to give back to our kids in this sport, especially our
That was one of them. Everything was perfectthe weather,
daughtersit makes me want to cry.
my skis, the gun, my focus. Totally in the zone. I realized, part
I wish I could have started when I was 10, Swenson says.
way through that race, that the crowd was chanting my name. I
Biathlon has done so much for me, handling emotions, overwas leading at the time, but Id never had that happen before.
coming hardships, building confidence, managing crisis situaSwenson! Swenson! Id come into the range and after every
tions, keeping that mental focus.
shot I made they roared. Everyone else was shooting, too, but
I love to feel Im helping to make kids better skiers, shootthey were yelling for me. Theyd be really polite and quiet while
ers, people.
I took aim, then theyd erupt every time I hit the target. Thank
And it isnt only Swenson. Biathlon DNA has been floating
God I shot clean.
around this part of Montana for a long time, stresses Jennings.
For Swenson, regaining her form after her abduction and
People like Brian Wadsworth, Clarissa Werre, Mark Shepard.
injuries took two excruciating years. Even then, she was plagued
There are communities of biathletes in West Yellowstone, and

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Kari Swenson gives pointers to 13-year-old biathlon student Sabine Love at the Bohart Ranch course.

Casper and Cody, Wyoming. It goes deep. I keep running into


people who say, Oh yeah, I still have my old rifle sitting in a
closet.
Love and Bridger Biathlon Club cofounder Jim Sites both
blame Clarissa Werre for pulling their kids into the biathlon orbit. Werre competed and trained with the U.S. National
Biathlon Team in the 1990s and now teaches at Longfellow
Elementary School in Bozeman, which both Loves and Sites
kids attended.
One day my son Alex came home and announced that he
wanted to be a biathlete, says Love. He was 7. I didnt take it
very seriously and I didnt know anything about the sport. Halfjokingly I told him that if he kept up training for a couple of
years, Id get him a gun. Ever since, theres been no stopping him
and I had to make good on the promise with an Anschutz rifle.
Ben Sites also caught the bug, and the two friends have been
training together for years now. Moreover, their fathers were
drawn into the sport, and eventually had to do something to give
the enthusiasm an outlet.
We got our nonprofit status in 2013, says Love. Weve been

raising money and organizing ever since. Already we have 200 to


300 members and some 45 skiers enrolled. Weve bought rifles
and targets. Were using Bohart Ranch for training and races.
Look, what could be more Montana than guns and skis?
asks Katie Smith, who handles marketing for the club.
Jim Sites daughter, Abby, started training at age 12, following her brothers lead. Abby is a shy kid who typically avoids
competition and admits to test anxiety at school. Little by little,
she has taken on more racing, and she serves as an example of
a kid for whom participation is the magic.
I get this great warm feeling whenever I hit a target, she
says. Its intimidating at first. I mean youre holding something
that can kill.
I dont usually like people watching me, but I just tell
myself that its another day of practice. And its really nice to be
around people like Kari and Miss Werre. Its made me better
with tests at school too.
The point is to promote healthy living, stresses Love. It is
about having fun, gaining a lifelong skill, becoming confident
and fit, better human beings.

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If these kids still love skiing when theyre 30, weve


succeeded, adds Jennings.
In a milestone event in September of 2014, Bridger Biathlon
Club built a state-of-the-art shooting range at Bohart Ranch so
they can hold sanctioned events. We have two races scheduled
for the 201415 season, reports Love.
Biathlon is a huge spectator sport in Europe, Love continues. It is second only to soccer in terms of viewers. In America
it has a ways to go. People dont really even know what it is.
They say things like, Is that the Ironman thing? when you talk
about it.
As for Swenson, the resilience and fortitude she gained as
a biathlete keep resonating. Late last summer, she went on a
horse-packing trip with friends into the Cabin Creek drainage,
north of West Yellowstone.
We were spending the night at the Forest Service cabin,
she remembers. Very late, someone noticed that the horses had
gotten loose. A couple of us headed out after them. Usually I
wear a helmet and flak jacket when I ride, but that night, I went
out with just jeans and a T-shirt.
We caught the horses a couple of miles down the trail. I
hopped on my horse to ride back, but he spooked and bucked
me off.
It was a terrifying, violent moment, miles down the trail in
the pitch dark. Lying on the ground, Swenson knew she was

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seriously hurt. She also knew she had to get help. You do what
you gotta do, she says. Life is like that.
Swenson walked two miles over rough trail back to the cabin.
I think when youre used to training and competing until you
puke, you develop a different threshold for pain, Swenson says.
It sets you up for a life of overcoming things, a mental and
physical strength.
Turned out that Swenson had nine fractured ribs, serious
lung injuries, a slew of broken vertebrae, a pelvic fracture, a
concussion and two brain bleeds.
If I had known that, she mulls, I dont know . . .
When she got to the cabin, her friends didnt fully appreciate
the extent of her injuries until Swenson instructed them to send
an SOS with their emergency beacon. Really, they asked, you
think thats necessary?
Within hours, a helicopter managed to land near the cabin.
For Swenson, the harrowing scene must have been reminiscent of her rescue three decades earlier, chained to a tree and
bleeding from a gunshot wound, her world reeling. The fact that
she has again recovered, and that, no doubt, she will be riding
horses once more, is also an echo of her past.
Shes an extraordinary, tough woman, says Love. When I
talked to her later, still in her hospital room, the first thing she
said was how bummed she was that she missed the Biathlon
Club board meeting.