Breathe and Blossom—What I Learned at a Biathlon Clinic

In the spirit of “welcome”, my word of the year, I’m trying to open myself to the flow of life. So, when I happened to walk through the Tahoe Donner cross-country ski center and saw a notice that a biathlon clinic (that’s skiing and shooting a target) was happening the next day, I signed up before I had time to talk myself out of it. For more than a decade, every winter, I promise myself that I’ll take a biathlon clinic and then somehow, magically, I am never available (or they aren’t offered due to pandemics). The date I signed up for was the only one of the three Sundays offered that I could participate. I didn’t have anything big planned for the Sunday and still I felt some resistance. Oh, it’s too cold. I don’t want to do it alone (originally it was something a friend of mine and I had wanted to do together, but that was already 10 years ago and she moved away 6 years ago). I’m tired from the week and would rather hang out on the couch.

I did it anyway.

Biathlon is my favourite Winter Olympics sport. As a spectator (and someone who cross country skis), it has always looked ferociously hard. Repeated ski sprints, punctuated by quick stops to take 5 shots at a target, with penalty loops if you miss any of the 5 shots. I tried to imagine what it would be like after skiing hard to stop and, instead of hanging over my poles gasping for breath, I had to calm my heart asap and be precise.

Now I know.

It is indeed ferociously hard.

Here’s a clip of some women’s biathlon highlights from this year. Note—in my clinic we practiced shooting from a prone position, in which it is much easier to aim; versus the standing position, which is usual in world class competition:

I’m really glad I took the clinic. Even though it was brutally cold, especially on the bare trigger fingers. And even though when we did a 20-minute, 3-loop-3-rounds-of-shooting race at the end, I was DFL (dead fucking last) out of the 8 of us in the clinic. Still, that feeling of dropping prone to the ground, getting into position and raising the sight to my eye was a sizzle of power. I realized that I had never pulled a trigger in my life. Okay, I wasn’t pulling live rounds. For a first effort, we were using laser rifles, but still. I think of myself as a pacifist. Target shooting, even skeet shooting, has never appealed. I’ve never played paintball. Too close to the violence I don’t want in my life and the world.

And this was different—not violent at all. Before I went, a friend said, Oh, that will be a great outlet for anger. You can imagine you are shooting at (insert name of any number of maleficent people in the world). I didn’t imagine. Shooting at a target was not at all about who I might be aiming at. Rather, it was about the Zen of controlling my breath, calming my nervous system and finding ease in the precision of the aim. In this, shooting was much more like rock climbing or mountain biking is for me. That dance between sharp focus and soft ease. Engaged and allowing. In fact, Gyöngyi, the lead instructor on the clinic and a former Romanian champion biathlete, was someone I had met before in a seemingly totally different context—she offers sound baths and sound healings.

One instruction she gave me about aiming resonated in particular: Start with the sight below the target and use your out-breath to allow the sight to blossom upward until the target is centered.

I’ve put what Gyöngyi said in bold, because as the days pass since the clinic, I notice how her words continue to act on my system, the metaphor extending to other things I’m aiming for in my life. That day, in the biathlon clinic, when I could hold the image in my head, I hit the target. More often, my impatience got the better of me. I didn’t want to pause for another breath. I was cold. Agitated by my insufficiency—ironically, since that very agitation interfered with my aim. And pressured by competition, which can be fatal to my performance. I want to already be good at the thing that requires patience to become good at it. A conundrum.

I notice my path for growth. Where else can I breathe and blossom?

Also, I let go of my judgment of a friend’s regular target shooting practice as a disguised enactment of violence and set up a date to learn from him. I’ll keep you posted.



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