National Guard Biathlon Team Competes in Chile - August 2011
Check out the links at the end of this article to see video footage of the competition.

Story and photos by LTC Hank McIntire

PORTILLO, Chile — High in the Andes Mountains, the U.S National Military Biathlon team competed for Western Hemisphere bragging rights at the 12th Annual International Military Ski Championships held Aug. 5-10, 2011.

The Chilean army’s Escuela de Montaña (Mountain School) hosted the event, which included biathletes from Chile, Argentina, Brazil and the following members of the U.S. team: SFC Shawn Blanke, Utah Army National Guard; CPT Ernst Visscher, Montana Army National Guard; MSG Greg Wohlfeil, Minnesota Air National Guard; SFC Mike Zeigle, Wisconsin Air National Guard; 1LT Barbara Blanke, U.S. Army Reserve; SPC Andy Wilkens, Colorado Army National Guard; SFC Kent Pulst, North Dakota Army National Guard; and CPT David Cunningham, Alaska Army National Guard.

Biathlon combines the athleticism of cross-country skiing with the precision of marksmanship, as competitors try to cover a given distance as quickly as possible while maintaining shooting accuracy with .22-calibre rifles that they carry on their backs.

Coaching the U.S. team was veteran biathlete SGT John Kurtz of the Minnesota Army National Guard. This was a homecoming of sorts for Kurtz, having competed as a biathlete ten years ago here in Portillo.

Traveling for more than 24 hours to get to the venue was just one of many challenges U.S. biathletes faced in Portillo, explained Kurtz. Other hurdles to clear included setting up to compete within hours of arriving, acclimating to subfreezing temperatures after leaving the summer of the Northern Hemisphere, blowing snow and a nearly 10,000-foot elevation.

“Athletes that are in shape and in great condition still suffer at these altitudes in ways people just can’t imagine,” said Kurtz. “And here they are competing in races totaling over 50 kilometers (30 miles) of racing in just five days, which is pretty amazing.”

The four races held in Portillo included the 20K (Men)/15K (Women) Individual, 10K/7.5K Sprint, 15K/12.5K Mass Start and the 25K/15K Military Patrol event.

The first two days of competition saw bitter-cold temperatures, thick flurries and and constant wind gusts.

“Blowing snow and wind make it difficult for marksmen to acquire their targets,” said Kurtz of the difficult environment. “[But] our shooters did a good job given those conditions.”

The altitude also took its toll on U.S. athletes for the Individual and Sprint events, seeing them finish in the middle of the pack, but the Americans broke through in the Mass Start with 1LT Barbara Blanke netting the bronze, missing silver by just 12 seconds.

A much-needed day off in the middle of the competion allowed athletes to relax and recover, some heading a half mile up the hill to the world-famous Portillo resort to try some alpine skiing or take advantage of the Wi-Fi connection in the hotel.

As athletes left the ski lodge to return to the camp that evening they were greeted by a perfect view of the Southern Cross, a rare sight for the team from the North. One quick-thinking Soldier even broke out his iPhone and cranked up Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Southern Cross,” to the delight of the group.

Other niceties affored by the venue and its generous hosts included a surprise birthday party for Zeigle, who turned 60 while in Chile. During the group dinner and slideshow, Zeigle saw his face Photoshopped onto the body of superhero The Green Lantern, and Colonel Camilo Vidal, director of the Mountain School, brought out a birthday cake on which chefs had fashioned a clay Captain America holding a biathlon rifle.

“It’s pretty neat to go someplace like this and have somebody take the time out of their busy schedule to make your day special,” said Zeigle. “The colonel went above and beyond.”

Not only a biathlete, Zeigle is also well-known in Guard circles as a member of the National Guard marathon team.

“The conditioning and base training for both is very similar,” he explained. ”My main sport since I got into the Guard was biathlon; marathon was something I started to stay in shape for biathlon. I love both programs; the people in both groups are very motivated.”

In the waning days of the competition, the altitude and the heavy race schedule pushed U.S. team members to their limits.

“The demons of ‘Quit’ were riding hard on my shoulders,” lamented Wohlfeil after the Mass Start race.

“But there is that part about our training that says you’re not going to quit,” he added, explaining why he kept pushing himself to the finish instead of giving up. “You just get back into your happy place if you can find it. Nobody is going to drop out of a team event, so it’s just dig in deep and keep it going.”

Going into the competition, which took place during the traditional summer off season, U.S. athletes knew it would be a long shot to make the podium as a team. The final results reflected those expectations with Chile winning gold, followed by Argentina and Brazil.

In addition to Barbara Blanke’s bronze-medal finish in the Mass Start, U.S. team members also felt good about what they accomplished as athlete-ambassadors.

“It’s the most important part about being here for this event,” said Kurtz. “These athletes are special because of their values and their demeanor. They represent the best of what we have in the U.S. It’s key to the mission’s success.”

“The Chileans were willing and eager to speak English to us, so we tried to speak Spanish to them,” added Shawn Blanke, Barbara’s husband and fellow competitor. “Everybody tried to learn each other’s language, everybody took pictures of each other, and year after year we recognize the same faces. The Chileans were phenomenal hosts.”

“This venue was fantastic!” said Barbara Blanke of the overall experience. “They did a good job with grooming, and we saw some Chilean ingenuity. The conditions were challenging at best, and they came up with a great race every time.”

The “ingenuity” that Blanke referred to was Plan B for preparing the race course. When the Pistenbully, the high-tech, track-grooming machine threw a track, a platoon of snowshoed Chilean soldiers were pressed into service, linking arms to tamp down the snow with Bunker, the camp St. Bernard, following right behind as if he were marching the troops on their emergency mission.

The ability to work with each other was also a huge plus for the U.S. team as they prepare for the upcoming 2011-2012 season.

“This was a group that barely knew each other before coming here, and they came together as a unified team,” said Kurtz. “To meet the other teams and form lasting friendships in a span of just a few days was an incredible thing to do.”

“I hope we get to see Chile, Argentina and Brazil at our Guard Championships,” said Wohlfeil. “It would be really awesome to have them there."

“These are great people to be with,” said Zeigle, who is retiring from the military. “Joining the Guard was the second-best thing that happened to me, other than marrying my wife. It’s been a great experience.”

Click here for a summary video of the entire competition.

Click here for a video of the Aug. 10 competition and closing ceremonies.

Click here for a video of the Aug. 9 competition.

Click here for a video of the Aug. 8 off day between competitive events.

Click here for a video of the Aug. 7 competition.

Click here for a video of the Aug. 6 competition.

Click here for a news story about the competition on Meganoticias, a national news channel in Chile.
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