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Duluth's grass-roots sport: Coach gives biathlon its beating heart in city

While the nation celebrated earlier this week the 36th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, that wasn't what was getting John Gould out of bed in the mornings.

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Duluth Biathlon members Colleen Maloney (left) and Lucy Watson, both 11, shoot at targets at Snowflake Nordic Ski Center on Wednesday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

While the nation celebrated earlier this week the 36th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, that wasn't what was getting John Gould out of bed in the mornings.

That seminal USA men's hockey victory over the Soviets aside, it's a Winter Olympics 20 years earlier that stirs Gould and moved him to create Duluth Biathlon - a fledgling club aimed at capitalizing on the city's spirited history with the sport.

The Olympics Gould cherishes most were in California and featured the debut of biathlon with a single 20-kilometer event. The Swedish, Finnish and Soviet flags were flying in the end in a finish that felt appropriate given the popularity of the sport throughout the Eastern Hemisphere.

"I was making a scrapbook of the Olympics in Squaw Valley," said Gould, a 63-year-old professional German translator. "We have never put an American on the podium since 1960 and I thought maybe it's time. So, we started at the grassroots level."

On Wednesday after school, a quartet of Gould's most dedicated pupils sped down trails and into the rifle range. Their boots strapped to skis, their rifles strapped to backs, the athletes were no older than 14-year-old Emma Watson, who will be the among the youngest competitors today at Snowflake Nordic Ski Center in Duluth, where Minnesota Biathlon will bring its eighth state cup race in a season that is winding to a finish.

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Gould speaks to his biathletes in short, soft commands. Sometimes in German.

"Do a quick lap to get your heart rate up."

"We dry fire just to be ready."

"Carry up three and right two - oben drei und zu Ende zwei," he said to Watson as they worked together to dial in the accuracy on her high-performance .22-caliber rifle. Watson is the only one practicing who has graduated out of the air rifles. She shoots 50 meters. She'll take 20 shots per race in groups of five - two rounds standing and two rounds lying prone, splayed like a sniper on the ground. She'll intersperse those target rounds with 10 to 12 kilometers of heart-pounding ski racing.

"It took me a while to get used to the idea that I'm shooting a gun," Watson said.

She took to the sport from Nordic skiing after taking part in a group led by two-time Olympian Kara Salmela of Duluth.

"I really liked it," she said. "I liked that it was a combination, not just focusing on one thing. It takes duel competence in both."

Reached by the News Tribune, Salmela was busy working alongside her husband in their private pharmaceutical industry executive search firm. She raced six times across two Olympics - Nagano in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002 - while her husband, Cory Salmela, went from tearing up the trails at Giants Ridge as a Mountain Iron Nordic skiing racer to becoming an assistant coach with US Biathlon.

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They both spoke of how the sport peaked in the United States around the time of the Salt Lake Olympics - when the national body had money to burn and set up state-based development organizations. Another Duluth Olympian, Carolyn Treacy, was a byproduct of the extra attention to the sport; she competed in the 2006 Torino Olympics in Italy.

But that development structure is no longer in place. The national organization has zeroed in on developing collegiate Nordic skiers into world-class biathlon competitors, Cory said.

"There isn't a huge development program in biathlon," Kara said. "That part of it makes it hard. It's definitely family funded and personally funded."

Kara said she admires the local club for its efforts. Raising kids of their own, the Salmelas help out at Snowflake when they can.

For now, Duluth Biathlon is Gould's baby.

Watson's dad, Eric, told of how Gould preaches toughness to his athletes.

" 'You gotta be tough to be a biathlete,' he'll say," said Eric, his 11-year-old daughter, Lucy, taking aim while lying prone in the background. "That's something they're adopting as part of their identities."

Gould is happy with the progress of the Watson sisters; Emma managed 19-of-20 shots in her last meet.

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"That's how it is with the Swiss team; there are four sisters on it," he said. "It's pretty standard that this is a family thing."

Every June, he tries to take one or two athletes to Germany to train. He espouses year-round regimens that include roller skiing, mountain biking to the range and target practicing.

Gould hasn't given up on the idea of finding another Olympian.

"I tell the kids if they ever have an Olympic dream they want to start with an air rifle," he said. "Stick with it and they can be competitive."

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