Pulaski native Deedra Irwin prepares to compete in Beijing Winter Olympics
Deedra Irwin was around 16 when she discovered Nordic skiing. She didn’t fall in love with it right away.
The Pulaski high school graduate was in her second grade when her cross-country teammates suggested she try Nordic skiing to stay in shape during the off-season.
Unlike alpine skiing, where a person’s boots are attached to their skis from toe to heel, Nordic skiing involves skis that are attached only at the person’s toe, allowing their heels to lift and provide leverage to climb. Types of Nordic skiing include cross-country and telemark, while alpine skiing includes slalom, giant slalom, and downhill.
“Nobody in my family had ever skied before, so it was a trip for all of us to get the gear and all that stuff,” Irwin said. “I sucked at first and hated it. But it grew inside me. It was a really fun challenge for me, and anyone who knows me knows I like a challenge.”
Irwin became heavily involved in the sport, walking on the Michigan Technological University Nordic Ski Team, where she also raced cross country and track. After graduating in 2015, she moved to Sun Valley, Idaho and skied professionally with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s XC Gold team.
Then, in the summer of 2017, at the age of 25, when she was thinking of completing her sporting career, Irwin learned about biathlon, a sport that combines Nordic skiing and precision rifle shooting.
Irwin, now 29, is currently in China for the 2022 Beijing Games and days away from her Olympic debut as one of eight athletes representing the United States in biathlon. The Winter Olympics begin on Friday.
“Keep a Cool Head”
Having competed in several international competitions as part of the World Cup biathlon team over the past few years, Irwin said she was trying to “keep a cool head” and approach the Olympics in the same way. .
“I try to treat it like any World Cup. It’s all the same athletes in the same races that we’ve done for the last two years throughout our normal World Cup season,” Irwin said. . “But there’s definitely an Olympic culture and excitement that kind of underlines all the experiences here.”
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There are 11 Olympic biathlon events, with the first taking place on Saturday and the last on February 19. Irwin will compete in at least three events – February 7, 11 and 16 – and potentially more, depending on his performance.
“It’s one of the most exciting winter sports because every day you can have a different leader,” Irwin said. “The shooting component adds such a dramatic shift in composition, because you can win the race and enter your final shooting stage, and if you don’t clear (all five targets), then it’s the game of no one. anyone. So it’s such an exciting and challenging sport that combines two totally different abilities: endurance and concentration.”
In biathlon, athletes walk a course with guns on their backs, stopping at designated spots to shoot at five targets, sometimes while standing and sometimes while lying down. If they miss a target, athletes receive a penalty – either by taking a penalty lap, or in the case of individual events, by getting one minute added to their final time.
Make the World Cup squad
Irwin first tried the sport in 2017 when her friend and fellow U.S. team biathlete Joanne Reid encouraged her to attend a U.S. Biathlon Association talent camp in Lake Placid, New York. At the week-long camp, Irwin learned to shoot a biathlon rifle and had his skiing skills and general fitness tested. At the end of the week, she was invited to train full-time with the team. Since then, she has competed around the world with the American Biathlon Association and the World Cup team.
While some Olympians trained for their sport as soon as they could walk, Irwin’s introduction to biathlon just four years before competing in the Olympics is not uncommon in the United States. Irwin said most of the U.S. team started biathlon in their 20s, including Appleton native Paul Schommer.
“A lot of people in Germany, Italy, Norway and Sweden, they learn when they’re around 13,” Irwin said. “In the United States, we don’t have as much biathlon culture and Nordic culture as some of these other countries.”
But the culture of biathlon and Nordic skiing in the United States is growing, Irwin said, even since its beginnings just over four years ago.
While Nordic skiing sports have historically been most popular in the United States on the East Coast, participation is growing rapidly in the Midwest. Growing up in Wisconsin, Irwin said, people focused on “mostly football and cheese and hockey.”
“I think the fact that me and Paul are both from northeastern Wisconsin has really helped put the teams on the map and that it’s a sport you can play in the Midwest,” Irwin said. Reid, who was born in Madison, is the third member of eight Olympic biathletes hailing from Wisconsin.
Wisconsin has been an annual destination for cross-country skiers from around the world, ever since the American Birkenbeier was first held in Hayward in 1973. Irwin won the classic Birkebeiner 55K race in February 2016.
Brillion-based Ariens Company sponsors the US Olympic biathlon team and is building a new $15 million Nordic ski facility in Brillion. Additionally, Irwin said she knows of at least four biathlon ranges and clubs across the state.
Since competing professionally in Nordic skiing and biathlon, Irwin has returned to Wisconsin to help her high school’s Nordic ski team and local clubs in the area, with the goal of continuing to increase participation in this sport.
With the Olympics impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Irwin has already competed in several international competitions during the pandemic. She said extensive protocols are in place to prevent athletes from contracting COVID-19.
“I’m disappointed that I can’t attend any more events. It’s kind of something that you know, you look forward to at the Olympics,” Irwin said. “But if it keeps me healthy and keeps other athletes healthy, I’m willing to sacrifice that for now.”
Irwin said living in the Olympic Village has given him the unique experience of meeting athletes from all over the world and from all sports. She said she was looking forward to seeing more athletes at Friday’s opening ceremony.
Biathlon is the only Winter Olympics sport in which the United States has yet to medal. Fans hoping to cheer on Irwin and the rest of Team USA can follow the Olympics schedule to watch the events – but will have to wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. to see them live.