Sports

Olympic biathlete Deedra Irwin shares her story, aspirations and knowledge with Alaska youth

Olympic biathlete Deedra Irwin (white shirt) stands with Anchorage biathletes

The nation’s top women’s biathlete was in Anchorage last week to meet with and help train aspiring Alaskans at the Kincaid Park Biathlon Range.

Deedra Irwin has the best performance of any American biathlete in the Winter Olympic Games, placing seventh in the Beijing 2022 women’s individual race.

Biathlon is one of the most unique sports featured at the Winter Olympics and one that not many Americans have competed in at a high level internationally. It is a combination of Nordic skiing and riflery.

Irwin was close to earning the country’s first medal in 2022.

“I was only one shot away from getting a medal,” Irwin said. “It was really cool and humbling to have that kind of experience happen on such a big stage.”

She said it “definitely lit a fire” within her as well as providing her with a lot of confidence going into the rest of the World Cup competitions for the next three years with hope of making it to the 2026 Olympics in Italy.

The Anchorage Biathlon Club partnered with the Alaska National Guard to bring her up for a week to work with local athletes and ABC club members.

Three youth members of the ABC are among 12 athletes ages 15-18 that were invited to attend the first United States Biathlon Association elite camp since the pandemic. Elias Soule, Elias Watson and Haley Finch will travel to the same facility in Lake Placid, New York, where Irwin trains.

All three biathletes compete for Service High but Watson and Finch are homeschooled through the Family Partnership Charter School.

Alaska has the potential to be a great place develop biathletes due to the high interest in skiing.

“I started skiing when I was 16 years old so a lot of these kids are way ahead of me and are going to be really great biathletes someday,” Irwin said. “I came to the sport of Nordic skiing and biathlon pretty late. They’re not very popular in Wisconsin.”

This trip marked her first time visiting Anchorage and second time in Alaska overall. She competed in a Nordic ski race in Fairbanks in March 2017, which was the year she started competing in the biathlon.

The ABC said the sport is growing in popularity in Anchorage and Irwin credits clubs like theirs for its rapid growth.

“I’ve only been in the sport for about four and a half years and since then it has grown so much,” Irwin said. “It’s been so cool to see how many clubs there are throughout the United States, how many athletes are getting involved and it makes me really excited for the future because we’re getting so close to getting that Olympic medal.”

She says Team USA is in the midst of building a team that can be more competitive in Europe and that process starts at the youth level with getting more kids involved early on.

Irwin was initially solely a Nordic skier and was on the verge of retiring from the sport when a friend reached out to her and suggested she try biathlon.

“On a whim and chance, I went to the Olympic training center in Lake Placid and literally just gave it a shot and I fell in love with it,” Irwin said. “Four years later, I got to go to the Olympics and got to represent Team USA.”

She says everything about the sport is “challenging and difficult in a fun way” and says that combining skiing and shooting requires some finesse.

“You can always learn something,” Irwin said. “It’s an ever-humbling sport to do so it keeps you going.”

She said that when she first took up the sport, she was a much better skier than shooter but now she’s improved her marksmanship to the point that it’s hard to tell in which she is more proficient.

“Every race is a little different,” Irwin said. “Some days you ski really fast and don’t shoot well and some days you shoot really well and don’t ski so fast. The days where you can get the perfect combination of a really good ski race and a really good race are when you have those money days.”

Josh Reed

Josh Reed is a sports reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He's a graduate of West High School and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

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