From bouldering to biathlon: How Anchorage’s Haley Finch became a junior champion in just 4 years

Four years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the sports world to come to a halt, Anchorage’s Haley Finch was a competitive rock climber.

“Everything shut down, and I was looking for something to do outside,” she said. “I was actually going to (try) cross-country running, but to do that, I had to join a ski program.”

Finch, a 17-year-old junior at Service High, had never skied before. And it was the middle of the summer.

But she bought a pair of roller skis, learned the basics and was encouraged to participate in a biathlon camp. The sport quickly turned into an unexpected new passion, and Finch has developed into one of the top junior biathletes in the nation.

“It was a grueling week with lots of falling on roller skis, but then I kind of fell in love with the sport,” she said. “I really enjoy shooting and skiing.”

Finch has competed in the U.S. Nationals every year since taking up the sport and was crowned champion in the U17 girls division last year after winning all three of her races.

“It was so amazing and just one step on my way to achieving my goals,” she said.


Her meteoric rise has been propelled by the hard work she put in to get her skills up to par to compete and best elite competition in her age group, nationally and internationally.

“I worked really hard constantly, and I always set big goals,” Finch said. “I realized if I work hard and I set big goals, then I can achieve anything.”

She still views herself as a more proficient shooter than a skier since she got a jumpstart on that part of the sport during the summer, before snow had fallen on the trails at the Kincaid Park biathlon course.

Finch trains with the Alaska Winter Stars, coached by renowned ski instructor and mentor Jan Buron, who also coaches at Service. Buron has worked with some of Anchorage’s top skiers, including recent World Cup race winner Gus Schumacher.

“Two years ago I barely knew how to ski, but he knew that I was a hard worker and he never said no to me,” she said. “He gives you the amount that you put in, so if you put in 100%, he’s going to give you back 100%.”

[Alaskan Gus Schumacher claims historic win in World Cup cross-country race in Minneapolis]

Finch credits her shooting coach Jean Paquet with helping her achieve some of her goals this season as well.

Finch recently returned from her first international competition, the IBU Junior Cup in Jakuszyce, Poland. She finished as the best overall American shooter and finished in 50th place overall.

“It was an amazing level up, competing against under-22-year-olds,” Finch said. “It rained all week, but it was amazing and really surreal.”

Her goal heading into the competition was to just have fun and enjoy the overall experience. She believes that having a more relaxed mindset without the burden or pressure of lofty goals led to her unexpected level of success in the event.

At just 17 years old, she is one of the youngest Americans to ever debut at IBU Junior Cup, and in two of her 7.5K sprint races, she hit all 10 targets.

Looking ahead to state

Finch now has her sights set on doing well at the state skiing championships, running from Thursday to Saturday at Kincaid Park.

The highest she has ever finished at state as an individual was 15th. She was on the Cougars relay team that last year came in second place, finishing behind state team champion West.

“We have so many great athletes here in the Anchorage School District, and it’s really helped my constant improvement because all I have to ski with is amazing athletes,” Finch said. “Even competing at state is a big level and another experience for me to learn from.”

She has enjoyed competing alongside her fellow teammates on the Service ski team, such as sophomore Olivia Soderstrom, who won Skimeister honors at state last year and at the Region IV meet a few weeks ago.

“We get to push each other in training, and it’s really helping in my improvement and theirs too because we’re always pushing each other to higher and higher levels,” Finch said.

For now, she’s planning to compete in the freestyle and classic races as the Cougars have yet to determine who will be on the relay team this year.


“My goals for this weekend are mostly to have fun and do my best for my team,” Finch said. “I’m really not sure what to expect. I’ve improved a lot as a skier this past year and I just want to see where that takes me.”

Because of all the traveling that she’s been doing domestically and abroad for biathlon, she hasn’t participated in many high school races and doesn’t know how she stacks up with her contemporaries, which has her more excited than anxious.

Immediate and long-term biathlon goals

Finch is determined to qualify for next winter’s junior world championships as well as the IBU Junior Cup again.

“It’s not an easy thing to do because there are a lot of older athletes, but hopefully someday (I’ll) make it to the Olympics too,” Finch said.

Hers is just the latest in an impressive string of success stories for young Alaska winter sports athletes shining on the national and international stages. Last Sunday, Schumacher, at age 23, became the first American man to win a World Cup distance race since 1983.

Two weeks ago, West’s Murphy Kimball, 17, competed in a World Cup race and came in 41st overall — and eighth among all U.S. skiers — in the qualifying round of a freestyle sprint race in Canmore, Alberta.

“They’re huge inspirations to me,” Finch said. “They’re an example of if you set high goals, you can reach them with hard work.”

She envisions herself as a role model for Alaska girls and even has a website and blog.


“It’s my goal to inspire other young female athletes or young athletes just in general to keep working hard, setting goals and knowing that this is something they can achieve,” Finch said.

She’ll be competing in her first U.S. Junior Nationals for Nordic skiing next month. The following week, Finch will compete in U.S. Nationals in biathlon.

“I’m in a new category this year, so I’ll be the youngest, but the goal is always to do my best,” Finch said.

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.