Last winter Ryan Burlingame found the sport that perfectly fit his criteria… something that combined adrenaline with precision.
Biathlon was the key that unlocked sporting success for the 16-year-old — last week, he took home three gold ulus and a silver from the Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife.
“I was a shooter, and I didn’t like that I wasn’t getting my heart pumping,” he said on Thursday after clinching the silver in the relay event with teammates Aliye Tuzlak, Aryn Clarke and Nathaniel Rodden.
“I need to have my blood flowing, and this is the perfect combination of what I love. I’m passionate about skiing, and the precision of hitting something so small at 50 metres with a gun is what draws me.”
The Yukon biathlon team, including six skiers and four snowshoers, combined for a dozen ulu-winning finishes at the Games.
Erin Oliver-Beebe won a gold in the junior female five-kilometre, and snowshoer Jeremy Johnson won his five-kilometre race as well.
“We’ve had a tremendous week,” said coach Judy Hartling.
“I’m not surprised by the success of the team, I told them they were podium material six months ago — if we worked hard at it, which we did, they would be able to make the podium.”
If Hartling was confident in her team’s chances, Burlingame was a little more cautious with his optimism and more amazed with his results.
“I am surprised — I came into the Games not knowing what to expect,” he said. “I was hoping for maybe a bronze, so it totally surprised me — I’m not complaining, I’m totally happy with the result.
“My first race, the individual race, was probably my strongest — it’s a shooter’s race, and my shooting was extremely good, for what I do… usually my standing and prone are three out of five, or two out of five — but this time I shot four, three, four and four in my first race. I was extremely happy with that.”
The mental workout, the discipline required is part of the challenge in the sport.
“It’s a psychological game, you have to start thinking about your shooting before you can even see the range,” said Burlingame.
“It’s quite challenging, you’ll be skiing in your groove, and then you’ve got to think about slowing your heart rate, calming down, and making the shots.”
Yukon’s success in biathlon is a real turnaround from the situation a few years ago leading up to the Canada Games, when the sport was hurting for athletes.
“Maybe there’s a renewed interest in biathlon, it’s a cycle — we’re in a high cycle right now — with a very competitive and committed group of 13 athletes,” said Hartling.
Sometimes the athletes need to work hard to keep motivated, while training in a vacuum.
“We do have to dig deep, we don’t necessarily have a strict program, but we are disciplined,” said Hartling. “We don’t ask them to choose biathlon as their only sport, but I’m very clear with them that the consequences of commitment will pay off for them on the podium.”
The X-factor for any Games event is the Europeans.
“The Sami and the Russians are highly skilled,” said Hartling. “The Russians, in particular, go to a sports school, so when we can medal against them, that goes to show the quality of our athletes.”
“It was very intimidating; everyone who’s been to the previous Arctic Winter Games were saying that the Russians were so tough,” said Burlingame.
With their first international competition behind them, Yukon biathletes are heading to the national championships next week at Callaghan Valley, outside Whistler, BC.
“It will be a new experience for us, there will be a lot of older athletes — although they’ll be competing in their own category, they will be surrounded by a more sophisticated program and a more mature athlete,” said Hartling.
Even after finishing the Arctic Games with ulus for every one of his races, Burlingame is heading to the nationals with more humble expectations.
“My goal for nationals is top 10, I would be extremely happy with top five,” he said. “But that’s going to be another adventure.”