CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — A Cape Elizabeth native is competing in her second Olympic Games in a sport traditionally dominated by European countries: biathlon.
Biathlon combines cross-country skiing and target shooting. It is the top-rated winter sport on European TV, according to U.S. Biathlon. One of the top U.S. biathletes is Clare Egan, who graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School.
"Every biathlon race comes down to the last shooting and the last shot even," Egan said. "There's never anything you can rely on in biathlon. Ever. Anything."
In Beijing, Egan has already competed in three events: the mixed relay, the individual, and the 7.5 km sprint. She helped the team place seventh in the relay, the team's best finish in the sport. Her 39th place finish in the sprint qualified her for the pursuit event: only the top 60 finishers in the sprint qualify.
Deedra Irwin, another U.S. biathlete, placed seventh in the 15-kilometer individual event, which is also the team's best individual Olympic finish.
The U.S. has never earned an Olympic medal in the sport.
In biathlon, athletes cross-country ski up and downhill around a course, and each lap concludes with shooting at five targets. The challenge? Athletes must control their breathing to pick off the targets, placed 50 meters away while accounting for wind.
"With their hearts pounding nearly three times a second, the athletes struggle to control their breathing as they shoot, knowing that every shot and the number of seconds it takes to make it, will determine who stands on the podium that day," U.S. Biathlon's website reads.
"If all of your muscles are relaxed and the rifle is just sitting on your body it's like sitting on a table and then you just pull the trigger and you should have a hit. It's that simple," Egan said, laughing.
Athletes shoot from two positions: lying prone and standing up. When standing up the targets are about the size of a grapefruit. When prone, because of increased stability, the target size decreases: Clare said they are about the size of an Oreo cookie.
Each target an athlete misses requires a penalty loop, separate from the rest of course, setting them farther behind the lead.
Egan's journey to biathlon started with cross country skiing. She was training at the Craftsbury Green Racing Project in Vermont, when Armin Auchentaller, an Olympic Gold medalist, approached her.
"He said I think you'd be good in biathlon, and if an Olympic gold medalist offers to teach you what they do, I think you should just say yes," said Egan.
She said another Olympic gold medalist had a big impact on her life, but not a biathlete.
"I think we only have one statue of a person in Cape Elizabeth and it's a woman and it's Joan Benoit Samuelson," Egan said.
Samuelson, the first woman to win gold in the marathon in the Olympics, also grew up in Cape Elizabeth.
"It helped me fall in love with the Olympics and sports in general," Egan said. "I think just seeing that from a very young age that hey, women can be athletes. Women can be professional athletes. Women can be Olympians. Women can be gold medalists. Everyone who grows up where I grow up knows that, and that's really, really special."
Egan said she plans to retire at the end of this World Cup season, which concludes in March. Before that, she has a few more Olympic events in which she'll try to make history for the United States.