Days before the 21st Winter Olympics began in Vancouver, B.C., the city buzzed with excitement. Now, the largest city to ever host the winter games is practically on fire. Every night at Robson Square in downtown Vancouver, the sky blazes with a light show, complete with fireworks and flames perfectly timed to explode and erupt on cue to music. You can barely breathe as people pack in to see the show and celebrate the Olympics. Just a few blocks away, the Olympic flame burns strong against the backdrop of Vancouver Harbor where seaplanes take off over barges and freighters.
As you might imagine, there's a healthy dose of Canadian pride. You don't have to look far to spot Canadians with their cheeks painted with red maple leaves or to see someone sporting a Canadian team jacket, waving a small Canadian flag. Nearly everyone has a pair of red mittens. They are the must-have souvenir of the winter games, complete with a white Canadian maple leaf, one on each palm. Two million had already sold before the games started. The final shipment of a million arrived just before the games.
This is life outside the rings around Vancouver, something many of the athletes competing from 82 countries won't experience. Competition, which started Saturday, remains the focus.
The 11 athletes with ties to Idaho will compete in freestyle skiing, alpine skiing, bobsled, snowboarding and biathlon. Some started on the slopes of Sun Valley, at Schweitzer Mountain or at Silver Mountain near Kellog. But four of them--alpine skier Hailey Duke, downhill skier Erik Fisher (last week Fisher failed to qualify for the men's Olympic downhill team but he did march in the opening ceremonies), freestyle skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson and biathlete Sara Studebaker--got their start at Bogus Basin north of Boise, playing on snow through the Bogus Basin Ski Education Foundation.
Boise's Studebaker competes in biathlon--a grueling test of endurance and strength that combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting. She made her Olympic debut last Saturday in the women's 7.5 km sprint biathlon competition at Whistler Olympic Park. She was the best American biathlete, placing 45th, more than two minutes behind the gold medal winner, Slovakia's Anastazia Kuzmina. She also qualified for the pursuit, which took place Tuesday. On her blog, she wrote, "I'd say that's a pretty successful way to start off the Olympics."
After the competition, Studebaker commented that the crowd cheering her on was a definite highlight of her Olympic debut.
"I actually had to take a minute while out on the course to let it sink in so that I could focus again. It was just overwhelming," Studebaker said.
She managed to calm down and relax into the race, hitting all the targets in prone position. That's where athletes shoot lying on their stomachs. "Especially after I hit all the targets in prone, I was really self-confident and could pull off good skiing at the tracks," she said.
Studebaker's bid for the Olympics began 12 years ago. She was watching the Nagano, Japan, Winter Games on TV when biathlon came on. Studebaker was intrigued. She had started skiing with her parents when she was 3 and by 12, she was a competitive cross-country skier. She knew one of her coaches, Eric Reynolds, had competed internationally in biathlon.
"A friend and I started asking him lots of questions about biathlon," explained Studebaker. The next thing she knew, Studebaker found herself and her teammate, Lindsay Burt, at a development camp that summer.
She'd never shot a gun before. Studebaker remembers Reynolds taking her and Burt to Blacks Creek to practice shooting.
She did biathlon "sporadically" through high school.
"I focused on skiing since it was tough to do biathlon full-time without a real range in Boise," she explained. Studebaker got back into biathlon while at Dartmouth College, skiing on the varsity team where she won an NCAA championship. That's when she was asked to apply for the U.S. Biathlon Development Team. Studebaker moved to Lake Placid after graduating from Dartmouth to pursue biathlon full-time.
"I love skiing, and I love the challenge of adding target shooting. So for me, biathlon is the perfect fit," she said. Biathletes are like rock stars in Europe, but here in the United States, biathlon remains relatively unknown. Its roots go back to 2000 BCE, to hunting traditions in Northern Europe.
Modern biathlon has 10 different events. The goal is to finish the course as quickly as possible to avoid time penalties. Skiers must put their ski poles down and take five shots at metal targets 50 meters away when they enter the shooting range. Studebaker loves biathlon because it's unique.
"Having to push hard out on the course and then come into the shooting range, calm down mentally and focus on hitting targets is a fun challenge," she said. "You have to be smart the way you ski your race, because if you go too hard, you won't hit your targets, and you can't win races with too many misses."
Studebaker joined the development team when she was 22. Now at the age of 26, Studebaker is in Whistler, B.C., two hours north of Vancouver, where she's already competed in two events. Studebaker explained making the Olympic team has been a "surreal" experience.
"To have been working toward this goal for so long and finally have it reached is an amazing feeling," she said. But she said, she knew it wouldn't really hit her "until I get to the Olympic Village and realize, 'Wow, I am an Olympian!'"