Soldier-athletes put nation ahead of sport

He is out there somewhere among the snow-capped peaks in southern Afghanistan or, perhaps, northern Pakistan. Amid the smugglers' trails, the myriad caves and the steep and narrow mountain passes, Osama bin Laden still lurks -- out of the reach of armed forces hungry to bring him to justice.

Jeremy Teela and Lawton Redman, it would seem, have the exceptional and specific tools to expedite the operation the Central Intelligence Agency used to call an "executive action." Teela and Redman, you see, are swift skiers and, quite literally, straight shooters who happen to work for the United States Army.

Teela grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, dreaming of being a Navy Seal, part of an elite, special unit that carries out top secret missions. Redman, a native of Florence, Vt., long has been fascinated by the mystique of the military.

Today, they are part of the U.S. biathlon team that will compete in February at the Salt Lake Winter Olympics. It is unlikely that Teela and Redman, members of the U.S. Army's world-class athlete program, will be summoned to don camouflage and pursue bin Laden, but nonetheless they stand ready to go.

"If my national guard unit got activated, I'd put my stuff in storage, fly to Vermont and pick up my gear," Teela said. "The two things I've always wanted to do to serve my country was participate in the Olympics and a war."

Said Redman: "I don't think any of us would have a problem with it. That's our main purpose as soldiers."

In the wake of the events of Sept. 11, America's pride in its uniforms -- from police, fire and emergency personnel to the military -- has swelled to unprecedented post-World War II levels. As a result, there will be more attention on the national biathlon team than ever before when it opens Olympic competition Feb. 11 in Soldier Hollow, Utah.

Four of the eight national team members -- Teela, Redman, Andrea Nahrgang and Kristina Viljanen-Sabasteanski -- are part of the Army's world-class program that subsidizes their training at Fort Carson in Colorado.

"Everyone sees the military connection," said Nahrgang, a supply specialist. "We were never attacked during the Gulf War, but after these attacks, when so many civilians lost their lives, I think people appreciate us more.

"If I got called back to my National Guard unit in Minnesota, I'd be handing out rifles and clothing. You wouldn't ask any questions, you'd just go."

An odd juxtaposition
The biathlon, as you might expect, traces its roots to the military. The first competition is believed to have been staged between Swedish and Norwegian border patrol units in 1767 -- before the American Revolution. The first modern world championship was held in Saalfelden, Austria in 1958. Two years later, the biathlon was featured in its first Olympics, in Squaw Valley, Calif.

Biathlon races are 10-, 12.5- and 20-kilometer tests of endurance and marksmanship that require athletes to complete cross-country skiing laps around a course, stopping several times to shoot a standard, bolt-action .22 caliber rifle at five targets some 50 meters away from both standing and prone positions. It is harder than it sounds. Skiing at a furious pace, then stopping to squeeze off precise, measured shots isn't easy; it isn't unlike running a quarter mile at full speed, then instantly attempting to balance your check book. It is an odd juxtaposition.

Kids in America don't exactly grow up imagining themselves gliding along on snowy trails, pumping out a few rounds. But all of these elite Army athletes somehow fell into the sport and have grown to love it.

  • Nahrgang, for instance, was virtually born to the biathlon. Her mother, Cindy, was a Michigan State rifle marksman champion in high school and, later, a downhill ski instructor in college. Though Nahrgang, 23, didn't learn of this unique double until a few years ago, she began cross-country skiing at the age of 14 to improve her conditioning for her first love, track and field. By the time she was 17, she was training full time for biathlon. She made the national team in 1999, at the age of 19.

  • Viljanen-Sebasteanski, despite her 5-foot-2 stature, was the co-captain of her soccer and track teams in high school in Standish, Maine, and tried only a handful of biathlon races. Viljanen-Sebasteanski, now 32, didn't get serious until college, when one of her teammates lent her a rifle. After she used $900 earmarked for book money to buy a used rifle from Jon Engen, she was hooked.

  • Redman, 25, participated in cross country and track at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, in addition to downhill skiing. Two-time Olympian Dave Jareckie convinced him biathlon was a sport worth trying. After just four seasons of organized training, Redman won all three national championship competitions -- sprint, pursuit and individual -- in 2001.

  • Teela, 25, was a competitive swimmer, starting at the age of 5 and later switched to cross country. He joined the ski team because "there were a couple of girls on the team I wanted to meet." His first race was the 1994 Olympic Trials, and though it didn't turn out well, he saw the possibilities.

    Preserving the 'American Dream'
    The bond they all share is the National Guard. All four were putting in one weekend of service each month and two weeks of training each year, when they learned of the elite Army program, which extends to other Olympic sports, as well. Unquestionably, there is a militaristic discipline required.

    Training is an exhausting affair. In early December, the national team was holed up at the Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone, Mont., watching the snow fall.

    "We just got three feet of fresh powder," Nahrgang reported. "We're supposed to get another foot tonight. The bad news is that the [trail] groomer is off tomorrow. It's going to be rough out there."

    Typically, the team would rise at 6:45 a.m., then ski from 7 to 8 a.m. After breakfast, they'd clean their rifles and wax their skis. There was a skiing and shooting session from 10 a.m. to noon, followed by lunch and a two-hour nap. After another 90-minute skiing jaunt there was dinner, more work on the skis, perhaps a sauna and massage, then lights out at 10 p.m. sharp.

    Viljanen-Sebasteanski, like so many National Guardsmen, came from a military backround. Her father served in the Finnish army and her brother Erik was a U.S. Marine who served in Desert Storm. Patrik, another brother and a fellow Vermont National Guardsman, is an instructor at the Mountain Warfare School in Vermont.

    "Now, people are becoming aware of the sacrifices we make in the military," she said. "For me, the real ones are the ones that are going into combat. We remind ourselves that we represent the Army, too, and we want to make people proud."

    Said Teela: "I've always had a lot of respect for military people. I think today people look at you in a different light. They're a little more thankful, maybe, don't take things for granted so much."

    When the U.S. biathlon team competes around the world -- there are World Cup races in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Italy after the Olympics -- it is met with cheers.

    "All the time," Viljanen-Sebateanski said. "It's the American Dream. We're that country where there's freedom. People love us.

    "I've been to 35 countries, and they're so envious of the land of opportunity. I think maybe people are starting to realize how lucky we are."

    Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com