Feb. 8, 2002

Duo sets their sights on Olympic biathlon

They won’t be winning any medals, but if you watch closely, you might see Lab employees Paul McCandless and Jill Farrell at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

McCandless, a senior engineering associate in the New Technologies and Engineering Division, and his wife Farrell, who works in Plant Engineering, have headed to Salt Lake City to help officiate the biathlon events at the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The biathlon combines skiing and shooting — male and female athletes ski distances ranging from 10 to 20 kilometers and stop to shoot five rounds from .22 caliber rifles two or four times per race. The targets are 50 meters away. The first biathlon competition was between two Norwegian border guard companies in 1767, and the sport was added to the Olympic program in 1960.

"It’s really quite a challenge," McCandless said. "You’re skiing for miles, and then you have to calm your heart fast enough to hit a target 50 meters away, sometimes standing and sometimes prone."

McCandless will count penalty laps that racers must ski corresponding to the number of targets missed, and Farrell will help collect shooting scores for the scoring booth.
"Most of the scoring is done electronically, but they need people to double check," Farrell said. "The manual counting is done in case the electronics fail or a scoring dispute arises."

McCandless and Farrell have been enlisted to officiate all the biathlon races, though McCandless will not work one race because there are no penalty laps.

"The average racer will finish the event in about an hour," McCandless explained. "However, because athletes start every 30 seconds, the whole event can take over three hours to complete." McCandless also pointed out that there are some events that start large groups of athletes together, but for the most part, the shooting ranges are not set up to accommodate the large numbers.

"The pursuit races, where athletes all begin at once, tend to get hectic," he said. "But most of the events are staggered starts, so it’s not so bad."

The couple first became interested in the sport about 10 years ago. McCandless is a gunsmith by training, and was looking for a way to "stay in shape" when he discovered the biathlon. Farrell began participating shortly after she met McCandless.

"I love all sports, but skiing in particular," she said. "I’m not particularly fond of guns, but the biathlon is a lot of fun and a challenge."

The two attend as many events as they can in Northern California, but like to keep their participation recreational. In the summer, they participate in "summer biathlon" competitions, which replace the skiing with running over varying terrain.

"There are usually only one or two races a year in the area, so they’re few and far between," Farrell explained. "There are a few races in Idaho, Montana, but we don’t take it so seriously that we travel out of the area."

Olympic hopefuls travel to almost every race in North America, however, and recreational biathletes compete alongside the serious racers because there are so few events. This is how McCandless and Farrell found themselves offered a position in Salt Lake City.

"The community is very small," McCandless said. "That’s how we found ourselves in a position to submit our names, and that’s how we were eventually chosen to help out."

Though the Salt Lake Olympic Committee does not provide housing or a stipend — officials are volunteers — McCandless and Farrell will get to keep their officiating uniforms. In addition, they receive passes to see medal ceremonies and a rehearsal of the opening ceremonies.

"There are always a bunch of people trying to sell tickets at the venues," McCandless said. "I’m just excited to see the athletes in action."

The 2002 Winter Olympics begin today, and the biathlon competition kicks off on Monday. For more information on the Salt Lake City Olympics or American biathletes, go to http://ww.saltlake 2002.com .