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Countdown to Vancouver

Taking dead aim

Dartmouth’s Spector has her sights set on making biathlon team

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / December 25, 2009

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LENOX - It isn’t every day your teenage daughter returns from summer camp and asks for a .22-caliber rifle.

Laura Spector said she made the request on a whim after trying biathlon at a camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. Even so, her parents weren’t shocked, or even mildly concerned. Without hesitation, they placed an order with US Biathlon for a rifle.

“Asking for a rifle wasn’t too outlandish in this household,’’ said Spector.

But not because the family was familiar with firearms or enamored with gun culture. Quite the contrary.

The Spectors - Laura, her younger sister Molly, and their parents - believe in following their passions as far as possible. They see no substitute for the thrill of first-hand experience, of learning by doing. They live in a 1795 farmhouse filled with model train, doll, and clock collections; homemade soaps, wine, butter, cheeses, fountain pens, and hand-spun wool; and exotic birds, dogs, a cat, and a chinchilla. Outside in a fenced pasture, sheep, alpacas, llamas, miniature horses, goats, turkeys, chickens, and ducks roam in what Laura calls “the rest of our Noah’s ark’’ since so many animals come in pairs.

Adding a biathlon rifle to this mix seemed no more unusual than Laura’s father, Jesse, building a bread oven in the backyard. The rifle, Laura said, “was going to offer me a new experience, and that was something they welcomed.’’

That new experience was competitive biathlon, the winter sport that combines cross-country skiing and target shooting. A national-caliber cross-country skier, Spector quickly ascended the US Biathlon ranks. Now, she is well-positioned to make the team for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as the youngest female US biathlon competitor.

At this week’s US World Team trials, Spector earned a place on the International Biathlon Union Cup team, bringing her a step closer to Olympic qualification. The US will name four women to the Olympic team Jan. 11, with results from US trials and IBU Cup events the key determinants. The decisive races will take place Jan. 7-10 in Germany, where Spector will compete against five other women for the three remaining spots on the Olympic team.

“It would be very rewarding to have worked so hard for six years and to finally make it to the Olympics and have it all be worth it,’’ said the 22-year-old Spector. “There are so many people who dream to go to the Olympics, but they’re not willing to put as much into it as others. I’ve put so much into it. I feel like it’s about time. I want the fulfillment of going to the Olympics.’’

Pulling the trigger
In high school, Spector spent countless predawn hours cross-country skiing around the family’s animal pasture, wearing a headlamp to light the way. (“The problem was, if you ran over manure in the snow, it caught your ski,’’ said her father. “There were real hazards.’’) Her discipline, her self-motivation on those frigid, pitch-black mornings was impressive. It was also surprising.

Initially, Spector wasn’t interested in joining her scholastic cross-country ski team. While she’d dabbled in soccer and always accompanied her family on kayaking and mountain biking adventures, she thought the team would be “this lonely thing.’’ And, by her own admission, she was “somewhat lazy,’’ preferring to stay inside and read or watch TV.

“She used to sit and read all the time,’’ said her mother, Patty. “I wanted her to have a balanced life, get some exercise. In eighth grade, she started doing cross-country skiing because I said, ‘You have to get out and you have to do something.’ You didn’t know her talent until she did it. All of a sudden, she went from zero to being really good.’’

In cross-country skiing, Spector unexpectedly found camaraderie with her teammates and a fierce competitive drive. The 5-foot-tall athlete with a high-tempo style quickly rose to the top of the prep ranks in Massachusetts and showed national-level talent.

Following her freshman year of high school, Spector went to the Lake Placid biathlon camp with a couple of friends. The first time she picked up a rifle, Spector looked through the wrong hole when shooting. Still, something clicked. She had stumbled upon the perfect sport for her personality, one that played to her intellect and natural athleticism.

“It was fun because you got to stop and go to a shooting range and engage your mind, engage parts of you that you don’t normally use when you’re out training,’’ said Spector. “It added another dimension to what you were doing. It was exciting.’’

Determined to pursue her passion for biathlon, Spector packed her rifle and headed for the Green Mountain Valley School in Waitsfield, Vt., for her final two years of high school. She chose Green Mountain Valley over other ski academies because a coach there had a background in biathlon. After high school, she trained with the Junior National Biathlon Team in Grand Rapids, Minn., for a year, then enrolled at Dartmouth College and joined the cross-country ski team there.

She returned full-time to biathlon after one collegiate cross-country ski season and had a breakthrough year in junior competition, placing 20th in the sprint at the 2008 Junior World Championships. The same year, she made a promising debut in senior competitions.

Last season, she reached new heights, qualifying for the 10-kilometer pursuit at the 2009 World Championships in South Korea. Spector finished 58th in the 7.5-kilometer sprint, with the top 60 making the pursuit field. It was the first time Spector earned a spot in the pursuit race at a World Cup event.

Performing well on one of biathlon’s biggest stages raised her confidence and expectations heading into an Olympic year.

“There’s been this trend for me where one year I’ll qualify for a big event and I’ll go, but it’s all new to me,’’ said Spector. “It’s hard to do well when it’s all new. Then, the next year, I qualify again, go back and actually have good results.’’

US Biathlon national team coach Gary Colliander, who has worked with Spector over the last five years, added, “Experience at this point is huge. You’re combining two sports that are quite different from each other and there are so many variables within each of those. Laura’s ability to train very solidly for two years has helped her mature and get stronger.’’

Doubly challenging
During races, when she nears the end of a cross-country lap and approaches the shooting range, Spector is constantly calculating when to slow down, calm down, before shooting at five targets 50 meters away. The transition from skiing to shooting to skiing is where experience is often the biggest asset.

Colliander compares the physical and mental challenges of the sport to “running up 10 flights of stairs as fast as you can, then at the top threading five needles in less than 30 seconds, then going back and doing it again.’’

“When you’re really excited about skiing fast, it’s hard to make the transition from skiing to shooting,’’ said Spector. “It took me four years before I could teach myself that transition. It’s hard to turn off that part of your brain that’s thinking about ski racing and turn on that part that’s in that Zen-like mode to focus on the target. Then you have to switch that around 40 seconds later once you’re off the shooting range.

“It’s also almost emotional. If you shoot well, you’re motivated to ski well. If you don’t shoot well, you might start slowing down a little bit. You need to ski fast no matter how you shoot.’’

That is particularly true for Spector. Skiing is her strength. Inconsistency in shooting is her greatest weakness. Heading into this season, she worked with Colliander on improving her shooting.

“Sometimes coming back to the basic elements makes things simpler,’’ said Colliander. “Laura was able to get a lot of feedback from each shot. She’s a real student of the sport. If something doesn’t go right, she wants to find out what happened and how to make it better. She’s not one to get all flustered and upset about it. She’s one to go fix it.’’

Handling college
That nonstop need-to-know keeps Spector busy in the biathlon offseason. When not training for the Olympics, she attends Dartmouth, with plans to graduate with a major in genetics and a minor in Jewish studies.

At first, another unusual combination of interests and desire to excel took its toll on Spector. During her freshman year at Dartmouth, she was sidelined with mononucleosis. She needed a year of college experience to learn how to best balance biathlon and school. Now, with her college life as an honor student intentionally separated from her competitive life as an Olympic hopeful, friends don’t fully comprehend her biathlon achievements.

“I don’t think they understand the full scope of what I do, that I travel across the world and compete in events where there are tens of thousands of spectators,’’ said Spector. “I don’t think I’ve done it justice by showing them enough pictures and video and things like that. I think sometimes they think it’s like intramural softball or something.’’

The Vancouver Olympics will likely change all that. And at the risk of getting ahead of herself, Spector is already thinking about the 2014 Games.

“By that time, I’ll be closer to my prime than I am now,’’ she said. “The coaches have said to me, ‘This year is going to be more for experience, and 2014 is when you look for results.’ ’’

Maybe so. But the Spectors know first-hand how going for new experiences can lead happily to the unexpected.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.