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A walk in the woods with Thetford’s John Morton, Olympic biathlete and renowned trail designer

A man and a yellow lab walk on a snowy trail.
Josh Crane
John Morton has attended 10 Winter Olympics for biathlon dating back to 1972, including as athlete, coach, team leader and chief of course. This year, he'll be at his home in Thetford.

My interview with John Morton takes place on the 4 kilometer trail he built around his Thetford home. It loops in and out of the woods, slices across a meadow and sashays down and then up an open hillside.

We’re accompanied by his enormous yellow lab, Ole. He's named for Ole Einer Bjørndalen, the greatest biathlete of all-time.

Biathlon is a sport that evolved from Scandinavian hunters demonstrating their hunting prowess on skis. Biathletes must combine two diametrically opposed skills: heart-pounding cross-country ski racing, and then coming to a total standstill to shoot a tiny target with a rifle 50 meters away.

As Morton describes it, "Imagine yourself running up 10 flights of stairs and then trying to thread a needle."

Morton has attended 10 Winter Olympics dating back to 1972 in various capacities: athlete, coach and team leader, among others.

He’s also written a number of memoirs and articles that detail his long biathlon career. He has even published a novel that draws on his experience. It was published in 1998 and remains one of the only works of American fiction ever written about the sport. It’s called A Medal of Honor: An Insider Unveils the Agony and the Ecstasy of the Olympic Dream.

I asked why he chose the words "agony" and "ecstasy."

"Ah, well, I guess I could say, because in different capacities, I've experienced them both," he says.

On the “agony” side of things, Morton made the 1972 Olympic team but wasn’t selected to race during the Winter Games. He made the team once again in 1976, but he got the stomach flu the night before his best race and had to drop out.

As for “ecstasy,” it turns out it had nothing to do with the competition itself.

"You can talk to almost any Olympian you can find and ask them what did it feel like walking into the opening ceremonies," Morton says.

"There's nothing like it. It's a remarkable experience."

Morton retired from international biathlon competition in 1976 but has remained closely tied to the sport ever since, first via coaching — both at the Olympics and at Dartmouth College where he led the men’s ski team for more than a decade.

A sign on a tree that reads "Morton Trails"
Josh Crane
Olympic biathlete John Morton has become one of the top Nordic trail designers in the world.

For the past 30 years, he has contributed to biathlon and cross-country skiing by designing world-renowned trails and race courses via his company, Morton Trails. If you’re skiing on a trail in Vermont, for instance, there’s a good chance he had a hand in making it.

Morton’s trail building efforts will, no doubt, further cement Vermont's outsized representation on the U.S. Olympic team for generations to come.

"So here we are, a state in the northern part of the country, relatively mountainous, noted for robust winters," he says. "And we sort of make the best out of it. We say, 'OK! We’re gonna have some great ski areas. Young people can learn these sports and develop their skills.' And I’m very proud of that."

Now, all that's left to do is to boost Americans’ interest in these two winter sports. One way to do that? More winning at the Olympics.

While it’s only happened twice so far, Vermont had a hand in both instances.

John Morton was there in Innsbruck, Austria in 1976 when Bill Koch of Brattleboro became the first American to win an Olympic medal in cross-country skiing. Morton and his teammates had just finished a biathlon workout when they decided to walk into the stadium nearby to catch the end of the cross-country ski race.

"Looked at the scoreboard, and there was "Koch, USA" … second, you know, and everybody's just thrilled that this kid from Vermont has a breakout day," he says.

The United States didn’t win another cross-country medal until 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea when Jessie Diggins — who trains in Stratton — and Kikkan Randall captured gold in a thrilling finish in the sprint relay. Chad Salmela's broadcast call for NBC only added to the excitement. If you missed it, it's worth watching. I promise.

Team USA 2018: Jessie Diggins And Kikkan Randall Win Gold

"I mean, that was just phenomenal," Morton says. "And that's not a one-off. We're gonna have more of those."

Jessie Diggins is 3rd in overall World Cup standings heading into the 2022 Beijing Olympics, and the cross-country team has a strong chance to grab another podium. But U.S. Biathlon, the team John has dedicated much of his life to, hasn’t yet had it’s breakout Olympic moment.

He thinks this could be the year.

He calls Susan Dunklee of Craftsbury, "one of the top contenders." She already has multiple medals in World Championship competition, and has announced her retirement at the end of this season, which Morton says gives her an edge.

"She has nothing to lose," he says. "If she has a good day, and shoots well, she's in contention."

A couple of other American biathletes Morton says to keep an eye on: Clare Egan of Cape Elizabeth, ME and Sean Doherty of North Conway, NH. But there are no guarantees. Morton warns that biathlon is a “fickle sport.” A random gust of wind could completely ruin someone’s shooting day, and therefore their chance at a medal.

"That's just one of the challenges of biathlon, putting it all together on the day when it really counts," Morton says.

Morton won't be in Beijing this year due to COVID restrictions. So, whether or not this is the year for U.S. Biathlon's historic Olympic moment, he will be cheering from his home in Thetford.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Josh Crane @JBSCrane.

Josh Crane is part of Vermont Public's Engagement Journalism team. He's the senior producer and managing editor for Brave Little State, a podcast based on questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by the audience, and runs Vermont Public's Sonic ID project.
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