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Vt. biathlete Leif Nordgren on competing in the Winter Olympics, becoming a father

An image of the Olympic rings.
Jae Hong
Associated Press
Biathelete Leif Nordgren will compete in this year's Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Some events like curling have already gotten underway, but today, the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing begin in earnest, with opening ceremonies followed by a variety of competition among the world's best winter sport athletes.

One of those athletes is Leif Nordgren, a resident of Hinesburg, Vermont, and a Vermont National Guard team member competing in the sport of biathlon.

Nordgren is originally from Minnesota, and moved to Hinesburg about two and a half years ago. He spoke with VPR earlier last month from a training location in northern Italy, before he made his way to China, and described the sport that's become his passion.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Olympic biathlete Leif Nordgren. Their conversation is below and has been edited for clarity.

Leif Nordgren: Biathlon is the winter sport of cross-country skiing combined with rifle marksmanship. So, obviously those two sports are very different. But that's kind of one of the beautiful things about biathalon of, you know, trying to combine a very physically demanding sport like cross-country skiing with a very mental concentration sport like shooting.

I grew up mostly just cross-country skiing. Actually, it wasn't till I was about 17 that I first got into biathlon. But yeah, once I did start, I kind of fell in love with it. So much more fun than plain cross-country skiing, in my opinion.

Once I got going and started training full time for it, I worked my way up onto the national team. And that's what originally brought me out to the Northeast. And now I'm happy to call Hinesburg, Vermont home and train over at the the Ethan Allen training grounds in Jericho with the National Guard team. It's been great to be out there for the last couple of years.

Mitch Wertlieb: You know, I've spoken with biathletes before who say that the biggest challenge really, when you do the cross-country part, the skiing part, and then getting to those targets you have to shoot, that can just be like calming your heartbeat down, getting your body steady in order to hit that target.

Is there any kind of strategy or training that you do that really helps you do that? I imagine that must be very important.

It's not so much that there's some, you know, super magical way to slow your heart rate down so you can shoot accurately. It's more just the amount of training that we do to be able to train ourselves to shoot with a high heart rate.

How are you feeling about the situation regarding COVID safety at the games? I spoke with a reporter from Rutland named Peggy Shin who's heading over to China to cover these games. And you know, she admitted to me that she's feeling kind of nervous about staying COVID-free before, during and after arriving in China.

Before has definitely kind of been a pain. We're in northern Italy right now. And the rules here are, if you test positive, you have to quarantine before — I think it's 10 days straight — before you can even start to start producing, you know, negative PCR tests and stuff and be able to travel.

So there's been a number of athletes from other nations that we've heard about that have tested positive in the last couple of days that will not be able to travel to China with the rest of their teams, because they have to just stay here in Italy to quarantine and get healthy first. So yeah, it's definitely been kind of, I don't know if nerve-racking is the right word, but it has been kind of stressful to to not worry about COVID so much.

But we have some pretty good strategies on our team. We've basically been living in a pretty good bubble for the last, you know, two weeks, three weeks, pretty similar I would say actually to last season. Last year when you know when when COVID first started, it was a big deal last year, and everyone was pretty nervous about getting it then, too, so we haven't had any issues yet. Knock on wood.

More from VPR: An unconventional time to report sports: Peggy Shinn on covering the Winter Olympics in 2022

Yeah, knock on wood. Absolutely. Well, Leif, other than the obvious you know, winning a medal, do you have a personal goal for these games? Either beating a previous high finish or perhaps reaching a new mark that you haven't before?

Whew, that's a good question. For me, this entire season has not really gone according to plan. I've had a lot of struggle with sickness this year, not COVID, just kind of, you know, everyday colds and upper respiratory things like that. So for me, the big challenge this year has been just to stay healthy and ready to go for all the races.

So that has definitely kind of affected I guess my goals for the games. Normally I might be focused on a certain result or something like that. You know, now I'm more focused on staying healthy, having a good game plan for every race and just following through with that game plan. And you know, the result will kind of be what it is.

And of course competing and representing your country has got to be an amazing thrill.

Always. You know, this is my third Olympics. I've been on the national team for U.S. biathlon for going on 12 years now, I guess. It's always special to represent the USA, it's always special to wear that Olympic uniform.

I don't know if you've heard, this will be my last Olympics. So it's definitely kind of extra special this time.

Is that just a personal choice for you, that this is your last Olympics?

Yes, it is. It is pretty personal. So my wife and I are expecting our first child [today], on Feb. 4, which is the day of the opening ceremonies. When we're due.

It boils down to just spending so much time away from home in the last 12 years. We're on the road from beginning of November to the end of March every single winter for the racing season in Europe, and then we travel easily two to three weeks out of every month in the summer for training camps and things like that.

Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Lydia worked for Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS from 2019 until 2022.
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