Nobody gets between a biathlete and his or her rifle.

The World Cup biathlon tour makes its first of two stops in Maine next weekend, bringing one of Nordic skiing’s oldest events to Presque Isle.

With it comes athletes wielding one of the most unusual pieces of equipment in all of sports: a .22-caliber rifle.

“Every single shot can put you on the podium or knock you off,” said Max Cobb, U.S. Biathlon’s executive director. “You can have cases where someone is skiing incredibly well, is shooting incredibly well and will come in for their last shot and it’s one of those bottom-of-the-ninth, bases-loaded, down-by-three-runs kind of moments.

“Can you hold it together?”

First thing to know about the rifle? It’s personal.

A biathlete who has reached the World Cup level likely has spent several thousand dollars on his or her rifle, which probably was custom made in Europe, specifically Germany.

The stock has been fitted to cradle the precise dimensions of their body, and the handholds have been chiseled to fit the exact width of their fingers. They clean, carry and travel with the rifle themselves.

No one else is likely to even touch it.

Their skis, on the other hand, are handled, transported and worked on by ski team wax technicians.

“World Cup athletes carry a fleet of 10 to 20 pairs of skis they won’t touch until it’s time to train or race,” said longtime biathlete Walt Shepard, a Yarmouth native who retired last year. “The gun is the polar opposite of that. It’s custom-made for you in every possible way.

“Nobody touches that thing except you. You know how to make it sing.”

While biathletes are skiing, they’re already preparing mentally for the shooting element.

Focus and concentration follow a burst of strenuous cardiovascular work.

“And the noise is just phenomenal when you come into the venue,” said Shepard. “So the biggest element, which you could replicate in all of sports, is staying mentally focused, just tuning out what’s happening around you to steady yourself on your most immediate goal.”

Then there’s wind to consider. Wind flags at the venue are stationed to help athletes adjust their aim.

They work to steady their breathing. Some athletes exhale fully before firing, others hold their breath.

And an almost automatic process of removing the rifle from their back, loading it and lining up to shoot.

The best in the world can take as few as 20 seconds to shoot five targets from either standing position or prone position.

Prone-position targets are the size of a 50-cent piece; standing targets are the size of a dessert plate.

To get good at shooting is about a 10-year process, said Cobb.

An athlete’s aptitude varies but in any given year, they will shoot between 15,000 and 20,000 rounds of ammunition. They’ll probably pull the trigger another 15,000 times doing what’s called dry firing.

That adds up to at least 30,000 shots a year.

“So yeah, a tremendous amount of work goes into it,” said Cobb.

“The very, very best athletes can get the rifle off their back, get their shots and get it back on their back and take off in about 20 seconds.”

The rifle is not aided by telescopic sights like some hunting rifles.

“It’s just an iron sight. We’re not aided by anything more than a contact lens if you need it,” said Shepard.

“You’re looking through two peep holes and lining up a series of concentric circles between the target itself and two sights on the rifle.”

Add in that the elements, be it rain, wind or snow, almost never cancel a race. The show goes on. It’s part of the beauty.

Ultimately the shooting portion is generally the key moment in a race.

“You can liken it to standing at the free-throw line as time expires,” said Shepard, “and that point is going to win or lose the game.

“It’s that quintessential moment in our sport.”

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

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