OLYMPICS; At Last, Women In the Biathlon

Published: January 5, 1992

LAKE PLACID, N.Y., Jan. 4 This was the moment that a group of young women, considered eccentric by some, had worked for, winter and summer, for four years.

So why shouldn't Joan Smith's brother pop a champagne cork? And why shouldn't a disappointed Anna Sonnerup walk off with tears in her eyes?

Today, the first United States women's Olympic team for the biathlon, a Nordic event that combines cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship, was chosen after a final 7.5-kilometer sprint. Seven women were chosen to join seven men, who were also named this afternoon, after a 10-kilometer sprint.

The United States' top biathlete, Josh Thompson, sat out the competition today because he was ill with the flu. But he had amassed enough points in the three previous qualifying rounds to make the team, since the worst of four performances was not counted. Just the Usual Claque

No one here was talking about winning medals next month at Albertville, France. There has never been one for a United States biathlete in the Olympics.

"They used to tell me when I was younger, 'Some day you'll go to the Olympics' -- now I can say it," said the 24-year-old Smith, who dropped out of college two years ago. "I devoted my life to this."

It is a life with little public or private reward. The usual claque of 30 or 40 people, cheering and clucking wildly from a knoll above the course, sent the skiers off to the Winter Games.

Joan Guetschow, the leading women's qualifier, recalled how, in 1987, the athletes and coaches got together to talk about how they would prepare for '92, when women would finally compete. Dormitory Living

Most of them had never shot rifles before. In the biathlon, a participant skis cross-country carrying a rifle and stops at intervals to shoot at five targets 50 meters away. For every miss, one minute is added to a time.

"Back in '87, coaches and athletes said we'll stick together, this is going to be the first time women are in the Olympic biathlon," said Guetschow.

About a dozen women stayed in Lake Placid's Olympic dormitories for the last two years. Those who did received a stipend of $2,500 in a non-Olympic year and $5,000 in an Olympic year.

"We stayed year-round -- three weeks at camp, a week off," Guetschow recalled.

The camaraderie that developed from that showed at the starting line today when Laura Tavares, competing next in line behind Gillian Sharp, shouted to Sharp: "C'mon, Gill. Have a good one today."

But she finished ninth over all, just behind Sonnerup, who had been considered one of this country's best but whose two missed targets today pushed her just beyond the qualifiers.

Thompson, meanwhile, described himself as hardly the same fellow who was psyched into losing at Calgary, Alberta, in 1988, when Sports Illustrated predicted a medal for him.

"The last Olympics was horrible," he recalled. "I could control everything but the crowd and the press's expectations."

Thompson, who is from Colorado, said that back then he was like "someone going through sagebrush and all of a sudden I'm on the world's stage."

"Maybe if I was in one of those sports that gets a lot of attention, I would have been used to it," he said.

He was fourth going into the last stage in Calgary, but he had three missed shots and finished far back.

"Since then, I've got a new career, a wife and I'm going to be a father," he said. "I've made lots of changes. I don't have time to mess around with training perfectly. It might sound crazy but if it's not optimal for the Olympics, then the heck with it."

Last year, he lost his job as a flying instructor. His wife works for a commuter airline. He is not independently wealthy.

In this closed world, biathletes make do. Jeff Baltzell, who finished far back, was happy to be cheered on in front of what he described as "probably the biggest crowd in the country."

So what if people ask him, "Biathlon, is that the running and biking thing?"

For Smith, today embodied the Olympics.

"I'm excited, not just for me," she said, "but for those who have a dream." Men's Team Called Stronger

JOHN MORTON, whose title is team leader (sort of like a captain), described the men's squad as "a much stronger team over all" than the United States team in 1988. . . . HOWARD BUXTON, president of the national biathlon association, said he was hoping for "more than one top 10 finish." . . . This competition was at altitude not much higher than sea level, but Albertville, said Morton, "could make the course exciting." That will be about 5,000 feet above sea level, with an uphill approach before the athletes shoot. Their pulse rate will be at about 180.

Photo: Joan Smith celebrating after being chosen for the first U.S. women's Olympic biathlon team. (Nancie Battaglia for The New York Times)