World youth event first step for Wilton biathlete Halligan
If you’re doing it properly, your heart is pounding, your lungs are searing, your hands are quivering.
If you’re doing it properly, you stow these problems in a box temporarily.
One moment, you’re going as fast as you can; the next, you’re slowing everything to a dead standstill, to aim at a target that’s 50 meters away and a few inches in diameter.
Brian Halligan, a senior at Saratoga Springs High, is very proficient at this tricky balance, enough so to have qualified for the IBU Youth/Junior World Championships in Obertilliach, Austria, on Jan. 25.
The 17-year-old from Wilton is one of the top youth biathletes in the country, based on his fourth-place finish at the three-day trials at Mt. Itasca in Coleraine, Minn., the first weekend in January.
His third appearance at the trials landed him on Team USA for the junior worlds, a development that puts him on what could be the long, grueling process of someday qualifying for the Olympics. This time, at least, he’s going to be careful to slow everything down, take a deep breath and be content just to stay on target.
“I’m definitely going to soak it in, because, who knows, next year I could be sick for trials and not make it,” Halligan said two Saturdays ago, before a high school cross country skiing meet in Queensbury’s Crandall Park.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Obviously, everyone’s ultimate goal is to win a gold medal at the Olympics. This is just a no-pressure situation. I’m just going to go out there, do my best, hopefully shoot better, focus on what I know how to do.”
Halligan competed in the trials in Jericho, Vt., two years ago and in Anchorage, Alaska, last year.
Among the sacrifices he made this year to give himself a better chance to qualify was to not compete on what looked like the makings of a state champion cross country running team in the fall.
Sure enough, the Blue Streaks not only swept the state public high school and Federation meets, but also were invited to compete in the Nike Cross Nationals in Oregon.
He watched his friends and former teammates on his computer; they, in turn, were the first to text congratulations when he qualified for Team USA in the biathlon.
Team USA’s coach, Algis Shalna, a relay gold medalist for Russia at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, told Halligan he was on the verge of qualifying, but it would take extra work in the fall to get there.
“At that point, I said, ‘Yeah, I’m not running cross country,’ as fun as it is, and as awesome as my teammates are,” Halligan said. “The thing is, I know that the team is so deep that if I didn’t go, they still would’ve gone to nationals. I felt like if I was letting the team down, I might’ve run.”
Dropping off the team did not create a lighter workout schedule for Halligan.
On the contrary, “the fall was crazy,” he said.
Besides an accelerated biathlon training program, Halligan went on three-hour runs once a week to build stamina.
Frequently, he would use back roads and
run from the Halligans’ home in Wilton to the high school on West Avenue, where there was a chance he’d run into his buddies.
“They would say, ‘Whoa, what’re you doing? How long have you been running?’ ” he said. “I’m an hour and a half in now, and they’d say, ‘Go home, go home.’
“It built up the endurance, and it’s definitely helped this year, because last year, at the end of these 10k’s and 12k’s, I would be dying. This year, I feel really good at the end of races.”
Biathlon is an obscure sport, especially at the high school level, but Halligan was introduced to it at a young age by his biathlete father, Sean, who is a close friend of three-time U.S. Olympian Curt Schreiner.
Between the advice of his
father and Schreiner, who runs the Saratoga Biathlon Club in Day that was built by his father, Jim Sr., and his natural drive to succeed, Brian Halligan had the tools to get to the elite level.
By qualifying for the world juniors, he’s on the same path that Schreiner took on his way to the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Games.
“It’s pretty much the first step in an international career,” Schreiner said. “It’s really getting your foot in the doorway. What he needs to get out of it is to see what the competition is like and go in there with no expectations. There’s going to be about 100 kids, and a lot of them are going to be fast and good. The main thing is to get that seed planted.”
Biathlon offers a tricky blend of gut-busting cross country skiing and poised precision and discipline with the .22-caliber rifle, which requires special care and attention itself.
Halligan said his rifle cost about $4,000, and he handles it like a virtuoso musician would treat an expensive instrument.
At each stop, biathletes have five targets to shoot at from either a standing or prone position.
“It’s been described as running a mile, then threading a needle five times, which is kind of what it is,” Schreiner said. “You’re shaking, because you’re tired. It adds a whole degree of complexity that most people don’t understand. But it makes it challenging and fun.”
“Everything on the rifle can be tweaked this way, tweaked that way, up, down . . . everything is fit like a glove,” Halligan said. “If you accidentally bump it against the car door or something and the front sight moves a little bit, your zero’s completely off. You come in shooting at the target in the middle and hitting the target on the far right, and it’s not good.”
At the trials in Minnesota, Halligan crossfired at the wrong target on the first day, costing him penalty loops on the skis, but made up for it with fast skiing to finish third.
The scores are tabulated using results from two of the three days, so after he did poorly on the second day, he again got back in the game on the third day by shooting better and, again, skiing fast.
He had to sweat it out at a banquet for a few hours before the team was announced, and he made it, as Sean Doherty of New Hampshire was clearly first, but Halligan and Jordan McElroy of California and Jakob Ellingson of Minnesota were bunched together closely enough for Team USA to go with the maximum of four biathletes in the Youth Men division.
“I was really relieved,” he said. “I was thinking of the worst thing possible. I trained so hard for this, and the whole winter’s going to be ruined.”
“Only four make the Olympic team, but you spend eight years of your life trying to get there, and if you’re not having a good time, I would suggest doing something else,” Schreiner said. “He’s got a lot of drive and motivation and stick-to-it-iveness. It’s a grind just to go out and do it on a regular basis, and he’s pretty much done that.”