No straight shot to Lake Placid
Polish biathletes’ rifles arrive just in time after detour to Atlanta
LAKE PLACID –The New York State Police often get called to address highway safety issues, including boulders and other hazards; car accidents; and domestic disputes. They are, occasionally, brought in to investigate a crime. A first is being asked to help recover a biathlon team’s lost luggage: rifles.
But that happened to New York State Police helping to ensure security and traffic safety at the Lake Placid 2023 FISU Winter World University Games, and their counterparts between here and New York City.
When the Polish biathlon team arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport en route to Lake Placid, they discovered that their rifles hadn’t been stowed in their plane’s cargo bay. They were assured the rifles would arrive on the next flight. The rifles didn’t arrive. The team had to travel to Lake Placid with Polish government officials still negotiating help from their airline.
Biathlon rifles — 22-caliber rimfire rifles with peep sights — are highly specialized equipment, ultra-lightweight, with unique ergonomic design features including pistol-like grips with adjustable thumb rests. They hang in a sling for quick and secure placement on an athlete’s back while they ski and are designed to be shot from both prone and standing positions. Moreover, biathlon rifles are custom-calibrated to an individual athlete. Adjustments include a rear sight aligned to the eye, cheekpiece position, grip, trigger pull weight, harness size, and sling tension. The unloaded rifle must weigh between 7.7 and 16.5 lbs. It’s cost ranges from $2,500 to $7,000.
As a consequence, just borrowing other athletes’ rifles couldn’t guarantee best competition results for the Poles. Fortunately, the Canadian team could loan the Poles one extra rifle and the American team a few, along with ammunition. The Polish athletes set about practicing.
Meanwhile, the frantic Polish officials had the airline tracking down the missing rifles. Eventually, all eight were located in Atlanta, where they had been diverted, and were being held by airport security. Atlanta security was considering disposing of them. Luckily, before that happened, the airline was able to fly them back to JFK.
While the rifles were in the air, Lake Placid’s Tracy Lamb, competition chief and technical delegate for the FISU biathlon, reached out to the New York State Police, asking for their help. Lamb connected with New York City Trooper First Sgt. Timothy Sikorski, venue commander at Mount Van Hoevenberg, one of several officers stationed on the site.
“We learned that by some logistics error, when the Polish biathlon team came over, their equipment was sent after them on another plane that flew to Atlanta,” Sikorski said of the NYC Troop. “We also learned that athletes were to compete the following morning at 11; there was an urgent need to get them their rifles.”
Sikorski set up a relay, including New York City officers who agreed to meet airline staff, U.S. Customs, and Port Authority Police. With the urgency explained, officials agreed to turn over the Polish teams’ eight rifles and three ammunition cases to the State Police officers who then drove the equipment to the New Paltz area, where they met troopers who had come down from Albany. Albany troopers drove the rifles to Schroon Lake, where they transferred them to Troop B officers, who brought them to Mount Van Hoevenberg. The equipment arrived around 5:30 a.m.
“That enabled the Polish team to get in a few hours of practice using their own rifles before competing at 11 a.m.,” Sikorski said.
“While we’ve never been asked to retrieve biathlon rifles before, we do similar work all the time,” said Trooper Jack Keller, State Police public information officer. “As the State Police covers all of New York state, we are well positioned to assist in such situations. As Sgt. Sikorski oversees a lot of New York City, he could figure out who was working, get them to JFK, and facilitate logistics with other troops. The timing was crucial.”
Troopers Keller and Sikorsky found biathlon to be quite eye-opening. Like most troopers, they participate in twice-yearly target shooting. But they were amazed at how small biathlon targets are, how fast the athletes shoot, and the challenging hilly course they must ski through between shots.
“It’s very impressive to see how they come in with their heart rate elevated to about 180 beats per minute, settle themselves down, and start shooting so quickly and with such accuracy,” said Sgt. Sikorski. “When you talk with them, you learn how important their rifles are: molded and sited to each individual skier. So, it was essential they get their rifles. With them, one athlete won gold a couple of days later.”
“Having an elevated heart rate yet being able to hit targets the size of a quarter is amazing,” Keller said. “To then watch them win gold made us proud.”
No less remarkable to the State Police was learning that biathlon attracts the second largest sports audience in the world, second only to soccer and more than the audiences of baseball, football, golf, and tennis combined.
“The airline losing our rifles was terrible, very upsetting for the athletes, coaches, everybody,” said Polish biathlon coach Paul Klisz. “When you are facing the most important competition in the season, have crossed the ocean, and you don’t have your rifles, it’s an awful feeling. We finally received the rifles just three hours before the competition. But now that we have our rifles, we have won five medals so far. We are really happy and very grateful to the State Police.”
Olympic biathlete Tim Burke, of Lake Placid, said that losing rifles in transit to Europe and elsewhere is not unusual; it happened to him every winter that he competed.
“As rifles are unique to each athlete, it’s not the same when you use someone else’s rifle,” Burke said. “Learning that the State Police retrieved the Polish team’s rifles — that’s a first for me. I’ve been to competitions where airlines lose your rifles and take their time getting them back to you. Our State Police doing what they did was very special; everyone, especially the Polish team, appreciates what they accomplished.”
“We cannot thank enough the State Police and everyone who helped us get our rifles back,” said Marlanna Pikul, administrative official for the Polish team.
The Polish biathlon team ended up winning one gold, two silver and two bronzes medals during the games.