Trained As Teen
Born Ursula Disl in 1970, the future Olympic star grew up in an area known as the "Foothills of the Alps," in Bad Tölz, Bavaria. She began cross-country skiing at age 10, and took up the biathlon in 1986. Germany is home to some of the best athletes in the sport, which dates back centuries as standard practice for hunters in wintry northern climates. The biathlon as a sport formally originated in the early twentieth century as a showcase for military teams. Skiers take off racing on the skis, then must halt to shoot at a small, coin-sized target at a 50-meter distance. Pausing to steady themselves takes precious seconds off the finish time. As Maclean's writer Mary Nemeth remarked, "few sports exact the physical toll of biathlon." The route can be up to 20 kilometers in length, and targets number as many as 20; the competitions are over in roughly 20 minutes. A writer for Sports Illustrated, Robert Sullivan, explained that in this sport, "the difficult part of the sport consists not of skiing fast or shooting well, but of doing both in concert." When biathletes miss a target, they are penalized with additional time or penalty laps. "It is the sports world's Dr. Jekyll: a thing painfully at odds with itself," Sullivan noted. "In other compound sports, for example the decathlon and pentathlon,
events are approached in sequence—the third effort doesn't really affect the fourth, apart from increasing the athlete's fatigue. Not so in biathlon: When the skier glides into the range he starts shooting, and when he has squeezed off five shots he immediately skis on."
Disl first rose to prominence in the sport in 1991 at her debut in the World Championships, held in Finland that year. She anticipated competing in her first Olympic biathlon the following year. It had been a men's medal competition event since the Squaw Valley, Idaho, Games in 1960, but women's World Cup races had taken place only since 1984, and it became a women's medal event in the Olympics at the 1992 Albertville, France Winter Games. The Olympic biathlon featured three separate categories for men and women: a 15-kilometer individual race, the 7.5-kilometer sprint, and a team relay. At Albertville, Disl and her team won the silver medal for Germany in the relay, but she placed poorly in the sprint, finishing eleventh. She fared better at the Lillehammer Winter Games in Norway in 1994, taking a bronze in the 15-kilometer individual, and again helping the German women's biathlon team take a silver in the relay. The sprint again proved Disl's toughest challenge, and this year she finished in thirteenth place.