Shooting for the World Cup

Elite Nordic skier Zane Fields ’19 sees biathlon as the next challenge

Close up of biathlon rifle being fired with casing flying out of rifle
Biathletes carry a small-bore rifle, which must weigh at least 3.5 kg (7.7 pounds). The rifles hold 4 magazines with 5 rounds each. Additional rounds can be kept on the stock of the rifle for a relay race.
By Bill Donahue ’86
January 30, 2020

Moments after Zane Fields ’19 won his first college race, ski skating his way to glory on Quarry Road Trails at the 2018 Colby Carnival, he stood by the finish line in mirrored sunglasses, grinning, as he revealed to a YouTube reporter that he planned on scoring more glory—a lot more. “I don’t want to get beat in a skate race this season,” he said, “so this has been a good start to that goal.”

In every Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association race, 80 or 100 skiers crowd the start line, many of them hulking recruits from countries like Sweden and Norway. In the 21st century, no Colby male had ever won such a race. But as the season wore on, Zane actually attained his grail. He won all five EISA skate races he entered, then finished sixth in that season’s NCAA Division I national championships. He notched seventh at Nationals the following year. And now he’s trying to do something harder. He’s launching a career in a new sport.

In June the U.S. Biathlon Association selected Fields and one other recent college Nordic ski star, Luke Brown of Dartmouth, for its two-man X-Team, which is reserved, as coach Tim Burke puts it, for “strong skiers with shooting promise.” The biathlon is, remember, that strange hybrid sport that sees competitors careening along on skis and then abruptly stopping, mid race, to pick up a .22 rifle and fire at a target 54 yards away. Sometimes they shoot standing up at a softball-sized target, sometimes they shoot at an Oreo-sized target while lying prone on a rubber mat set atop snow.

Nordic ski champion Zane Fields ’19
Nordic skier  Zane Fields ’19.

Until last year, Fields hadn’t even touched a gun since eighth grade, when he took aim at cans in his backyard in Vermont. Now, though, he’s focused solely on biathlon. He spent much of the fall and early winter living, monklike, in a dorm room at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, in upstate New York, honing his shot, lifting weights, and skiing every day on the steep flanks of Mount Van Hoevenberg. Now, he’s at his dad’s in Vermont when he’s not traveling the world to race and train. He’s still doing the odd ski-only race. He finished 11th overall, and first among American skiers under age 23, in the 15-kilometer skate race at January’s cross country ski nationals, earning himself a spot at the U23 Cross Country World Ski Championships, set to begin Feb. 29 in Germany. But this, he says, will be his last season in his old sport.

“I can’t gain any ground in skiing,” he said. “There’s an incredibly talented group of juniors coming up through U.S. skiing right now, and they’ve already eclipsed me. In biathlon, I can gain ground, though.”

On March 25, Fields will travel to West Yellowstone, Mont., for the four-day U.S. Biathlon national championships. He’s likely to be one of the fastest skiers in the three skate races he enters—a 10K, a 15K, and a 12.5K pursuit, which is an interval start race with racers starting according to their finishing times in previous races. But really his entire season will come down to 50 target shots, which he’ll fire with his chest heaving, his heart going at about 190 beats per minute, and his forearm muscles quavering with fatigue. For each shot he misses, he will have to ski a 150-meter penalty lap. If he misses more than 15 shots—well, he’s probably toast.

Pressure? No doubt. But if you need proof that Fields is up to the task, look no further than that Colby Carnival video. Witness the cool confidence he carries in that clip, and also the jaunty fun he’s having, this kid savoring his first taste of glory and hankering for more. “It wasn’t a big deal,” Fields says now, recalling his carnival prophecy. “I was just thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I did win every race?’” As if no other outcome was even conceivable.

“He doesn’t allow the stress of racing to get to him. I’ve rarely seen anyone show up to the starting line so certain. He says he’s going to win and then he goes out and does it. This is what a lot of athletes work towards—visualization.”

Jordan Fields, assistant coach at Dartmouth
Zane Fields shooting in the standing position
Top: Zane Fields working on his skate technique. Bottom: Shooting in the standing position, Fields aims at targets that are 115 mm (just over 4.5 inches) in diameter.

Poise. Sangfroid. Focus. “Zane’s biggest asset is his head,” says his brother, Jordan Fields, a 2017 Williams College Nordic standout who’s now an assistant coach at Dartmouth. “He doesn’t allow the stress of racing to get to him. I’ve rarely seen anyone show up to the starting line so certain. He says he’s going to win and then he goes out and does it. This is what a lot of athletes work towards—visualization.”

Zane Fields himself can’t really explain his gift, but sounding a bit like a Zen master, he notes, “Once I start a race, my mind goes blank.”

Fields says it was skiing that led him to be a psychology major at Colby. “I was team captain in high school,” he explains, “and I liked helping people get through difficult races and situations. I liked helping them attain success, and I figured that’s the same role you have as a psychologist.” At Colby, his neuroscience concentration pointed him toward brain function, not social work, working in the lab of Associate Professor of Biology Tariq Ahmad. One paper he wrote considered the effect CBD oil might have on Parkinson’s patients. “I’m not qualified to tell you to hug a teddy bear so you feel better,” he says now, wryly, “but I could tell you that the hugging might make your cortisol levels rise.”

Close up of biathlon rifle being fired with casing flying out of rifle
Biathletes carry a small-bore rifle, which must weigh at least 3.5 kg (7.7 pounds).

But Fields came to skiing with more than a psychology/neuroscience major. As Jordan Fields sees it, his brother’s mental prowess was fully intact when he was five. “Our mom had this rule that you had to eat all your vegetables,” Jordan Fields remembers, “and Zane would refuse. For like an hour, he’d just sit there. That took perseverance and patience. It showed that Zane has a strong belief in his own ideas—like, ‘I’m going to win.’”

When Fields began ski racing at age 10, he hated training. “For a couple years,” Jordan Fields says, “he refused to do any race except the paintball biathlon”—i.e., the fun-and-games race.

When I first learned of Fields’s biathlon quest last fall, I knew nothing about the guy save for the fact that he could ski about five times as fast as me. (I am a striving but entirely mediocre middle-aged Nordic racer.) But then, when I started following Fields on Strava, a social media app for endurance athletes, I could see the renegade that Jordan described for me. Zane’s ski workouts weren’t monstrous—eight miles here, 11 miles there—and his Strava posts were remarkable mainly for their goofy photographs, among them a selfie that saw Fields hanging, upside down and shirtless, from a gym’s zero-gravity boots, his face beet red and Halloween-scary as blood rushed to his face. One post, documenting a light workout on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, invoked local patois in its title, “Up in da UP thinkin’ bout butter burgers.”

But then, just before Christmas, I met Fields for a little skiing at Craftsbury Outdoor Center, in Vermont, and I soon found myself recalibrating my take on this phenom. I felt sloppy and undisciplined skiing in his presence. I felt as though my inner skier had been fumbling in the dark for years, for Fields saw things I didn’t—for example the perfect spot to flow, on a given hill, into skiing’s climbing stroke, the V1. He talked about the physical experience of skiing with laser precision. “The footbed in my new boots,” he said at one point, “is a little different than in my old ones. I’m still adjusting. It’s a balance thing.”

Zane Fields at the target range shooting prone
The target range
Top: Fields shooting in the prone position at a target 45 mm diameter (about 1.75 inches). Bottom: The target range shooting distance is 50 meters. The five circular shooting targets flip from black to white when hit, giving the biathlete and spectators visual feedback for each shot fired.

I thought of what Colby’s longtime Nordic ski coach Tracey Cote told me: “What makes Zane strong is that he’s very intentional. He’s very tuned into his body, and everything he does. He does it to make himself a better skier.”

We skied on, hamsters spinning endless repeats on a skinny three-kilometer ribbon of manmade snow. (Such is the fate of the diehard Nordie in a warming world.) Delicately, and with amiable understatement, Fields intimated that, technique-wise, I was doing everything wrong. He spoke of “riding the ski”—the almost ineffable art of making micro muscle adjustments to snow’s uneven surfaces, so as to attain more glide out of each stroke. He also honed in on my tendency to crumple my upper body, ducking low with each pole plant and thereby dissipating the force I applied to the snow. “Stay rigid,” he said, demonstrating, bounding onto one ski, his own lithe frame alert and coiled as a steel spring. “Stay powerful.”

Zane Fields skiing
One of the top Nordic skiers in the country in his age group, Fields was one of just two recent college graduates recruited by the U.S. Biathlon Association.

Fields’s advice wasn’t novel (cross-country ski coaches everywhere speak of core rigidity in hallowed tones), but it was made resonant by his delivery—by the way he stared straight into my eyes, making it crystal clear that I was the grasshopper here, even though I was three decades older than him. He seemed somehow to embody his own advice, and I wondered if he’d be able to leverage his unwavering psychic strength later that week. He was slated to compete in one of a series of races, the International Biathlon Union (IBU) winter trials, right there at Craftsbury. The biathlon is such a daunting test of the psyche that the U.S. biathlon team employs a sports psychologist to train athletes in exhaling slowly as they transition from skiing to shooting. A recent story in the New York Times suggested that stressed-out non-skiers could draw life skills from American biathlete Lowell Bailey, a 2017 world champ who likes to meditate before competition, until he enters what he calls “a tunnel where the only thing I’m focused on is my own race.”

“The biathlon,” says coach Tim Burke, “is one of the most difficult and unnatural things people do in sports. It takes a lot of fine-motor skills and muscle memory. When you’re skiing hard, it looks like the target’s moving. It’s not easy for a beginner, but Zane is very assertive on the shooting range. He doesn’t hesitate; he doesn’t take extra time.” It’s an important quality in a sport in which the clock is always running.

Still, Fields kind of tanked at Craftsbury. Given 20 shots in a 15-kilometer race, he missed 10. In a field of 13 biathletes, he was the fastest skier but, thanks to his gunmanship, he was obliged to ski 10 penalty laps, twice as many as the race winner. He finished third. “I don’t expect him to be hitting targets at this stage,” coach Burke told me, post race. “No one takes up biathlons and then just starts hitting targets during races. And in the standing stage, Zane’s misses were extremely close.”

Fields’s own reaction was less analytical. Right after the race, he just called Jordan. “We were laughing,” Zane would tell me, “thinking of how well I would have done if I had shot half decently.”

“Right now skiing is my job, skiing and shooting, so I’m not going to let anything else bother me. I’m going to focus.”

Zane Fields ’19

I talked to Fields one more time, over a late lunch in the lodge at Craftsbury. The conversation turned, inevitably, to the psychology of sport, and he lamented that in his senior year at Colby, “I lost faith in myself. When that faith wavered,” he said, “it got hard. I began over thinking things and I didn’t ski as well. I have to get that feeling of junior year back, that feeling of being relaxed. But right now I have nothing to think about but skiing. There’s no relief.”

He was exposing his own vulnerability, but even as he did so, he seemed square-jawed and unwavering. His eyes, they never looked away, and when I asked him how he thought his biathlon gambit would play out, he said, “Next year I’ll race the IBU circuit in Europe, then I’ll race the World Cup [the next rung up]. Then I’ll be in the Olympics.”

“The Olympics?” I said.

“It could happen,” Fields said. His tone was flat and even before he paused to acknowledge, wisely, that life is filled with unknowable twists. “And if I don’t make it?” he said. “Well, then I’ve skied in a lot of beautiful places. And I don’t want to ski forever anyway.”

Zane Fields resting during practice
Fields is hoping to add shooting skills that will lead to similar success in biathlon.

Fields used to imagine a future as a sports psychologist, but he says, “I don’t know if I can give people real answers that way. He’s setting his sights instead on becoming a physical therapist for elite athletes. “If someone’s got a sore muscle, I can give them a real answer, and I can tell them that if they don’t listen to their body, if they don’t relax, they’re going to hurt themselves. Having a background in psychology is going to help me.”

“But to become a PT,” Fields continued, “I have to take chemistry and physics. I have to make money for school. Two days ago, I had my first panic attack thinking about how I’ll get there.”

Fields looked down into his lap, searching. It was the first time I saw him do this, but it was a momentary thing—an instant, a flash—and then he collected himself, cognizant, it seemed, that real life demands even more poise than athletics. “But I’m not going to worry about what happens after skiing,” he said. “Right now skiing is my job, skiing and shooting, so I’m not going to let anything else bother me. I’m going to focus.”

It was dark outside now. We cleared our lunch dishes off the table, and then outside, on the porch, Fields zippered his skis into his ski bag before going home. As I picked my way down toward the parking lot, I remembered what coach Burke had told me after the Craftsbury race.

“His last four shots were less than half an inch off the target,” Burke said, contemplating Fields’ World Cup biathlon chances. “They were very, very close.”

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