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WINTER OLYMPICS : BACK FROM THE BIZARRE . . . : Ex-Biathlete Copes With Shooting That Was Not for Sport

February 25, 1988|MIKE KUPPER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

CANMORE, Canada — What do you do when you have suddenly been caught in something so strange and frightening that it couldn't possibly be real? Except that it is.

If you're Kari Swenson, you try to deal with it. With the help and support of family and friends, you try to put it behind you. And you go on, trying to put your life back in good order, trying to make your dreams work, trying to find rewards and enjoyment.

Swenson, it would appear, is succeeding.

If you have been avidly watching the Winter Olympics on TV, you might have run across Swenson. She is ABC's expert commentator for the biathlon, that little-known winter sport combining cross-country skiing and target shooting.

Although it is popular in northern Europe, biathlon is such an obscure sport in the United States that most of the viewing public has to be re-educated about it every four years. That's what Swenson, a former biathlete, is doing here.

About four years ago, biathlete Kari Swenson was in the news for another reason. It didn't involve skiing, but it did involve shooting. She was one of the victims in a kidnapping and shoot-out that cost the life of one of her would-be rescuers.

On July 15, 1984, Swenson, then a student at Montana State University, was doing some of her daily training, running on a mountain trail near Big Sky, Mont. She was working that summer at a resort lodge there and got out into the mountains as often as she could.

In the same area of those mountains, Don Nichols, then 53, and his son Dan, then 20, a couple of self-styled mountain men, were hunting.

Specifically, they were hunting a mate for Dan Nichols. Their intent was to make off with the first likely female who happened by and take her to their mountain hut.

Kari Swenson happened by.

During a two-day ordeal that she still chooses not to talk about, Swenson was abducted, taken into the woods and shot in the chest--apparently by accident--the .22-caliber slug penetrating a lung. Then she was chained to a log and left in the woods.

Alan Goldstein, a member of a search party looking for Swenson, was shot and killed by Don Nichols.

Swenson was eventually found by rescuers and was hospitalized for eight days.

The Nicholses were apprehended a week later, stood trial and now are serving time in a Montana prison.

For much of the rest of that year, Swenson recuperated. "I pretty much had zero lung capacity in that lung for quite a long time," she said. "There were a couple doctors who told me not to ski that year, or to train. But within six weeks after, I was out walking, going hiking with my family, that kind of stuff."

She resumed hard training that winter, then returned to biathlon competition in time to win a gold and two bronze medals in the 1985 national championship competition.

Early in 1984, before her abduction, she had been a member of the bronze medal relay team in the World Championships, that medal representing the first in international competition for U.S. biathletes, men or women.

Swenson is pleased to be here as an announcer, but she was hoping to be here as a competitor.

"(Women's biathlon) was supposed to be a demonstration sport here, but something happened along the way, and they decided not to have it," she said. "I'm not even sure about '92 now."

Once she learned that female biathletes would not be allowed in the Games here, Swenson decided it was time to seriously pursue what she hopes will be her life's work, veterinary science. She is in her second year of study at Colorado State in Fort Collins, Colo.

"Since women's biathlon is not in the Olympics, I really didn't have any more goals in biathlon. I'd gone to the World Championships and I'd done well. I'd been on the (U.S.) biathlon team for seven years, and my next goal was the Olympics. So I really wanted to go to that school and I applied and got in. I said, 'OK, that's it. I'm going to go get a career.' "

She still is disturbed, though, that female biathletes can't be Olympians.

"We've been fighting that (battle) for many years," she said. "It has something to do with politics. The biathlon international committee is a bunch of older men, all military minded, and so they have a hard time with women carrying rifles and shooting. The problem that we've been running into is male chauvinism."

If she can't compete here, though, Swenson is happy to be part of the TV team.

"I really had to give it some thought and talk to some people and see if they thought it would be possible for me to miss that much school," she said. "I finally decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to the Olympics and have a good time and be able to spread the word to the public about biathlon."

Swenson said she had been recommended to ABC by people in skiing.

"It's been an interesting deal. I'm not sure yet if I'm good at it.

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