methow grist 2011-2014 archive
photoBiathlete Casey Smith in a photograph taken during his holiday break at his home outside Winthrop. Photo by Karen West

From the Ground Up
Biathlete Casey Smith

When four local biathletes and their coach traveled to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, to compete in last weekend’s World Junior Biathlon Team trials, it was a far cry from the first race Betsy Devin-Smith and her son, Casey Smith, entered a decade ago at Stevens Pass when Casey was 10 years old.

Mom recently explained that getting to that first race course required trudging up a hill. “I was carrying this big heavy backpack... I was luring him along with M&Ms. We didn’t know what we were doing,” she told Grist.

They tried to prepare for the race by skiing near the old Winthrop town trailhead and shooting a BB gun at a target set against a hill to absorb the BBs. Casey’s dad, Skip, made the target. “We skied around a little loop that was packed down” and then stopped to shoot, said Devin-Smith.

Pretty soon they heard the “whoo, whoo, whoo” of a siren. “There must be a fire somewhere,” she said to Casey and Skip. Wrong. “Here comes the Winthrop town cop” she related. With hands at his sides as though he’s going to draw his gun, he ordered the family to “‘Step away from the firearm.’”

“What firearm?” Devin-Smith replied, before realizing he meant the BB gun. “‘Step away from the firearm,’” he kept repeating. Skip Smith said he had known the guy for years, but that didn’t seem to matter. “We have a report of shooting,” the deputy said.

photoCasey Smith firing his Anschutz .22 caliber rifle. The plastic eyeguard screens sight in one eye and the two peep sights are for aiming. Biathletes ski with unloaded guns. They keep their ammunition in the red magazines stored along the gun barrel and load only at the shooting stations. Photo courtesy of Casey Smith

Not wanting local biathlon to get off to a bad start, the family cooperated. Nonetheless, “We made the police blotter,” Devin-Smith said. “That was the start of biathlon [in the Methow Valley].”

Today, Casey Smith is a member of the U.S. Junior Biathlon team with Olympic aspirations. His mother is the certified head coach for Methow Valley Biathlon and a U.S. Master’s and North American Biathlon champion who was named Biathlon Coach of the Year for the 2009-2010 season by the U.S. Olympic Committee. And thanks to a number of volunteers, including Skip Smith, the Methow Valley now has two biathlon courses.

“My mom and Rick LeDuc started the biathlon program here,” Casey Smith said. “They got some targets and built the range up in Mazama. That range was all built with volunteer help.”

And Skip Smith pointed out that making the police blotter is “a far cry from having a rifle range at the high school,” which is where the second biathlon course is located – on the Sean McCabe ski trail. In fact, Liberty Bell High School may be the only high school in the country with a biathlon course on school property. It is operated under a strict set of rules with the support of the school board and superintendent.

photoCasey Smith stands tall on the podium after winning a NorAm race in West Yellowstone in mid-December. Photo courtesy Casey Smith

The modern sport of biathlon combines the skills of freestyle Nordic skiing and rifle marksmanship. However, the skills involved are ancient. The sport traces its origins back thousands of years to Scandinavia where hunters, and later soldiers on border patrols, traveled on and shot from skis. Today there are five different biathlon events. Participants ski designated distances around the course and at specified intervals stop and shoot at a target from either a standing or prone position. Depending on the event, there are either two or four shooting phases. For every missed shot, competitors ski an extra150 meters, Smith said.

There are national and international competitions at the junior and senior level and Winter Olympic medals in five events for both men and women. Popularity is growing in the U.S., according to the U.S. Biathlon Association. The USBA website also reports that in Europe biathlon is the most-watched winter sport on television.

Casey Smith, now 20, is in his last season skiing for the U.S. Junior Biathlon Team before moving into competition “with the big boys,” as he put it. He is a college student majoring in mechanical engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., where there is an NCAA division Nordic ski team and a group of six biathletes who’ve formed a team called Biathlon Elite. There is no dedicated biathlon coach, but Casey said, “most of the time it’s okay.” He does some training with the ski team and works out with non-team members and on his own. “I work with [Winthrop’s] Margaret Waechter,” he added. “She writes all my training plans.”

photoThe Smith family - Betsy Devin-Smith, a founder and coach of the Methow Valley Biathlon Team, Casey Smith, and Skip Smith - at their home near Winthrop. The vintage rifle on the wall in the background was used by an earlier generation of Smiths at a family sheep camp in Idaho. Photo by Karen West

Smith said what he likes about biathlon – in addition to the year-round outdoor activities like running, roller-skiing, biking and hiking to train for it – is the double challenge of skiing and shooting. “The shooting definitely adds a twist ... a wild card,” he said, because you never know who is going to win. A strong skier can have a bad shooting day and lose, or a weaker skier can have a great shooting day and win, he explained.

Biathlon rifles are standard .22 caliber models, which must weigh a minimum of 7.5 pounds. Smith’s rifle, which weighs about 9.5 pounds, was manufactured by Anschutz, a German company. It has peep sights at the back and on the end of the barrel. The rear sight also has an eye guard because biathletes shoot with both eyes open and the guard blocks the vision of one eye. The rifle has a Fortner-style bolt and four five-shot magazines, which are stowed in special slots while skiing. Biathletes, starting at age 16, ski with unloaded rifles on their backs, thus the guns are outfitted with straps that work much like those on a backpack. Biathletes under age 14 use air rifles only and until age 16 ski without the rifles, which are left at the shooting stations.

Coach Devin-Smith explained that the local biathlon program is open to skiers ages 9 through 19 who also are members of the Methow Valley Nordic ski team, and to adult skiers who want to race or just have fun. Rifle safety, sportsmanship, discipline and fun are the among the values the sport teaches, she said. For more information go to

Casey Smith has owned his rifle for about four years. A new Anschutz costs about $3,000, he said, adding that there is a Russian-made biathlon rifle that costs about $1,500. “Everyone on the World Cup [race circuit] has an Anschutz,” he added. And it is a one-time investment. “This gun could take me to the highest level I can go [including the Olympics],” he said.

And Smith is aiming for the Winter Olympic Games. He said there is a chance he could make the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia, “but it’s a long shot.” He expects to be a more seasoned competitor by the 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

At the time of this interview, Smith’s goal was making the team that will compete in the World Junior Championships in Austria the last week of January. If successful, he said he wants to stay in Europe to ski and train before a set of races the first two weeks of February, then go to the European Championships in Bulgaria the last week of February.


Have a comment? >>

Casey has always aimed high since he first brought chickens to the county fair. Sochi may be a long shot, but I won't be surprised if he makes it!

Connie Mehmel
Cashmere, WA

Congratulations Casey!!! Wonderful to see that your hard work is bring you the wins you deserve. Oh yes also a big thanks to Dad and Mom Smith for their dedication to the sport. Have a great year Carl and Roxie Miller

Roxie Miller


Great writing, inspirational story! Casey, your work ethic is legendary and you are well on your way to accomplishing what you have set out to do. Have a great season this year. It will be fun to follow your progress!

Char Alkie