Having swapped the slopes of Fairhill in Cork City for the snowy hills of Norway, Colum O’Farrell became Ireland’s first international biathlete. Last month, he finished second in the first-ever Irish Biathlon Championships
Q: You’re from Cork, but living in Norway. Where are you now?
A: I’m actually up in the mountains at the ski slopes over here. We’re up in a place called Budor, about two hours north of Oslo. It’s a really good skiing area and there’s about two-and-a-half metres of snow, so no shortage (laughs). Blue skies and perfect skiing conditions.
Q: How long have you lived in Norway?
A: About 12 years. I was working in Dublin with a Norwegian company, so I got the opportunity to move to the west coast of Norway. I thought I’d go for the year and see how it goes, but I found skiing and family and everything else and suddenly it’s gone 12 years.
Q: I presume you got into snowsports in Norway? I haven’t heard much talk of biathlon in Cork or Dublin...
A: They’re a bit strict about carrying guns around Cork and Dublin, but Norway’s a bit more chilled out about it (laughs). I started normal cross-country skiing first. A lot of people over here do it in their spare time. I just got into it and got hooked. I ended up doing some competitions and I went in the world championships in regular cross-country back in 2013. I was always fascinated by biathlon, though, so I thought I’d give that a go. You’ve two types of cross-country skiing: Classic and skating. Skating is the one you do in biathlon and I really enjoyed that one. You’ve the physicality of the cross-country skiing, but then you’ve the precision of the shooting, as well. Trying to combine those two isn’t easy.
Q: Was it tough to adapt to it?
A: You have to put in the hours at the start, because the cross-country skiing is all about technique, but I remember when I was growing up in Cork, we spent a lot of time surfing and that helped a lot. You’re getting the balance in place and you’re able to transfer a lot of that over to your skiing.
Q: What’s the breakdown between skiing and shooting?
A: The event we had at the national championships last weekend is called the sprint. It’s 10 kilometres, so it’s quite a long sprint! In that, you’re doing two shooting rounds. One’s prone, so you’re lying and you’ve got to hit the five targets, and then you’ve one standing, which is five targets as well. When you’re lying, you’re aiming at a circle of about 45 millimetres and when you’re standing, it’s 115 millimetres. You’re shooting from 50 metres. That looks incredibly small when you’re coming in to shoot and your heart-rate is up and you’re trying to shoot and focus at the same time. You also need to consider wind conditions, because the bullets are so small. When you miss a shot, you have to do a 150m penalty loop. That takes 20 to 30 seconds, which is a huge amount of time.
Q: Tell me about the gun.
A: What you’re using is a .22 rifle which is specially made for the biathlon. You’re carrying that on your back the whole time. It has to weight around eight pounds but it actually sits nicely on your shoulder so you don’t notice it too much. That tends to be an expensive piece of equipment; the gun usually costs about €2,500. You have special .22-calibre bullets as well, but you tend to use a cheaper type for training.
Q: What about the skis?
A: They’re an art-form as well. You need to have the right skis for the right conditions but you also need someone who’s good at waxing them as well to make sure you’ve the best wax for those conditions.
Q: What’s your proudest achievement in the sport?
A: I first competed in the IBU Cup and the European Championships four or five years ago. I was the first Irish-person to do that, though I was a long way down the results list. It was a good achievement in itself but my ambition is raising the profile of the sport and hoping we get some younger guys coming through. When I started, I was the only person doing it but now we have four or five guys that are training regularly for biathlon. Hopefully we can keep adding to that.
Q: Is that relying mainly on ex-pats, like yourself?
A: Mainly. Rory [Morrish, who finished third at the Irish Championships] is living in Cork at the moment, but he spent some time in Norway. But we have guys in Canada and the US, and it’s mainly ex-pats. We don’t have the tradition yet, but you can get roller skis and there’s more and more guys in Cork out on roller skis, down towards Passage West. That’s a good place to start because there’s guys who are good at biathlon who come from the south of Sweden and Norway. They don’t particularly get much snow, although the distance to the mountains is a bit shorter for them. What we’re hoping to do is set-up a couple of training camps. For example, next summer we’ve one planned in the middle of Sweden for a week and we’ll do the same again heading into the winter. Our plan is to send a team to the IBU Cup in December and the European Championships next February.
Q: How did the idea for an Irish Biathlon Championships come about?
A: The key thing is we’re starting to get enough people to start racing each other. The other thing is we’re pushing to be a full member of the International Biathlon Union. To do that, one of the prerequisites is you have to have a national championships. This is basically the final piece of criteria we need to qualify. That’d open up a lot more support and funding to anyone who’s interested in doing biathlon in Ireland.
Q: Was it a logistical nightmare hosting an Irish championships abroad?
A: We’ve had a tradition of getting a lot of help from the Swedish Biathlon Union. They basically set-up the national championships for us together with their own Swedish championships. They helped us organise the whole thing and make sure everything was done correctly and legitimately. They really took care of us over there.
Q: Were there many competitors?
A: We had three in the end - the minimum requirement basically. We’d like to have a few more but hopefully we can add a couple to it next year. It’s a start. We were one person four or five years ago and now we had three competing and we’ve three other active guys, but they’re over the other side of the Atlantic.
Q: Is it a coincidence that, between yourself and Rory, it’s been a Cork-driven sport in Ireland?
A: Cork is the first place with most things! (laughs) We have a tradition for doing different things in Cork. You look at the teams we’ve sent to the Winter Olympics, we’ve had a couple of Cork people in those. We’ve a good sporting tradition in Cork so we need to keep it going.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved