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Jamie Kallio: Olympic biathlete via a nordic ski base

Years later, the decision might seem like an obvious one.

At the time, coming off a very solid performance at the Canadian Cross-Country Ski Championships, it was anything but obvious for Sudbury born future Olympic biathlete Jamie Kallio.

The year was 1985. Just 19 years of age, Kallio had claimed Ontario titles four or five years running, cracking the top ten on the national stage. But with the 1988 Winter Olympics drawing closer with every passing season, Biathlon Canada faced something of a conundrum.

“The base of biathlon is really the skiing,” said Kallio, now 55 years old and living in Chelsea (PQ) - and still active on his skis. The national governing body for the sport certainly realized the same. Where talented biathletes may have been few and far between in our country, talented nordic skiers were plentiful.

“I could have kept going, but I was kind of on the fringe of making the national team in nordic skiing,” Kallio conceded. “This was an opportunity to see how it goes.” And there were definitely some factors that were going his way.

“Skate skiing had just come out and that was the only technique they used (in the biathlon),” he said. “I was strong at classic, but when skate skiing started, I seemed to do better at it. It was maybe a better motion for me.”

Either way, the youngest of three children with various northern Ontario ties - his older brother was born in Cochrane, his sister in New Liskeard - Kallio was going to build on an impressive cross-country ski foundation that grew, in time, at the Porcupine Ski Runners venue as the family moved from Sudbury to Timmins when he was just three or four.

Though his father was an operator with Ontario Hydro, which accounted for the nomadic lifestyle to which he grew accustomed, Kallio came across his love of nordic skiing quite naturally. His mother was also a Finlander, born and raised with the Ranta clan in Beaver Lake, while his paternal grandmother was a Kivinen.

“My mom was a skier; she would ski to school with her siblings, about five kilometres,” Kallio noted. “They would drop the skis off at a farm where a Finnish farmer would tune up the skis for them during the day.” If the recollection conjures up wonderful images of a winter wonderland and the outdoor activities that accompanied it, the nordic ski nostalgia would only grow in Timmins.

Blazing trails out in the woods behind the homestead of Preston Mines in his youth, Kallio was recruited to the Porcupine Ski Runners by the time he hit grade seven or eight, as Lorne Luhta was building a budding provincial cross-country powerhouse.

“We had just one little snow machine to groom, one chainsaw to cut a few trees,” said Kallio.

“We did everything with the club, cutting down trails in the fall, getting them ready for the winter. There was one little warm-up room where we actually had to start the fire. You would get there, get it going and by the time you got back in after skiing, it was so hot in there that you couldn’t stop sweating.”

“It wasn’t long after they got a few people racing that they had people going to provincials and nationals.”

Kallio was part of that early wave of success. Still, by the time that his graduation for Roland Michener Secondary School gave way to his start at Laurentian University, beginning his studies in the Sports Administration program in the fall of 1985, it was decision time.

“The biathlon was a struggle at first,” he confessed. “But it got much better the year after. By ‘86/’87, I started getting more consistent results with that second year of summer shooting training.”

Moving to part-time studies and even taking one full year off academically to pursue his dream, Kallio was perfecting his shooting technique in the off-season in both Deep River (where his family had moved) and Sudbury (where family ties continued to run deep - though not on the Kallio side).

“I was training in any gravel pit that I could find which was off some back road,” he said. “I would have a paper target with a couple of posts, anything that was 50 metres and had a good sand backdrop. That wasn’t hard to find in Deep River. In Sudbury, when I was going to school there, I travelled to Garson.”

“I would put my rifle down and run for three, four, five minutes, and still see my rifle the whole time,” Kallio added. “I would come back and shoot five or then rounds and then go run again. I would do that all fall, and then we would go to training camps in Ottawa and out in BC.”

Kallio knew that if he could get close in the shooting portion, his skiing abilities would project him as a national team hopeful, with a realistic shot at the Olympics. Though his lack of shooting experience did not completely kibosh his plans - Kallio remembers doing just a bit of partridge hunting in his youth - there was no doubt that he would need to make up for lost time.

“I started from scratch with the shooting, which might have been a benefit, because I was such a blank slate,” he said.

“Everything I was shown, I would absorb. You have to do a lot of precision training, shooting for accuracy early in the season. From April to August, you need to be shooting five to six thousand rounds of ammunition. It’s ten shots at 50 metres at a target that is smaller than the size of a dime.”

Once there was a comfort level with the shooting component, there was still a matter of bringing it all together in a highly efficient athletic package. “You have to learn to relax with your heart rate up,” Kallio explained. “You don’t want your heart rate to go down too much between laps of skiing.”

By 1987, the future OUA nordic ski champion would be named to the national biathlon team, competing in Lake Placid. Yet in January of the following year, just a couple of weeks before the Opening Ceremonies in Calgary, Kallio still had not met the standard. “I was in Italy, at a World Cup event, and this was almost like a last-chance race,” he said.

“I would finish in 32nd place, one of my best performances. I felt really in sync with the shooting and skiing, and it was tremendously difficult conditions to shoot in - but I was able to qualify.”

“It was exciting, but exhausting at the same time. It was all quite a blur, almost surreal.”

Just 22 years of age, Jamie Kallio would deal with the pressure of representing the host country, racing on trails flanked by crowds unlike any he had ever seen in Canada. Looking back, he remains ever thankful for the rationale that would open the doors to a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“At the highest of levels, everybody could get 90% to 100% of their shots in, so the difference was going to be their ski speed,” he said. “That was the whole strategy behind the Biathlon Canada recruitment of nordic skiers. You could take a rifle shooter who could hit every target, but it would take them 10 years to get up to speed with the skiing.”

All of which led to a decision that Kallio has never regretted.

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