Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

“I don’t think I would have been able to have a career in sports without the Army” — Amanda Lightfoot on the struggles of the British biathlete

Posted on 2 November 2018 by Thomas Kaiser

Biathlon is not a mainstream sport in the United Kingdom. As a matter of fact most people don’t even know what biathlon is. Essentially, it’s cross-country skiing combined with rifle shooting.

At the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeonChang, Amanda Lightfoot — Great Britain’s sole women representative in biathlon — skied faster than she had ever skied before, but her shooting let her down in incredibly windy conditions.

Her 67th and 73rd place finishes did not reflect her level, and she was gutted by her results. However, the odds of her having competed at her second Olympics by the age of 31 were minuscule when you consider that she didn’t start skiing until the age of 19, having been brought up in South Shields — not exactly a hotbed for winter sports.

“We don’t really get that much snow. There’s never enough to go skiing and I was not fortunate enough to go away on skiing or family holidays,” she told the Sports Gazette.

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When Lightfoot finished school at the age of 16, she followed in her brother’s footsteps and joined the British Army. It changed her life in many ways, not least because it provided her with the opportunity to try skiing for the first time.

“It was a massive life change. My first time on a train was joining the Army, my first time on a plane was to my first Army destination. I loved it straight away,” added Lightfoot, who is a Sergeant Clerk in the Adjutant General’s Corps.

Her first time skiing was also with the Army. Indeed, at the age of 19 Lightfoot went on an adventure training opportunity in Norway. She struggled at first because she had to learn how to ski while simultaneously carrying a rifle on her back.

When asked if it was love at first sight she said: “I can’t tell I loved it instantly because I fell over a lot of times.

“I spent a lot of days just trying and trying, falling down and getting back up again.”

After her trip to Norway, Lightfoot participated in the Biathlon British Championship as a novice, and won 11 gold medals — or in other words, she won every event she competed in. Her performance did not go unnoticed. She was put on a developmental program under the Army discretion in Kinloss, Scotland, where she learned and solidified the fundamentals needed for biathlon.

“The Army is a way in which you can be supported, not many people are aware of biathlon in the United Kingdom, so it’s very hard to find sponsors for a sport that you are already behind in.

“I don’t think I would have been able to have a career in sports without the Army.“

Although Lightfoot benefits from the Army’s support during the Biathlon World Cup, she has to self-fund all of her expenses, such as buying her own skis and equipment, or paying for her travels.

In fact, getting sponsors is an arduous task. “For every one hundred company you apply to, you might only get two yeses.” 

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At the moment, Lightfoot’s only sponsorship deal is with Totum sport, who provide her with much needed nutritional product before and during training. However, to further her career she desperately needs financial sponsorship.

British biathlon need a massive sponsor. You’re talking £50,000 to £70,000 a year in sponsorship to get the team up and running to compete with the big national teams.”

The countries she’s referring to are the Nordic countries, plus the likes of Germany and France.

To add to Lightfoot’s frustration she will not be able to fully participate in the full biathlon season which resumes at the end of November. This is because she could not train properly during the summer and had to return to Dishforth, North Yorkshire, for regimental duty. 

“I’m trying to work out how we can mix both the Army and my sport in the future together.”

Lightfoot hopes to rejoin the biathlon circuit in February or March, but by then she will have missed at least three quarters of the season. The sense of disappointment is even more palpable, especially since she has made such strong progress over the last three years.

In the 2016/17 season, she finished 32nd in the Individual event at the World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria. Last season, she finished 31st in that same discipline at a World Cup Stage in Ostersund, Sweden — her personal best to date.

After the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Lightfoot met with Wolfgang Pichler, a renowned biathlon coach. He noticed she was missing two key ingredients to reach her full potential: belief in herself and an appropriate training routine.

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“The hardest part with starting twenty years behind someone else is believing in yourself. It took a lot of years for me to believe that I can be as good as these guys, and that I can beat these guys.

“[Pichler] had belief in me that I could be better than what I was. Having someone believe in me was like wow! In my head, he’s one of the best coaches in the world.”

Over the past couple of off-seasons, Lightfoot joined the Swedish national team for training — they are also coached by Pichler. Lightfoot benefited by training with one of the best biathlon teams in the world because she could learn from their strengths and weaknesses.

“That was absolutely amazing. For the motivation, for the training, it was a really good boost. They are a fantastic team.”

The fact that Lightfoot has to sit out most of this year will not stop her from continuing her career in biathlon. One of her objectives is to participate in her third Winter Olympics in 2022 in Beijing, China, but there are still hurdles to overcome.

“It depends on all the decisions with the military at the moment, how we go forward from here, because I need to be training a lot more than I have been able to access this summer.

“In biathlon you have to train like six hours a day, six days a week. Mix that with a full-time job and it’s going to be very difficult.”

Featured photograph/©MLaponder – Amanda Lightfoot