From Fargo to Beijing: Paul Schommer set to compete in first Olympics with USA Biathlon team
The Appleton, Wis. native, who moved to Fargo in June 2020, was almost ready to give up on sports all together in high school.
ANTHOLZ, Italy — When you think of Fargo, the first thing that comes to mind isn't necessarily cross-country skiing.
One Fargo resident is pretty good at it however, as Paul Schommer is set to compete in his first Olympic Games as a member of the United States Biathlon team in February.
Schommer is a native of Appleton, Wis. The 29-year-old moved to Fargo in June 2020 when his wife, Jillian, accepted a residency position with Sanford Health.
"My wife, she had just graduated from med school, and during the residency match process, she matched in Fargo with the University of North Dakota which is based in the Sanford system in Fargo," Schommer said. "So that's what brought us to Fargo."
Schommer was an NCAA All-American skier at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn. and a three-time NCAA qualifier. Before having a decorated collegiate career, however, Schommer didn't actually get into skiing until high school. In fact, he played soccer and competed in wrestling growing up, and he was almost ready to call it quits on athletics for good.
"Growing up, I was like most kids," Schommer said. "I played soccer, my main sport was wrestling, that was kind of what I did growing up. During my freshman year of high school, I kind of had some stuff going on, and I kind of left sports entirely. I didn't really think I'd be an athlete ever again."
Why didn't he think he'd be an athlete again? Like every human being has experienced, adversity reared its ugly head.
"Like I said, I grew up wrestling, and wrestling was kind of a sport that I did with my dad," Schommer said. "He was never a great wrestler or an athlete as a kid. I think in some ways, he was living vicariously through me. At times, I think I was doing it in some ways for him as well. But then, when I was a freshman in high school, I had developed an eating disorder. At that point, my relationship with working out and sports as a whole really started to deteriorate and it really just kind of became a grind. I didn't really find joy in it, I felt like I was just there because I had to be, and that's where my relationship with sport really started to go down hill. Just because I didn't find any joy in it. It was full of disappointment, and I also was just not healthy enough to compete, so I ended up having to not compete and step away."
That same year, Schommer's dad died in a car accident.
Tragedy compounds problems
"After that, my life was just kind of put on pause in some ways. I had to, one, address my own health issues but also be with my family and kind of grieve that loss. Eventually, I ended up going to treatment at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and that's when I got healthy. It was later that year that I had discovered cross-country skiing, and that's when it just became a sport that I was doing for myself out of joy. I didn't have these expectations or pressures because it wasn't a high school sport, and so I really just started to fall in love with it.
That turned out to be Schommer's sophomore year at Kimberly High School near Appleton.
"My sophomore year of high school is when I got introduced to cross-country skiing through a club at our high school," he said. "Where I grew up in Appleton is pretty similar to Fargo, so it doesn't really have much opportunity for skiing, but I just really fell in love with the sport and then ended up going to college in Duluth. It was there that I met my coach, Chad Salmela, who was a biathlete himself, and he just kind of recognized some of my talents, who I was as an athlete, and kind of suggested I go into biathlon knowing that there was opportunity at how big the sport is in Europe."
And while the cross-country portion of biathlon may have come pretty naturally for Schommer, the competition shooting portion took some time to adjust to.
"I grew up hunting, so I was familiar with firearms to an extent, but when it comes to biathlon, it's much more in line with competition shooting, so that's something that I really had to learn," he said. "It's something that just takes time, and once you get down the position and procedure stuff, it really just becomes a mind game. It takes a lot of focus to continue to execute well on the range. So I would say I had familiarity, but I had to learn a lot more. Just like most kids in the U.S. can shoot a basketball or throw a football, but to do it well, you have to continue learning that process of how to do it at a high level."
Making the grade
Schommer attended a Talent ID camp with U.S. Biathlon in Lake Placid, N.Y. in 2015, which jump started his career as a biathlete. Now, he's off to the Olympics, something he likely never dreamed of a decade ago.
Schommer knew he had made the Olympic team based on a previous qualifying result.
"I knew the qualification criteria going into the first part of our season, which runs front he end of November through just before Christmas, he said. "It was a result that I had at the end of November in Sweden that qualified me for the games.
"I was in France at the time, I had just finished the World Cup there which was in Annecy, Le Grand-Bornand. That night, I went to bed knowing I had qualified for the team, but it just hadn't been this official announcement yet. It was getting kind of late and I knew the committee that does the naming was meeting in the U.S. at that time. So the next morning when I woke up, I had a ton of messages from friends and family congratulating me because the announcement had gone out.
"I'm extremely grateful and thankful for the opportunity to go compete, but the satisfaction mostly came from being able to do something I knew I was capable of, but then also I knew it was opening a door for me to step through that just presented the next opportunity to achieve my next goal. Obviously, going to the Olympics is great, but me and my teammates are all just trying to stay focused on doing our best to prepare so we can go to Beijing and have our best performances of the season."
‘Do our best’
Little known to some and well-known to others however, biathlon is one of the few sports, summer or winter, that the Americans have never medaled in, despite the fact the U.S. has fielded a biathlon team at the Winter Games since its inception as an Olympic sport in 1960.
"It is true, biathlon is the only winter sport that the U.S. has not won a medal in," Schommer said. "I think that speaks to how difficult of a sport biathlon really is. We have been competing for a long time, but in order to win that medal, you have to have everything fall in place."
Germany is the most decorated nation in biathlon, with 52 total medals and 19 gold. Following the Germans are Norway with 41 medals, 16 gold, France with 26 medals, nine gold and Russia with 23 medals, 10 gold.
Schommer and his seven American biathlon teammates — Jake Brown, Sean Doherty, Leif Nordgren, Joanne Reid, Deedra Irwin, Susan Dunklee and Claire Egan — feel like they have what it takes to change that this year, but have other goals in mind as well.
"We as a team are capable of doing it, but we're not going into the Olympics with that mindset," Schommer said. "We're not going in with a results-oriented mindset. We want to go in with a mindset of 'We're going to do our best,' knowing that if we do our best, it could present us with the opportunity to win a medal.
Great opportunities, present and future
"It's definitely something that will continue to be talked about, and we'll continue to have to answer these questions, but at the same time, I just think it's important to say that it's not the only thing we are going there to do. Because one, we recognize that it's very difficult to do even though we are capable, and the best thing to do is to stay focused on what we can control, and hopefully if all those things go well, then we will be able to put our names in the history books."
Schommer said getting the opportunity to race is the No. 1 experience he wants to take away from the Olympics.
"Obviously the thing I'm most excited about going to the Olympics for is racing," he said. "Just going to a new venue. This venue we're going to be racing at, no one has been to before, at least for biathlon.
"I think a lot of people think the results are a big thing, but I hope I can just go there and do what I'm setting out to do. I have goals of being Top 20 and qualifying for the mass start. I think those are two things that I would really like to do in terms of athletic goals, but it's also a great opportunity to meet people from other countries. I hope that even within the confines of the COVID restrictions, we can still kind of meet people and connect in other ways and hopefully also just be a great teammate and hope the U.S. Biathlon team as a whole can have success and knowing that they went there and did their very best for that time."
Looking back, what would Schommer tell the teenage version of himself who was so close to dropping everything athletically?
"I think the unique thing about my situation is that when I was 10, 12, even 16, 17, I didn't even know what the sport of biathlon was," he said. "And so to be here now as a member of the U.S. Biathlon team who's going to be going to the Beijing Winter Olympics, is to not get discouraged by something you don't think you're going to be good at now and thinking that it's the only opportunity you're going to have. I think that there's a lot of opportunities out there, some that you don't even realize yet, that can take you to places that you never dreamed or imagined possible.
"So for my younger self, I don't know if I would want to tell him what's happening, I don't even know if he'd even believe it, but just to continue working hard and things will kind of figure things out for themselves.
"Also, with the aspect of being in a really tough spot, at times, something that I've said when I've went back to Rogers (Memorial Hospital) and spoke to the people there, it's really easy for people to think that who we were is who we are. But, who we were doesn't have to be who we are, and it doesn't have to be who you want to be. So it's just kind of continuing to work on yourself day after day knowing that you can make a difference, you can make a change, and good things are lying just ahead of you."
Change of perspective
Schommer and his teammates are currently in Antholz, Italy where they competed in the International Biathlon Union World Cup over the weekend, before departing from Milan for Beijing on Jan. 29. You can follow along with Schommer's journey via his YouTube channel and Instagram page . His Team USA biography page can also be found here .
At the conclusion of the Winter Games, Schommer will return to U.S. soil for the first time since Nov. 10, when he departed Fargo, a place he now considers home.
"It's funny when I tell people I live in Fargo," he said. They almost offer me their condolences. Just because it's known for a lot of not great things, especially within the outdoor sports community. I spend a lot of time in beautiful mountain villages that have lots of opportunity for skiing and outdoor adventure, climbing, biking, mountain running and all those things. Those are all things that I really enjoy, but to be in a place like Fargo, it kind of makes you look at things a lot differently. I saw this quote in a book... It was 'Great experiences don't come by traveling to different places, they come when you have a change of perspective and the way you see things,' and I think that's something I've learned a lot from Fargo. The people are incredibly great. I remember one time thinking 'Ah man, there's no natural beauty here,' and some of those things I was used to, and I was just kind of praying about it and I felt like God just told me 'The most beautiful thing in all of creation is people,' and Fargo has some great people. I think that's something we've really loved is the community. For me to know that when I'm traveling, that my wife has a community of people around her, that care for her, can help her, is really cool.
"It's been good for us and it's really helped my wife and I grow in ways we don't think we would have if we had lived somewhere else."
Ready to give back
Schommer also hopes to eventually help get some local children into cross-country skiing, and will continue to compete in events worldwide.
"I think that's something that has been a bit funny," he said. "That some people in Fargo think that I'm at home right now just kind of preparing for the Olympics, and I'll fly over and do that. Biathlon, we have a World Cup season every single year. Every year there's not an Olympics, there's world championships, so every single year we have a full race calendar with tons of opportunity to race well.
"So I think the end goal is taking the things that I've learned and taking the experiences that I've been able to experience in life and hopefully give back in some way.
"For example, I'm hoping to be able to come back to Fargo and get out on skis with some local kids and introduce them to a sport that I didn't get introduced to until I was in high school. I just think that would be something kind of cool, to be able to give back to kids in the community something that I never had as a kid, and hopefully inspire them to discover something that they maybe never thought possible, and maybe they don't find that until later in life, but that's kind of the cool part about stumbling upon something like biathlon."
How to watch
The Beijing Winter Olympics kick off on Friday, Feb. 4.
Follow Schommer's journey:
Via his YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnoZ7uVtRw72uutXfMy9KhQ
On his Instagram page at https://www.instagram.com/paultschommer/
His Team USA biography page can also be found at https://www.teamusa.org/us-biathlon/athletes/Paul-Schommer .
The biathlon competition schedule, in Central Standard Time, is:
Saturday, Feb. 5: Mixed Relay 4x6 kilometer, 3 a.m.
Monday, Feb. 7, Women's 15k Individual, 3 a.m.
Tuesday, Feb. 8, Men's 20k Individual, 2:30 a.m.
Friday, Feb. 11, Women's 7.5k Sprint, 3 a.m.
Saturday, Feb. 12, Men's 12k Sprint, 3 a.m.
Sunday, Feb. 13, Women's 10km Pursuit, 3 a.m.
Sunday, Feb. 13, Men's 12.5 k Pursuit, 4:45 a.m.
Tuesday, Feb. 15, Men's 4x7.5k Relay, 3 a.m.
Wednesday, Feb. 16, Women's 4x6k Relay, 1:45 a.m.
Friday, Feb. 18, Men's 15k Mass Start, 3 a.m.
Saturday, Feb. 19, Women's 12.5k Mass Start, 3 a.m.