HOUGHTON — As the 2022 Winter Olympics begin in Beijing, China, the Copper Country will have a hometown hero to root on.
Deedra Irwin, a 2015 Michigan Tech graduate, will be competing for Team USA in the biathlon.
“I still can’t believe it,” said Irwin. “You dream about it for so long, and you try to do everything just right to get there and be prepared when it counts. So, it still is sinking in.”
Irwin, 29, wasn’t sure who was more enthused, her parents, her ‘fan club’ or herself when they heard the news.
“There has been an outpouring of support on social media from everybody who has been along for the ride and seen all the sacrifices I’ve had to make,” Irwin said. “It’s been really cool to see the messages of support from those who have been with me along the way.”
Irwin, of Pulaski, Wisconsin, arrived at Tech in 2010 on a cross country running scholarship. However, she made the Nordic ski team and ran track and field team all five years as a Husky.
“I started crossing country skiing during my sophomore year of high school,” she said. “I did it to stay in shape during the winter for running. (Nordic skiing) proved to be less impactful on my joints, and I really began to enjoy it.”
Irwin isn’t the only US Olympian at the Games with UP connections. Iron River native Nick Baumgartner, who has trained at Keweenaw area slopes, is in his fourth Olympics.
During her five-year stint at MTU, Irwin said she red-shirted at least one of her three sports each year.
“My last two years at Tech, I did all three sports that year,” she said. “I estimated that I was on campus that last (spring) semester for just a whole 30 days due to travel for Nordic or track and field. It was crazy.”
She said that her “ah-ha” moment when she realized that her best sport was Nordic skiing came during her senior year at MT. She qualified for the Team USA’s U23 team, and skied at the 2015 World Junior Championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
“That was when I realized I could make a go of this professionally,” she said.
After graduating from Tech with honors, she moved to Ketchum, Idaho and worked with the Sun Valley Ski Education program. She raced there for two seasons. Then, she discovered “the gun.”
“In the spring of 2017, I was thinking of retiring from Nordic skiing when a teammate of mine, Joanne Reid, suggested I go to a biathlon talent camp in Lake Placid, New York, and it was there that I just fell in love with the sport,” Irwin recalled. “They offered me some training, and that kept growing, and here I am four years later.”
The sport of biathlon combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Competitors ski through a cross-country trail segmented by shooting rounds.
“It is such a unique challenge to ski with a rifle and then shoot it on a range,” Irwin said. “It takes a while to get used to all the little things that are related to precision shooting. You must keep your heart rate under control. You can’t just red line it from the start. You have to have more finesse as you turn off the skier and put on the shooter.”
She is one of eight members of the US biathlon team which includes four men and four women.
She added that in Europe, biathlon is the number one watched winter sport on television.
“I remember my first competition (in Europe),” she said. “I walked into the stadium and there were 30,000 people in the stands dancing, singing and cheering. It had all the elements of a Packer game. It is an intoxicating sport over there and comes complete with its own subculture.”
One of Irwin’s biggest fans is her former teammate and roommate, Kristen Monahan Smith.
Monahan was a senior at Tech when Irwin was a freshman, and the two reconnected at the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. She’s now an assistant coach for Michigan Tech’s Nordic ski team.
“I wasn’t surprised when I heard the news of Deedra making the US team.” said Monahan Smith. “She has had a great season and is most deserving of it. I am obviously very excited for her. I know she has been very focused on that (Olympic) goal and dream, and she made it happen.”
Irwin said she’ll carry a little bit of Houghton with her as she competes at these Olympics.
“My Tech experience was great,” she said. “The teachers were very understanding and supportive of student athletes. They encouraged us to make the best of our time not only in the classroom but also in our sport. As well, the larger Houghton community has been equally supportive. Houghton holds a special place in my heart.”