JODY AVIRGAN: From ESPN you’re listening to 30 for 30 podcasts. My name is Jody Avirgan.
In the summer of 1984, Kari Swenson was a rising talent in the relatively obscure sport of biathlon. Biathlon is a combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting. It takes a special athlete to excel at both, and Kari was one of the best in the world.
[I want you to meet Kari Swenson.
America’s finest female biathlete.]
On a routine training run, Kari’s path suddenly forked in the mountains of southwestern Montana. Eighteen hours changed her life forever.
This story takes a look at the long road of recovery, 35 years later, after her story disappeared from public view.
This episode is reported by Bonnie Ford. She covers the Olympics and international sports for ESPN.
Now one last thing before we start, this is an episode about an act of violence and its traumatic fallout, so please be advised.
And now, Out of the Woods.
KARI SWENSON: Breathing is very important in biathlon.
Some people take more breaths between shots.
When I was skiing and competing I would do one big breath. Deep breath. And then you settle in on your shot and then pull the trigger.
BONNIE FORD: Kari Swenson is taking a few practice shots on a biathlon range outside Bozeman, Montana, and her muscle memory is kicking in. There’s a stand of evergreen trees behind her, and beyond them are snow-covered slopes and peaks.
Her body language is focused, but relaxed. Biathlon suited her in every way. Tall and rangy, with a long stride, she liked nothing better than testing herself in the outdoors.
KARI SWENSON: To this day I can sit down and I can mentally slow my heart down.
I’m Kari Swenson and I am a retired world class biathlete and I am a small animal veterinarian in Montana.
Where I grew up here is in a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains. It was an amazing place to grow up.
BONNIE FORD: Kari’s parents, Bob and Janet, wanted to raise their three children to be at home in the wilderness. They moved to Bozeman when Kari was 8 years old. It was a big town by Montana standards, but still had less than 20,000 people. The Swensons’ house was on a dirt road surrounded by open fields.
KARI SWENSON: My parents would get us out hiking, fishing, skiing, boating.
BONNIE FORD: Bob was a physics professor at Montana State University. He taught his kids how to fly-fish and how to spot constellations in the night sky. Janet was a nurse and an avid hiker who volunteered for ski patrol.
JANET SWENSON: When the kids were small they did everything that children should do. You know they ran, they biked, they fished.
BONNIE FORD: Being outdoors is still essential to Kari’s life.
KARI SWENSON: Yesterday I was out on a hike with the dogs in the rain in the mud and there was nobody else out there. Everywhere you look there’s mountains and you’re right underneath these snow capped peaks and there’s wildflowers carpeting the meadows and you just sit there in awe. It’s just awe-inspiring. The mountains, trails, rivers were never a dangerous place.
It was a place to enjoy to be free to have fun and share it with family and friends. I never felt ever that I was threatened out in the mountains when I was growing up. I still don’t feel threatened in the mountains but I’ve had to work on that.
BONNIE FORD: Kari started to cross-country ski as a teenager and eventually was drawn to biathlon.
PAM WEISS: My name is Pam Weiss and I was one of the original members of the women’s biathlon team from 1980-1988.
I first met Kari Swenson at the inaugural women’s biathlon training camp. She had these beautiful auburn red braids and she was just a fantastic skier, just kind of took your breath away when you watched her ski because she has such beautiful technique.
One of the important facts was that none of us seemed to have an ego. We were all interested in starting this sport that women had either been denied or not given much chance to participate in.
BONNIE FORD: Biathlon had been in the Olympics since the 1950s, but for men only. Marie Alkire, a champion markswoman, was the shooting coach.
MARIE ALKIRE: You needed to shoot in a rhythm in biathlon.
BONNIE FORD: Controlled breathing is key for accurate target shooting, but that’s not so easy when you’re in the middle of a race.
MARIE ALKIRE: You know your body knows it needs oxygen. But if you run out of air you can’t rush it. You can’t just take one breath and go, you’ve got to breath several times and then restart your rhythm.
BONNIE FORD: Coming to stillness on the range, inhaling and finding the right point in her exhale to pull the trigger — that was a challenge Kari loved.
In 1984, the team made its international debut at the first-ever women’s World Championships in Chamonix, France.
[Calgary Winter Olympics Archival]
KARI SWENSON: We had no idea what to expect as far as how many athletes, the caliber of athletes, what we were going to be up against.
BONNIE FORD: Kari finished a strong 5th in her individual event and was picked to race the middle leg of the 3-by-5 kilometer relay.
MARIE ALKIRE: That was the day we had weather, a winter storm was blowing. I mean it was in blowing like crazy and it would blow really hard and then it would let up.
BONNIE FORD: The Americans surprised everyone, taking the bronze medal by just three-tenths of a second. Kari and her teammates Julie Newnam and Holly Beattie had won the first medal of any U.S. biathlon team in history.
KARI SWENSON: We didn’t really know what it meant at the time. We were just kind of enjoying our success and we got to stand on a podium, you know in front of this amazing crowd of fans.
After the World Championships in ‘84 we all went on our separate ways.
BONNIE FORD: Kari had been the standout performer in Chamonix. She was about to turn 23 and needed to support herself in the offseason. So she took a summer job at Lone Mountain Ranch in the resort town of Big Sky, Montana.
She lived on the grounds, waited tables in the dining room and trained six days a week. In her spare time, she liked to visit the barns where another ranch worker, Alan Goldstein, tended to the horses.
KARI SWENSON: It was always amazing to watch him work with these huge animals. And so it was fun to watch him put shoes on those huge feet, I mean they’re the size of dinner plates.
And you could just tell he loved his work and he loved the horses, and he was gentle and that’s just the kind of person he was.
BONNIE FORD: Alan had recently remarried and moved to Montana from Michigan.
JAMI GOLDSTEIN: Our family owned a men’s retail clothing store for many years. That wasn’t the life that my dad decided he wanted to follow.
BONNIE FORD: His teenage daughter, Jami, had come to visit him the previous winter.
JAMI GOLDSTEIN: We rode on horse-drawn sleighs, we cross-country skied up the mountain to a buffet at the top of the mountain, and then skied back down. We played ping-pong and pool and hung out.
BONNIE FORD: Big Sky was an idyllic place surrounded by unspoiled mountains and lakes. It was a perfect setting for Kari’s intense training routine.
KARI SWENSON: Whenever I had time off I would go train; running hiking, roller skiing. I was very familiar with all of the trails in that area so I would just take off and go running by myself or with my brother.
BONNIE FORD: On the afternoon of July 15, 1984, Kari set out on a run.
KARI SWENSON: It was a normal day at Lone Mountain Ranch. I helped with breakfast and I got lunch ready. I had a quick lunch of my own and I had heard about a trail that I wanted to try to find up by Ulerys Lakes. So I drove by myself up and parked my car and took off running. It was a hot July day so I had shorts and a t-shirt on, running shoes. The sun was shining but I was running in the trees so it was beautiful dappled sunlight with one of my slower, just kind of “get out there” and just “put in the hours” kind of run. It was probably about halfway through my run and I came up around — over a little rise on the trail and in front of me were two men standing there.
I knew there was something different about them. And they had on dark clothes, they were you know camo clothes and they were dirty. It was like the instant I saw them I knew they were not good people. I don’t remember having the time to make a decision to turn around. My decision was to go by them. And when I tried to go by them one of them stepped in front of me and stopped me. So I decided to just ask them is this the trail that I’m on? Is this the trail I’m looking for? And they didn’t really answer me. I said okay thank you, and that’s when I tried to go by him. And that’s when he grabbed my wrists and wouldn’t let me go.
The old man told me that they wanted to take me into the mountains and keep me for a while to see if I liked living in the mountains with them. I started to scream. I tried to get away. And that’s when the old man hit me in the face and knocked me to the ground and then was lying on top of me. And at that point he had instructed the other man that was with him to get a rope. That’s when I started figuring out it was a father and son. They tied my wrists together and stood me up and they told me that they were going to take me into the mountains for a little while and that I will probably love being with them and that they’re hoping that I would stay with them in the mountains.
I thought they were gonna rape and kill me. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to take a woman into the mountains except to hurt them. My mind was going so many different places but it was all about how to get away from ‘em. The younger man had a hold of the rope with my wrists. And he was marching ahead and I was behind, and then the older man was behind me with his gun trained on me. And all along I kept telling them you know people are going to be looking for me I’m supposed to be back at the ranch to serve dinner and they said if anyone finds you we will kill them.
BONNIE FORD: The father and son decided to stop for the night in a small clearing. They wrapped a chain around Kari’s waist, looped it around a tree and padlocked it, pinning her back against the rough bark.
KARI SWENSON: The old man took off by himself, I think, to try hunt a squirrel. So I was left alone with the young man. He looked about my age or a little younger. He showed me drawings of naked women. I was in a very vulnerable place, where I was their captive, I was unsure of where we were, what was going to happen to me. So it made me more frightened of being sexually assaulted. The older man came back at that point and it was getting dark and I was just like where am I going to sleep for the night? And I said please don’t please don’t rape me, please don’t hurt me. And they’re like no, no we’re not gonna. We’re just going to keep you for a couple days till you decide you want to be with us.
BONNIE FORD: When Kari didn’t show up for her dinner shift at Lone Mountain Ranch, her brother and coworkers were worried. Her car was still where she had parked it at the Ulerys Lakes trailhead. Grizzly bears had been sighted in the area. Her family and friends moved quickly.
JANET SWENSON: Well we got the phone call that Kari was missing. So we called a number of friends and the people up at the ranch got together to start the search.
BONNIE FORD: A local pilot took Kari’s father, Bob, on an aerial search of the dense forest as light faded. Kari’s mother, Janet, packed first aid supplies. She and other volunteers tried to retrace Kari’s steps on the trail, continuing long after darkness fell. They didn’t know it at the time, but they came within less than a mile of where she lay captive.
KARI SWENSON: I could hear everybody searching for me. I could hear people yelling my name. I could hear motorcycles, vehicles. I heard a plane flying over and I kept telling them that these are people looking for me. And they kept saying well if anybody walks in here we’re gonna shoot ‘em.
BONNIE FORD: As the men slept, Kari lay awake, cold, still chained to the tree, unable to move, looking at the sky through pine branches almost close enough to brush against her face.
KARI SWENSON: It was a full moon that night. And so I watched it all night long.
BONNIE FORD: Around midnight, the searchers decided to stop and regroup at dawn. Janet spent a few sleepless hours at the ranch staring at the sky.
JANET SWENSON: And I just sat with this full moon and looked at the moon and just wished and wished and wished that she could hear me, that we would find her.
The next morning when we finally got everybody organized and everybody had radios and maps, we went out two-by-two. From the ranch I think we probably had 15 people maybe more than that and from town we had probably eight.
BONNIE FORD: Alan Goldstein, Kari’s friend from the horse barns at Lone Mountain Ranch, and another ranch worker, Jim Schwalbe, paired up and headed out together just before daylight.
KARI SWENSON: Just got lighter and lighter and the birds started to chirp, and squirrels started to squawk andthe bugs came alive again.
BONNIE FORD: And then Kari heard rustling, and voices. Alan and Jim had found the campsite. She tried to warn them off.
KARI SWENSON: I started yelling at him and telling them what was going on and to stay away because these guys were gonna shoot them. And I said please go away go away. They have guns they’re gonna shoot. I kept screaming and yelling and screaming and yelling and the old man told the young man to shut me up. So the young man had his pistol drawn and he walked over and stood right over me at point blank shot me in the chest. He stood right over me, looked at me and shot me. It was not an accident. His father had told him shut her up.
BONNIE FORD: Jim rushed to Kari’s side. As Alan yelled at Kari’s captors to surrender, the older man lifted his rifle and fired a single shot. Alan fell backwards, out of Kari’s sight and Jim ran to get help.
KARI SWENSON: So here’s one person shot and down, and me shot and these guys are just like well we gotta get out of here, we have to leave because the other searcher got away.
BONNIE FORD: Kari’s captors unchained her, dumped her out of the sleeping bag and fled, leaving her all alone. Her wound gurgled with every breath.
KARI SWENSON: All of a sudden, the gravity of my situation really kind of kicked in. I’m like oh my gosh I’ve been shot in the chest. And then that’s when it started to hurt. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move. Excruciating pain. Taking a breath, I really couldn’t breathe very deeply. That was the first time that I was really unsure that I would survive. I tried to move and just any little movement was excruciating and so I didn’t move much. I just slowed my breathing down so I took shallow breaths, but I was able to move air more slowly and I think I would, kind of like meditation, I would take air in my nose and then out my mouth and and tried to calm my breathing down as much as possible. If I fell asleep I might have died, so I stayed conscious as much as I could. And I don’t know how long it was before I finally heard a helicopter flying around above me. It was long.
REPORTER: Using helicopters the party finds Swenson 4 hours after being shot. Apparently kept alive by the years of training. A lesser physical specimen could not have survived.]
BONNIE FORD: The bullet had entered Kari’s chest just under the collarbone and exited below her shoulder blade, leaving her with a collapsed lung. The breathing techniques she’d learned in biathlon had kept her stable until rescuers arrived. She was airlifted out of the woods and transported to the nearest hospital, where her parents rushed to meet her.
JANET SWENSON: The ambulance pulled up with Kari; her hair was full of pine needles and sticks and her clothes were all full of sticks and stuff and I couldn’t figure out what was going on exactly at that point. I don’t think I was really thinking very well until they put the x-ray up on the the reader, and you could see that her lung was filling with blood.
BONNIE FORD: Kari’s teammate, Pam Weiss, was on her way from Wyoming to Big Sky to train with Kari. The Swensons left word at Lone Mountain Ranch for Pam to meet them in Bozeman.
PAM WEISS: I just got in my car and started the drive up which is in a river canyon a lot of the way. And I knew these guys hadn’t been caught yet, were still at large. And I have to say my imagination worked extremely over time as I was driving up. And it was dark out and I kept thinking that they were going to just jump out onto the road and somehow stop my car and abduct me too. I guess it was just such a — something that you never ever imagine would ever, could’ve happened.
And my next recollection is going to the hospital to see her in intensive care and lying there in this bed all hooked up to things and looking extremely wan and but still smiling. And I noticed little things like her hands were still quite grubby and dirty and I remember thinking wow they didn’t even wash her hands up you know. It just made me think about the fact that she had been abducted and tied up and that she had been groveling around and her you know her fingers just show it all in the creases, the dirt around her fingernails. We didn’t visit very long and I walked out and immediately ran for the nearest bathroom and just threw up.
TOM BROKAW: A 23 year old American athlete is in stable condition tonight after a bizarre ordeal and there’s a big manhunt on. She was kidnapped by two mountain men on Sunday, chained to a tree and shot. A man trying to rescue her was killed.]
BONNIE FORD: Alan Goldstein was found dead at the scene with a gunshot wound to the face. He was 36. He left his wife Diane, his daughter Jami, and two younger brothers.
KARI SWENSON: I mean it would have been horrible anybody dying, but a friend. That was really horrible.
BONNIE FORD: In the summer of 1984 Jami was living in Columbus, Ohio with her mother, Alan’s first wife.
JAMI GOLDSTEIN: It was my 15th birthday. We had gone to Top of the Nation which was a restaurant at the top of Nationwide Plaza buildings here in Columbus. I’d had a virgin strawberry daiquiri, felt so grown up. And we came home and I was on the phone with a girlfriend and I was bitching because I was like it’s my birthday and again my dad didn’t send me a birthday card. And I remember it as like almost literally like call waiting, right, clicks through. Can I speak to Mary Lou Siegel? Fine so I go down and get my mom and I get off the phone, and like 20 minutes passes and I’m doing my thing as a teenager, writing in my journal or something. And my mom coming upstairs and she says Jami you have to come downstairs and talk to us and I’m thinking what did I do now? And so I went downstairs and my mom was like I want you to sit down and that’s when she told me, she said your father was killed today in Montana. I felt this enormous immediate sense of guilt that I was just ragging on my dad for not sending me a birthday card, and he’s dead. My sense of guilt only deepened when two days later I did get a birthday card from my dad.
BONNIE FORD: As Alan’s loved ones wrestled with grief, the father and son responsible for the kidnapping and murder had vanished into the wilderness. Lawmen combing the area found a message carved into a tree: “Don and Dan Nichols live in these mountains.’’
REPORTER: Authorities say they won’t even hazard to guess how long this search might take…]
BOYD MATSON: … what changed the Nichols from men who wanted to live off the land to men who were forced to live on the run?]
REPORTER: … Don Nichols, the father is known to be a man who can walk long distances. He has bragged about walking from Wyoming to Canada.]
BONNIE FORD: The Nichols, known in the area as loners who spent long periods of time in the woods, were instantly dubbed the “mountain men.’’ As they eluded the intense manhunt, speculation about their lifestyle ballooned.
BOYD MATSON: The longer it takes to find the Nichols, the greater the controversy about the case. Some people now view them as mythical mountain men, men trapped in the wrong century.]
BONNIE FORD: Kari came home after 8 days in the hospital. She slept in a recliner in the Swensons’ living room, with Janet hovering watchfully nearby.
KARI SWENSON: I think that the trauma, the mental trauma, I think was very much forefront in that part of my recovery where I don’t think I slept much and if I did I had lots of nightmares.
BONNIE FORD: Kari was driven by the idea of rejoining the biathlon team.
KARI SWENSON: I mean I did have a plan I had a goal. As an athlete my goal was to get back to competing.
BONNIE FORD: That seemed very far away at first, as she struggled to do basic things.
KARI SWENSON: Getting out of bed and going to the bathroom by myself was the first step.
JANET SWENSON: The first walks we did were just up and down the driveway or around the house.
BONNIE FORD: Kari needed quiet and space to heal. Later that summer, Janet decided to take her to their family cabin in the Gallatin Canyon, where they could hike familiar trails.
JANET SWENSON: She would say well I think I better walk a little bit further today. So we would pick a place to go and she would walk as far as she could. And then she’d push it just enough until she’d start to sweat and start to hurt. So we’d go back. And then she finally decided one day she was going to try and run, and she ran very slowly, it was a jog for about a mile. And she was so excited we were jumping up and down yelling and screaming. I said well how did that feel, and she said oh it really, really hurts. And I said well should you be doing this? She said mom if I don’t push, if I just sit back and don’t do anything I’ll never get better.
BONNIE FORD: By the fall of 1984, Kari had built up enough strength to go to biathlon training camps. It still hurt to run. It still hurt to ski. She was afraid to be alone. But she kept pushing her limits.
REPORTER: One year ago, Kari Swenson was the best female biathlete in the history of the United States. Then she was kidnapped. The good news is she has returned to competition.]
PAM WEISS: We were all impressed with how fast Kari had had gotten back to being in really good physical shape. That, I believe, had been her best way of recovering both mentally and physically.
REPORTER: Is there always pain when you’re doing something athletic?
KARI SWENSON: I have pain constantly, no matter what I’m doing. It’s, it’s always there. I may have pain the rest of my life, yes.
REPORTER: Kari was determined to compete but she didn’t hold out much hope for winning anything. However, when the results were in from this year’s National Biathlon Championships, Kari Swenson had finished 3rd overall and 1st in the 5-kilometer competition.]
KARI SWENSON: I missed the camaraderie and I wasn’t gonna just sit around and not do anything. I— just part of me was, I wasn’t going to let this define who I was.
BONNIE FORD: As Kari started to reclaim her identity as an athlete, the two men who had so violently altered her life were flushed from the woods in December, after five months on the run.
REPORTER: The Nichols were found at a campsite less than two miles from the highway that stretches between Norris and Bozeman.]
BOB ANEZ: My name is Bob Anez. I was a reporter for The Associated Press in Helena.
BONNIE FORD: Bob Anez had been covering this story from the moment Kari was kidnapped. He was struck by the growing media fixation on molding the story into some kind of Western saga rather than treating it as a brutal crime. The way the Nichols were captured only added to the hype.
REPORTER: Madison County Sheriff John France, tipped off by an area rancher, ventured into the Bear Trap Canyon on snowmobile yesterday afternoon, alone.]
BOB ANEZ: Climbed on his snowmobile went up there without any backup or anything initially The snowmobile was probably a metaphor for a horse, where you have the sheriff riding into the gangs’ camp and taking them without a shot.
JOHN FRANCE: I raised my rifle right about here. I yelled at him not to do anything foolish. I said please don’t make me kill you.]
BOB ANEZ: In the middle of the night I’d get calls because of the time difference from news outlets in Europe and they would want to do over the telephone interviews with me. And what I gleaned from it was they had this fascination with the Wild West still. And the concept of mountain men abducting somebody to make her the bride of one of them and to live with them in the mountains was so exotic, so outlandish that it played into that concept of the Wild West. And when I would do these interviews in the middle of the night that’s when it dawned on me that this had repercussions that went far beyond Montana and far beyond the United States. And that’s where, that’s where it really morphed into something more than I was expecting.
REPORTER: Though authorities have often portrayed Nichols and his son as dangerous and violent, those who know the pair say they’re not monsters, not cold blooded killers…
MONTANA NATIVE: His mind is not a criminal mind, that’s for sure.]
CARO VAN VALKENBURG: The media’s always interested in what kind of people would do this? What is their background? So there was, I think there were a lot of stories about them because there were a lot of people eager to tell their story. My name is Carol Van Valkenburg, I’m a Professor Emerita at the University of Montana School of Journalism.
BONNIE FORD: Carol grew up in Montana, and followed Kari’s story. She remembers the coverage slanting heavily toward the Nichols, but understands why the Swensons were cautious about trying to respond.
CAROL VAN VALKENBURG: I’m sure that they probably were not that interested in talking to the media. I think you know in that circumstance what do you have to defend? You know, I think you want to probably distance yourself from having to discuss what a traumatic thing that was both for Kari and for her family.
BONNIE FORD: The trials for the Nichols were set for May and July of 1985 in Virginia City, a preserved frontier town that looked like something out of a Western movie. As Kari prepared to confront the Nichols, the fable of the mountain men continued to dominate. Kari had become a bit player in her own very real drama.
BRYAN GUMBLE: One of this year’s strangest news stories came from Montana. It involves kidnapping and murder and one of this country’s most enduring legends – that of the mountain men.]
REPORTER: It began like a fairy tale. A beautiful girl on a sunset run in the Spanish Peaks. But waiting in the woods for Kari Swanson were two men: a father and a young lonely son.]
BONNIE FORD: Marc Racicot, the lead prosecutor on Kari’s case, tried to defuse the media mythologizing during the trial. He argued that it painted a falsely rosy picture of the Nichols and their motives. Yet Racicot, who later served as governor of Montana, said the label persists to this day.
MARC RACICOT: There’s a romantic notion, I think that they were rugged, that they were survivors. These two guys were anything other than mountain men. They were thieves and brigands. And they were feral men who stole what they wanted, they took what they wanted.
CAROL VAN VALKENBURG: Yes they lived in the mountains, but you could probably think of other things to call them that were certainly not flattering.
MARC RACICOT: On one day we had a busload of people unload out front. And they came into the court house and they thought that this was a dramatic presentation that was taking place.
BONNIE FORD: But the stage was deadly serious for Kari, who told her story publicly for the first time from the witness box, mere feet away from the Nichols. They were clean-shaven and neatly dressed and looked nothing like they had when they forced her off the trail.
MARC RACICOT: This wasn’t some fairytale. It wasn’t going to all turn out all right. It didn’t all turn out all right. So you know Matt Dillon wasn’t going to come in on his, on his steady reliable steed and you know ask Miss Kitty what he needed to do and get it done. And then the show ends.
BONNIE FORD: Dan Nichols was sentenced to 20 years and six months in prison for kidnapping and assault. Don Nichols received an 85-year sentence for the murder of Alan Goldstein, and Kari’s kidnapping and assault. But media fascination with the father and son didn’t end with the verdicts.
BARBARA WALTERS: This bizarre tale begins with two Montana mountain men, a father and a son who had become loners. Bob Brown relives the story with the mountain men, Don and Dan Nichols. And their reason at first sounds almost romantic.
DAN NICHOLS: I agree just a basic idea behind the time, you know. Get a girl and keep her long enough to get her used to ya.
DON NICHOLS: I met girls like that that are up there looking, trying to even live in the mountain by themselves. And I said, and I thought that’s what Kari was.
BOB BROWN: People have trouble seeing what you did as anything other than a little crazy the approach –
DON NICHOLS: You think this is crazy to restrain a girl?]
CAROL VAN VALKENBURG: I think there is a real curiosity about who would be these kind of people who would do this kind of thing. What brought them to that point? And I do think that is something that journalists really had a responsibility to try to cover. But how they covered that I think is another matter.
BONNIE FORD: The families felt the tone of the coverage overshadowed their suffering and loss, and diminished Kari and Alan.
JAMI GOLDSTEIN: I think for a long time I had had an innate sense of dissatisfaction with how my dad’s story had been told.
He was relegated to two or three lines in pretty much everything. I mean outside of how my father’s death was covered, the fact that pretty much all of the media attention focused on Don and Dan Nichols, and very little on Kari. It’s super important to me that people know that he was a good man and he had a daughter who loved him and he had a wife who loved him — two, that’s okay. My dad was a hero. My dad was that kind of guy, right. He would stand up and do pretty much anything for anyone.
He did the best thing and the right thing. He just didn’t come out on the winning side of it. But I’m glad she did.
BONNIE FORD: Kari channeled her energy into training and competing for the next couple of seasons. In February 1986, she raced at the Holmenkollen Skifestival in Oslo.
KARI SWENSON: It is an amazing spectacle, a biathlon race, there because the King, Queen of Norway show up and thousands and thousands of people filled this stadium. And the crowd is amazing and they support any athlete.
BROADCASTER: Number 14, Kari Swenson, from USA, she did pretty good now just now outside the picture (out of frame) just now, didn’t she? Heia Norge! (Go Norway!)]
KARI SWENSON: I was having an amazing race that day and all of a sudden I heard this name and crowd chanting Swenson. I’m like that’s me! They’re cheering me! Oh my gosh. It was kind of overwhelming.
BONNIE FORD: Kari finished fourth. To an outsider, it might seem as if she had made a full comeback. But she felt differently. Her injuries had robbed her of the edge she needed to be exceptional. She knew this would probably be her last race and she savored the moment.
KARI SWENSON: During the medal ceremony in Norway, the athlete who finished right above me pulled me up onto her podium with her so that we could share it together. To be able to have come from where I was to — I mean that was the best probably the best race of my life.
I retired from biathlon in the spring of 1986. At that time in my life I really needed space. I needed time away.
BONNIE FORD: Kari moved to Colorado to attend vet school. One passion would replace another. She might have tried to stick it out if women’s biathlon had been in the Olympics, but that wouldn’t happen for another six years. By that time, she and most of her contemporaries had moved on.
KARI SWENSON: The sun is coming up. The birds are tweeting. It’s a beautiful day. I went for a lovely run yesterday with my dog Rudy and as I was running along enjoying the beautiful air, the smells of spring and listening to the birds, I was just amazed at how strong my body is. I was able to run without any pain and just enjoy the moment.
BONNIE FORD: She’s grateful for those days, but there are others where her past is more present. She often has trouble sleeping. Shrapnel left by the gunshot wound shows up every year when she has her mammogram. And scar tissue still inflames the nerves on her right side.
KARI SWENSON: It’s especially bad when I’m exerting myself, which is a problem because I’m always exerting myself. I feel it at least once a week.
BONNIE FORD: There are more subtle reminders, too. When Kari goes hiking, she counts the cars at the trailhead.
KARI SWENSON: I know how many people I’ve met on the trail. I look for shoe prints in the mud. So I know, is there anybody ahead of me still after all these people I’ve seen come back? Is there still tracks going in the same direction that I am?
BONNIE FORD: The sound of a helicopter still elicits fear and takes her back to the day when she was rescued. She feels a powerful urge to flee when someone even playfully grabs her wrist. And it’s only recently that she’s embraced the sight of the full moon, which illuminated the worst night of her life.
KARI SWENSON: Full moons are beautiful, they’re gorgeous. And so just about 3 weeks ago I was sitting out in the hot tub and it was a beautiful clear night, full moon. The last full moon we had. And my dad passed away about 3 years ago. So I was sitting in the hot tub looking at this moon and I was like you know what, Dad, moons are okay.
BONNIE FORD: As a long-term survivor of trauma, Kari understands that it’s something to be managed, not erased.
KARI SWENSON: Really, I go through most of my life not even thinking about it. For me moving on it was a combination of things. It’s not just time, it’s time but it’s also a lot of work. A lot of work with counselors. A lot of meditation. Medication has helped me and it still does, with sleep and with depression and who knows I may have had that problem even without this incident I don’t know.
BONNIE FORD: At 58, Kari still has an athlete’s drive to keep moving every day.
[KARI SWENSON: Im out for an early morning walk. Woo! It’s a nice chilly morning.]
BONNIE FORD: She still thinks of her daily outings as training sessions. She does everything at a high cadence.
[KARI SWENSON: It’s another glorious day in the mountains of Montana.
I was just… Oh! Here’s a patch of huckleberries.
I’m out hiking, sweating, breathing hard.
My goodness, beautiful beautiful trillium, glacier lilies.]
BONNIE FORD: She spends her winters skiing, and her summers hiking and camping on horseback with girlfriends.
[KARI SWENSON: Glorious day to be out.]
BONNIE FORD: She’s taken up ballroom dancing, and she’s active with a local biathlon club.
[KARI SWENSON: Ok I have to stop. There’s some beautiful pink trillium, I have to take a picture. Let’s see if I can get a beautiful picture
Glorious, glorious, glorious.]
BONNIE FORD: Every once in a while, someone she’s just met will ask her if she’s that Kari Swenson. She doesn’t hesitate any more. She says yes.