Canada

The Death of Promise

Brenda Branswell July 17 2000
Canada

The Death of Promise

Brenda Branswell July 17 2000

The Death of Promise

Canada

Family, friends and fellow competitors mourn a young biathlete killed by a bear

Brenda Branswell

Mary Beth Miller lived much of her short life outdoors in a whirl of athletic activity. When she wasn’t training in her sport, the 24-year-old high-level biathlete might be found paddling a canoe or cruising on a mountain bike. Growing up in Yellowknife, Miller loved the outdoors. She was also aware of its perils. In 1996, Miller worked as a wildlife technician on an environmental impact study on the Barren Lands 200 km northeast of Yellowknife. She took part in surveys of several species, including caribou and grizzly bears.

The subject of bears resurfaced last month when Miller arrived at the biathlon training centre near Quebec City and learned of a recent black bear sighting. Last week, as Miller jogged alone on a popular running trail, a bear charged her from the side. She broke free, but stumbled and was fatally mauled. “She knew and understood and respected bears,” close friend Kristine Saugen said. “She respected nature and spent a lot of time in it. And I think that’s what makes this even harder.”

Miller’s death stunned Canada’s close-knit biathlon community. Ranked fifth nationally, Miller went to Valcartier, Que., for a summer training session, her sights set on making the national women’s team. Canadian Forces Base Valcartier is home to one of two national training sites for the sport. (The other is in Canmore, ^

Alta.) Named after Canada’s most celebrated biathlete, J the Myriam Bédard Biathlon Centre has 40 km of I trails winding through the Laurentian Mountains. J

Miller was a latecomer to the sport. Born in Kitch| ener, Ont., she moved with her family to Yellowknife z at age six. The third of four children, she competed in Miller training in 1998 in Yellowknife: a respect for nature cross-country skiing and speed skating as a teenager. At 18, she switched to biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and shooting. Miller attended Augustana University College in Camrose, Alta., graduating last year with a bachelor of science degree in biology and physical education.

Craig Ferguson, her university biathlon coach, says Miller was uncertain of her future in the sport. But he believes she was spurred on by a bronze-medal performance at the 1999 North American biathlon championship in Canmore. The

success helped earn Miller the Northwest Territories female athlete of 1999 honour.

Friends and former coaches paint a picture of an unfailingly upbeat, charismatic young woman. At her father’s memorial service several years ago, it was Miller who stayed strong, comforting people. “We want everyone to know what a loving, outgoing, extraordinary woman Mary Beth was,” her family said in a statement. N.W.T. biathlon coach Doug Swallow says that

while Miller was a fierce competitor on the trails, she also believed in fair play. “At one national competition we had worked all morning to find the perfect wax,” recalled Swallow. It remained a secret, he said, until he heard Miller tell an athlete from another provincial team,“ ‘We used this wax. What did you use?’ ” Added Swallow: “She wanted everyone to have the same opportunity to win.” Sylvie Boudreault, 23, a senior member of Canada’s national biathlon team, also has fond memories. Despite the tense atmosphere at team selection events, Boudreault said Miller would “come talk to me, wish me good luck and ask how I was doing. She was nice to everyone.” The two women spoke recently in Valcartier where Boudreault trains. One topic they discussed was bears. “She told me that she always ran with her dog at home precisely because of the bears,” said Boudreault, who added Miller was careful at Valcartier not to venture out far on the paths. On that fateful morning, Miller went alone even though athletes are advised to pair up. But people involved in the sport say finding a training partner is difficult. Miller’s body was found about one kilometre from the biathlon shooting range on a wide path, which parallels a road and is used by scores of soldiers for morning runs. “I would never have believed that there would be a danger on the trail where she was so close to the road,” says Boudreault. Four days later, wildlife officials euthanized the second of two bears caught in the area (the first was let go). Police say they are 90-per-cent certain it was the one that killed Miller.

Athletes and coaches hastened to dispel notions that their sport is particularly risky. Bedard, who won two gold medals in biathlon at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, says she often saw bear tracks on the Valcartier trails but never actually saw one of the animals. Bédard told Macleans most downhill skiers or mountain bikers will encounter animals at some point. “Everyone who goes close to a forest may find a bear,” she said. “It’s not because we’re doing biathlon that it’s dangerous.” Following a memorial service for Miller at the Yellowknife Ski Club, family and friends planned to scatter her ashes this week along the nearby trails where she often skied. The loss of Miller, who had a knack for making others feel good, leaves a painful void. “She was like the backbone,” said Saugen in a shaky voice. “She was always the one who picked us all up.” ES]