By Alex Tresniowski
November 26, 2001 12:00 PM

They are close, very close, to living the dream they have shared for years. Thousands of hours of sweat and sacrifice have put Curt Schreiner and Deborah Nordyke, husband and wife biathletes, on the brink of making the U.S. Olympic team together. Nothing, it seems, can stop them now—unless America picks them to serve instead of ski. Both reservists in the National Guard, Schreiner and Nordyke could be summoned to active duty at any time and thus miss the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City this February. “If we’re called up, we’re ready,” says Nordyke, 39. “Both of us realize there are other things far more important than the Olympics. This is one of them.”

Barring a call-up, which for now seems unlikely, Schreiner, 34, and Nordyke look like locks to make the eight-person U.S. team that will compete in the biathlon, the sport in which competitors cross-country ski with rifles on their backs, stop to shoot at targets and get judged on their speed and accuracy. Their chances of cracking the squad “are great,” says Jerry Kokesh, a director for the U.S. Biathlon Association. “This is no casual Sunday sport. It requires a great deal of endurance and concentration. Curt and Deb both have that.”

This despite two other omnipresent, albeit endearing, obstacles: sons Erik, 7 months old, and Jon, almost 2. Sure, plenty of Olympic hopefuls have young children, but most also have supportive spouses to tend to the baby at night. Not Nordyke and Schreiner, who wedge rigorous training sessions into days already full with household chores, diaper changes and trips to the daycare center. “I often wonder how they do it with two kids,” says Kristina Sabasteanski, a friend and fellow biathlete. “But Debbie and Curt are made for each other. They work well together.”

Certainly they are united by a passion for a sport considered one of the toughest in the world. The second of four daughters born in Anchorage to Frank Nordyke, an Air Force load master, and Charlotte, a homemaker, Debbie was 6 when her father died in a car crash. “I could have been a wayward child after that,” she says. “Sports gave me focus and goals.” She joined the Air Force National Guard in 1985 to help pay her University of Anchorage tuition and joined the biathlon team at the urging of some fellow Guardsmen. “I didn’t know how to shoot well at first, but I picked it up,” she recalls. “And I got hooked.”

It was at a biathlon training camp in 1997 that Nordyke met Schreiner, the younger of two sons born to Jim and Betty Schreiner, both instructors for the blind. Only 5 when he first strapped on skis, he discovered biathlons after his father took him to the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Schreiner trained on a makeshift course his father set up on their 175-acre spread in Day, N.Y.

After one semester at New York’s Skidmore College, Schreiner dropped out and signed up with the Army National Guard in 1986. Through the Army’s World Class Athlete program, he earned a salary while training for the Olympics and made the U.S. teams in 1988, 1992 and 1994, finishing out of medal contention each time. At the biathlon camp he met Nordyke when she asked for help fixing her rifle. “I really admired that she could outhike me,” he says. “She’s tough as nails, and I love that.”

They were married in Anchorage in 1998, the year Nordyke competed in her first Olympics, in Nagano, Japan. Her husband failed to make the men’s team, but “he cheered me on,” says Nordyke, who finished well back of the dominant Norwegian and Russian biathletes. To prepare for Salt Lake City, they rented an apartment in Heber City, Utah, and enrolled the boys in daycare part-time so they can train together. (Schreiner still draws a salary from the Army’s Athlete program.) “They are very organized,” says Schreiner’s father, Jim. “They learned the secret to holding it all together: being a family.”

Whatever happens in the Olympics, Schreiner and Nordyke say they will most likely retire from competitive biathlons next year. Both hope to become schoolteachers once they return to their two-story log house on his father’s property in Upstate New York. And if they are called up for active duty, there will be no regrets. “The Olympics will be the last thing on our minds,” says Schreiner. “We’re soldiers first.”

Alex Tresniowski

Cathy Free in Heber City