Michigan Tech alumna Deedra Irwin carved her own tracks to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, where her seventh-place finish in biathlon was the best ever by an American.
In 2008, 16-year-old Deedra Irwin caught a glimpse of her future. As she watched athletes compete at the summer games in Beijing, Irwin began to dream of being an Olympian.
"I wanted to be a track and field star," Irwin says. "I wanted to run."
A competitive runner since fifth grade, the Wisconsin native took up cross-country skiing as a high school sophomore as a way to stay in shape during the snowy offseason. Two of her running teammates— one of whom was future Tech grad Melanie Hoffman '14—talked her into giving it a try.
"No other sports were keeping me in the right condition during the winter, and I never had the endurance I needed when spring came around," she says. "I didn't like running indoors or on treadmills, either."
What was skiing like that first time? "Oh, it was so hard," Irwin says. "It was terrible. I thought I'd put on skis and go for a run. Nope."
The first skier in her family—"Very atypical of an Olympic skier," she says with a laugh—Irwin began the sport with zero gear. "I would show up to practice wearing sweatpants that would collect snow and water as I skied. I wore knit mittens with flaps."
She spent the first months tallying and then reporting to her parents the number of times she fell during practice or a competition. Irwin's teammates and coaches gave her the nickname Powdered Donut because she spent more time in the snowbank than on the snow trails.
"My mom has a funny story about me coming home one night from practice and saying, 'I'm just going to do my homework and go to bed. I'm tired,'" says Irwin. "That was a phrase she had never heard come out of my mouth before. Other sports never really tired me out until Nordic skiing, so my mom was like, 'You're going to stick with this.'"
"I didn't even know skiing was a competitive sport. I thought it was a hobby."
Within a year, Irwin was placing at the Wisconsin high school state championships.
Her senior year, Irwin qualified for the junior national championships, where she met MTU Nordic skiers, including Lynn Duijndam '13. Between conversations with them and Hoffman, who had committed to Tech for Nordic skiing, Irwin decided to join them and become a Husky, too.
At the same time, her Olympic track and field dreams were slipping away due to past running injuries. "I wasn't ready to walk away from competition and I wasn't ready to give up on my running career," she says. "The biggest draw to Michigan Tech for me was being able to be a three-sport athlete—cross-country running, track and field, and Nordic skiing. I was able to keep improving my skiing while I also got to be a competitive runner."
Irwin's greatest challenge at Tech was travel. "I was traveling so much throughout the academic year," she says. "My instructors were incredibly understanding. They let me turn in assignments early and take tests early. They worked with me to ensure I was earning credit for participation.
"My last semester, I sat down with a calendar and counted everything up, and I had been in Houghton for only 30 days that semester. That was the year I qualified for the U23 world ski championships in Kazakhstan and the NCAA championships. And after the Nordic ski season ended, I was doing track and field, and the events lasted entire weekends."
When she graduated in 2015 with a BS in Exercise Science and a 3.81 GPA, Irwin held five school records. "They've all been beaten since," she says with a laugh, "but it was great to break a barrier and then so quickly see that barrier broken again."
After college, Irwin moved to Idaho to continue training as a Nordic skier with the goal of competing in the Olympics. She took a job at a garden center that allowed her the flexibility to train. Within a couple years, though, she was considering retirement.
"I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue skiing," she says. "I wasn't sure I would make the Olympic team, so I decided to give myself one more year."
That's when teammate Joanne Reid encouraged Irwin to attend a biathlon talent identification camp. Irwin went. By the end of the week, she was hooked. "There was something about it. It was so different."
Modern biathlon combines two sports: cross-country skiing and shooting. Racers stop at periodic intervals to take aim at targets with a .22-caliber rifle. Missed targets cost time and sometimes require racers to ski a penalty lap. Talent ID camps like the one Irwin attended teach promising Nordic skiers how to shoot.
In 2017, Irwin began training full-time as a biathlete and joined the Vermont National Guard, which funds the biathlon program. Less than five years later, she qualified for the US Olympic team.
"Just the year before, it had finally hit me that I could make the team—2020-21 was my first World Cup season. So, going into 2021-22, my goal was to hit each target to make the Olympic team."
Having made the team, Irwin's only other goal was to do well in the women's relay event, in which she and three teammates each skied a six-kilometer leg of the race. "I had other people relying on me. I needed to show up for my team on that day. The rest of the Olympics was just a bonus."
That outlook made all the difference in the women's 15-kilometer individual biathlon event. "I had my guard down so much for the first race," she says. "I was fighting back tears the hour before because I remembered watching the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and that's where my Olympic dreams started."
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, none of Irwin's family or friends were present for the biggest race of her life. "My family threw a watch party," says Irwin, who is the only daughter and middle child of three, with older and younger brothers. "My parents woke up at 3 a.m. for each race, every race day."
"I had watched the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and dreamed of being a summer Olympian. Now here I am, 14 years later, showing up in the same venue as a winter Olympian."
"I didn't do anything special on that day," Irwin says. "I went through the start line and told myself, 'Do the thing you've been training to do.'"
Irwin finished seventh, the highest Olympic finish for any American in biathlon–ever.
Irwin says her life hasn't changed much post- Beijing. At the time she was interviewed for this article, she was in Europe competing in 2022-23's international racing season, known as the International Biathlon Union World Cup. "It's the first season I've been competing where there are no major COVID restrictions," she says. "There will be fans in the stands this season and my parents are coming over to watch. It will be their first time ever seeing me race outside the United States."
More About Deedra
Favorite place to ski in the UP: Swedetown.
Favorite music: I call it chill pop— Taylor Swift, etc. If I need to crank it up, I'll play some Lizzo.
Favorite MTU memory: One day we got a snow day, but then it stopped snowing and we got a beautiful clear day. I ended up skiing all day. We never got snow days at MTU!
Favorite country or place traveled to thus far: The Tirol region on the border between Austria and Italy. It's beautiful.
Pasty or pannukakku: Pasty.
Hobby during ski season: I like to knit. It keeps my mind and fingers occupied while I'm resting between racing and training.
Stateside, she has more opportunity for outreach. "Clubs have asked me to come and speak, and it's cool to use that platform," she says. "I met with a club program in Alaska recently and asked them how long they'd been shooting. The teenagers said they'd been shooting for six, seven years. I told them I'd been shooting for only four years, and it blew their minds that they had more experience than me. It shows them what's possible."
She also has commitments to the Vermont National Guard. As an E-5 sergeant, Irwin is expected to reflect military values in her day-to-day life while representing the sport of biathlon. She works as a human resources specialist—a 42 Alpha, in military speak—and works mostly with records. "I show up to drill as much as possible," she says.
When asked about her professional aspirations and goals, Irwin says her main focus is the 2026 Olympics. After that, she's likely to stay in the National Guard as a full-time employee, instructor, or coach.
"It would be great to possibly move up and coach the National Guard biathlon team. I was a coaching minor at Michigan Tech," she says. "Regardless, I want to stay involved in biathlon. There's a big gap in the United States between the number of male versus female coaches. I want to bring my experience and unique story to the coaching scene."
But for now, she's taking it one race at a time.
"I'm very lucky to have had my best result so far while competing at the Olympics," she says. "And because of that result, I gained a lot of confidence in myself and my abilities. I trust the process more, because it worked. Now I just do the work."
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.