A Made-for-Television Movie Brings Biathlete Kari Swenson Face-to-Face with Her Past
The pain hits Kari Swenson unexpectedly and with it come the memories. Memories of a snow-covered mountain and bitter cold. Memories of a malevolent full moon shining down into her face, and scruffy-looking men with long, greasy hair tormenting her. There is the sudden, final sound of gunshots. And then there is a searing sensation, deep and breathtaking. These are the images that haunt Kari Swenson even now, two and a half years after the nightmare that almost destroyed her life.
Swenson's physical recovery, depicted this week in NBC's The Abduction of Kari Swenson, was amazingly swift, while her recovery from the inner scars is not yet complete. Now 25, Kari has an attack dog, and she is sufficiently afraid of another incident that she won't reveal what state she lives in. And men who remind her of Don and Dan Nichols give her the creeps.
Life was full of promise for Swenson in the summer of 1984. A versatile athlete, the Bozeman, Mont, native had become proficient in the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and marksmanship. That winter she had placed fifth in the first women's world biathlon championships in France, the best finish by an American. A recent graduate of Montana State University, she intended to study veterinary medicine in the fall.
Then came the morning of July 15. Swenson was out for a run, when the father-son team of Don and Dan Nichols abducted her at gunpoint. The two kept her for 18 hours, most of the time chained to a felled tree, because they wanted her to be young Dan Nichols' bride. When Alan Goldstein, a friend of Kari's, stumbled into the clearing where she was being held, Don shot him dead. A .22-caliber bullet from Dan Nichols' rifle pierced one of Swenson's lungs. After the shooting, the Nicholses vanished into the frozen mountains, leaving Kari alone with the body of her friend.
Swenson was found by a rescue party four hours later. After an eight-day hospital stay, she went home to build herself back up, first to simple health, then to fitness, and finally to her old place on the United States biathlon team. "I started doing real short walks, like to the bathroom and back," she says. "We progressed to the end of the driveway—we have a quarter-mile driveway. Then we progressed to a mile, two miles." From there, she started light training, and just six months after her ordeal—with about 80 percent lung capacity—she went to the World Cup trials in Canada and placed third.
The psychic scars have been harder to deal with. "I started seeing a psychologist just as soon as I could get out of the house and go to the hospital," Swenson recalls. "I couldn't sleep. I was having nightmares. My life was just a mess. So I started seeing the psychologist and things started going a little better, but even now I'm having problems. I still have a lot of trouble going places by myself—doing anything by myself. I get really paranoid."
Her 18 hours of hell still etched in her mind, Swenson paid a visit to Purgatory—Purgatory, Colo., that is—last November. Now a veterinary student in a Western state, Swenson was serving as an adviser on the set of this week's TV movie. She was there to double for Tracy Pollan (late of Family Ties) in the skiing sequences, and she also wanted to make sure, as best she could, that the movie told the truth about her ordeal. Perhaps, too, she was drawn by the potential catharsis of having her nightmare reenacted.
The filming brought back Swenson's anger, both at her low-life kidnappers and at the people who glamorized them as "mountain men," throwbacks to the mythic days of the Old West. Swenson is angry, too, at the people who find a way to blame her for being kidnapped and terrorized. "People say, 'You shouldn't have been out there by yourself; you shouldn't have been wearing shorts.' " She rolls her eyes. "It was the middle of summer."
Swenson also struggles with her feelings over Alan Goldstein's death. "Bringing Alan's death back again has been really hard for me," she says. "I feel guilty for what happened to him. It's just that 'What if?' game—if I hadn't been running that day...if I had run someplace else."
One shouldn't get the impression that Swenson is consumed by melancholy, however. She was easygoing and good-humored in Purgatory. She and Pollan became fast friends and could often be seen giggling over some shared joke. Her biggest concern wasn't exorcising her demons but rather an impending veterinary exam, for which she brought along a dog's skull to study. "I'm gonna bomb this test," she moaned, in a lament familiar to all students.
For now, Swenson is doing her best to put the horror behind her. Don and Dan Nichols, captured after a five-month manhunt, are in prison in Montana. Kari is looking forward to getting her veterinary degree in 1990. She hopes to specialize in the care of horses. "I've started to live each day to its fullest," she says, "and tried to get as much out of life as I can, because you never know what's going to happen to you."
Then, wistfully, she says, "I still just want to be little old Kari Swenson from Bozeman, Montana." She may be, someday, but not yet, not until the memories have faded and the full moon stops reminding her of wild men on a mountainside.
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