Thursday, Feb. 11
Laura Spector's path to the Vancouver Olympics was paved with plaques and simple signs.

Deep inside Kennedy Park in Lenox, the hiking routes converge on Pat Weaver Olympic Trail.

There are plain wooden blue signs with white lettering, letting hikers know they're walking on ground dedicated to Weaver, one of Lenox's native sons. There also is a plaque commemorating his accomplishments: two national titles in cross-country skiing and Olympic appearances in 1998 and 2002.

It is here that Spector, when she returns home, prefers to perform her biathlon workouts. It is here, deep in the woods in Kennedy Park, that Spector allows herself to dream.

"It was always a huge inspiration," Spector said of the plaque honoring Weaver. "I'd always look for it." Spector, 22, worked her way along an improbable path, going from an eighth grade bookworm with little interest in sports to a state champion in high school, a junior national champion, and, finally, an Olympian.

Despite her success, she rarely spoke of the Olympics, always focusing on improving and the next step. But each time she passed the plaque bearing Weaver's name, often on 250- minute training runs, she allowed herself to think briefly about what the ultimate accomplishment would be like.

Weaver was born just down the street from the Spectors' home on Hubbard Street in Lenox, the first Lenox grad to make the Olympics and, before this year, the most recent Olympian from Berkshire County.

Even now, when the majority of Spector's time is based at an Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., or at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Kennedy Park calls to her when she comes home.

"That's where she'll always go," said Spector's mother, Patty.

This week, Spector goes from the woods to the world's biggest stage. Her journey to the Olympics is as atypical as the sport of biathlon, a combination of cross- country skiing and rifle shooting. It's a sport where skiers cover great distances and then try to minimize their adrenaline as they shoot at targets that vary from the size of a compact disc to the size of a silver dollar from 50 meters away. In a world where child prodigies develop into teenage stars who transform into Olympians, carting around their dreams the whole way, Spector said she can't remember watching the Olympics as a child. It's taken her just five years to go from serious competitor to Olympian.

Patty Spector, a former state champion in squash, a U.S. national champion in canoeing and a world champion in dragon boat racing, tried to push her daughter into athletics, but the stubborn youngster insisted on going at her own pace.

While athletically talented, she preferred the indoors as a kid, spending too much time watching TV and burying her nose in books. Her father, Jesse, bribed her to go out for runs by promising a big breakfast, while Patty was constantly trying to coax her into being more active.

"I may not have appreciated it enough back then," Laura Spector said. "I know I complained a lot."

During the winter of Laura Spector's eighth-grade year at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, Patty took her daughter to Berkshire West Athletic Club in an effort to get her to exercise. She'd joined the cross-country running team, but was headed toward a long winter inside.

While there, the pair ran into Kathy Winstanley, whose children, Kate and Tom, competed for the Lenox Nordic ski team. Winstanley suggested the same to Spector, and the Lenox native began down the path to Vancouver through an array of twists, turns, chance, luck and hard work.

"It was just such a good group of kids," Winstanley said. "They had such a good time. She fit in instantly." Even after the talk with Winstanley piqued Laura's interest, she wasn't sold on cross-country skiing. Laura's dad credits then- Lenox coach Art Reilly with being patiently persistent.

"He'd ask her about it, but not put any pressure on her," Jesse said. "One day he even came over to the house and asked about it. Finally one day she said, 'Fine, if it makes you and Mom happy, I'll do it, but I'm going to stay in the back.' " That threat didn't last long. 

Spector spent the first crosscountry practice at the back of the Lenox pack before poling her way toward the front. Typical of her laid- back approach that year, some of her most powerful memories of that first season are sneaking off to play by frozen ponds with friends during workouts.

An hour before her first Nordic race, Patty Spector remembers her daughter ready to back out, unsure of how to cope with the structure of a race and the intimidation of competition. Somewhere along the line, Laura changed her mind, skied to the starting line and went on to win a JV race.

"I still have no idea who she talked to or who said what to her," Patty said.

Laura went on to win a team state title with Lenox in 2001, contributing a fifth-place finish at the state Nordic championship, and then won individual titles the next two seasons before leaving Berkshire County to attend the Green Mountain Valley Ski Academy, the Maine school she graduated from in 2005.

" It's strange to say, but [ the Olympics are] not really a surprise," Reilly said. "She was just such a focused athlete. It never seemed like it wasn't a possibility." The early success was addictive, and soon Spector agreed to visit a summer ski camp with her friend Shane Macdowell, and it was there that Spector happened to pick up a rifle.

After that, she got serious quickly. For the past four years, one of her biggest challenges has been keeping herself from overtraining. To Spector, the daughter of Jesse, a retired neurologist, and Patty, a who has a Ph.D. in psychology, the combination of physical training and mental tactics provided an ideal mix. "Cross-country skiing, when you get down to it, can be kind of monotonous," Laura said. "In biathlon there's more to it - there's something more to think about."

When Spector began taking the sport seriously five years ago, her primary target was the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

Success bumped up the date, but it also means Spector isn't expecting to medal in her first Olympics. She's hoping for top-40 finishes in her three events - the sprint, pursuit and individual - along with a top-eight finish for the American relay team. No U.S. athlete has ever won an Olympic medal in the sport; Spector qualified for the Games by finishing second in two qualifying races held in Germany."You don't want to say you're just happy to be here," Spector said. "I still owe the U.S. team my best effort." Always shy and, according to her mother, occasionally lacking confidence, perhaps it's easy to see why Spector's Olympic dreams - at least until the past month - only came out in the woods.

"Every time I passed by the plaque, I'd think, 'It'd be pretty nice to have my name on something like that some day.' "