The moment Deedra Irwin learned she was officially an Olympian was part excitement and part relief. First, she called her parents to share the dream-come-true news of making the Team USA biathlon team for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Then, she thought of her second home: Michigan Tech. From 2010-15, Irwin was a three-sport athlete (cross country skiing, cross country, track and field) at the Division II school in Houghton, Michigan, a city of less than 10,000. Those five years were instrumental in her unexpected path to the Olympics.
"It takes so many people to make one athlete to make it to this level," said Irwin, who will compete Feb. 5-19 in her first Olympics. "Michigan Tech was a huge, huge, huge part of that for me."
Being a three-sport athlete at Michigan Tech meant many days away from campus and lots of responsibilities. The school is in the Upper Peninsula, so eight-plus hours of travel for competition was normal. In her final semester, she was on campus for only 30 days, she said. Still, she graduated with a degree in exercise science, broke four individual school records on the track and qualified for the World Junior Championships in Nordic skiing.
Irwin credited the school as much as herself for these accomplishments.
"The school was very committed to helping me succeed, even though I was barely ever there because I was racing and my training schedule was very rigorous. I was missing a lot of school, and my teachers were very involved in making sure I was getting one-on-one work if I needed it. I had tutors, and I was able to do a lot of my stuff online," Irwin said. "I was still able to graduate with like a 3.9 (GPA). That wasn't just because of me. That was because of the people who are teaching me and helping me get everything I needed. The school was absolutely incredible to the student-athletes. I'm always so appreciative of that."
Irwin's jampacked schedule also prepared her for life as a professional athlete. She said that the past month or so since being named to the Team USA biathlon Olympic roster has included an overwhelming amount of information, but her Michigan Tech experience has helped her navigate it all.
"At Michigan Tech, I was constantly busy, and having learned how to prioritize certain things and organize my schedule and be able to handle a lot of incoming information, I think that is the biggest influence it had," she said. "Being at Michigan Tech, seeing how supportive the faculty members were and how influential my teammates were, it really taught me how to lean on other people and be able to work with my surroundings really well. I think it's really helped me in my professional career.
"So many people have reached out and helped me be excited about this experience and appreciate the journey that I've been on."
It's been quite a journey, too.
A native of Pulaski, Wisconsin — a small town near Green Bay — Irwin grew up a runner. She watched the Summer Olympics, especially the track and field events, and would daydream of being an Olympic runner one day.
Irwin did not even get into skiing until high school. Even then, it was just a way to stay in shape between cross country and track seasons. When injuries impacted her college recruiting as a runner, she thought skiing might be an option. Enter Michigan Tech, which ended up recruiting her as a distance runner and allowed her to walk on to its Nordic ski team.
"I learned how to ski, obviously, a lot faster once I got on the college scene, and I made my first NCAA (championship) as a redshirt freshman," she said. "It kind of grew from there, the love of the sport but also being able see the world through skiing."
As a senior, Irwin qualified for the 2015 World Junior Championships in Kazakhstan. This experience ended her initial plans of being done with sports after graduation. Instead, she joined a professional ski team in Idaho, chasing an Olympic dream. Nearing the 2018 Olympics, Irwin said she realized that dream was not going to happen. She was ready to hang up the boots, skis and poles.
Then Joanne Reid, a former NCAA skiing champion at Colorado who's also on Team USA's biathlon team, reached out and suggested Irwin give biathlon a try. At a talent identification camp in 2017, she got hooked on the sport — a combination of cross country skiing and rifle. Soon after, she joined the Vermont National Guard to take advantage of its biathlon program, allowing her to train full time and serve as a human resources specialist.
"My journey is unique because I kind of just kept stumbling upon new sports to help me stay in shape or I just tried it out, and now it's weird. I'm going to the Olympics for biathlon," Irwin said. "Little 10-year-old me wouldn't believe it."
As Irwin has reflected on her improbable journey to Beijing, she's thought of all the people who've played integral roles in it. Many of them are at Michigan Tech, part of an "amazing Nordic community" who rally around the college.
"It really was my first experience of home away from home, and I really loved it. It always feels like coming home (when I go back)," Irwin said. "I met so many amazing people in that area, and they've been following my career ever since I left Michigan Tech and they're always giving me thumbs-up and high-fives on Facebook. I love to do this for my hometown community and my second home at Michigan Tech.