Thirty-five years after the abduction and shooting that would forever change her life, former U.S. biathlete Kari Swenson has candidly discussed in a podcast her frightening kidnapping and shooting in 1984, as well as the difficulty of her recovery.
Swenson would not comment for this story on why she chose to speak up now or to talk about her current involvement in educating biathletes in her hometown of Bozeman, where she is a practicing veterinarian, but the podcast has reverberated for those once involved in covering the bizarre story.
“One message you get from that podcast is that you can never forget the crime victims,” said Bob Anez, a former Associated Press reporter who wrote about the abduction and was interviewed for the podcast. “We see these stories come and go, but these people live with it all of their lives.”
For those not familiar with the incident, a 23-year-old Swenson was taken hostage by Dan and Don Nichols while trail running at Big Sky on July 15, 1984. When she saw the father (Don) and son (Dan) standing in the trail ahead of her she instantly knew they were “not good people,” she told Bonnie Ford, a reporter for ESPN 30 for 30 Podcasts. The podcast went live on Nov. 19.
Making small talk she tried to walk past them when Don Nichols grabbed her wrist and explained his plan: They would keep Swenson tied up until she agreed to live with them in the mountains. At the time the Nicholses were surviving by hunting, trapping, and raiding cabins for food, gear and shelter.
Swenson screamed, Don Nichols struck her in the face, knocking her down, and then pinned her to the ground while directing his son to tie her up.
“I thought they were going to rape and kill me,” Swenson told Ford.
In addition to interviewing Swenson, now 58, the podcast also talked to her mother Janet Swenson, former teammate Pam Weiss, Jami Goldstein, whose father was killed by the kidnappers, former attorney general Marc Racicot who prosecuted the case and former University of Montana School of Journalism professor Carol Van Valkenburg.
Ford said she was attracted to Swenson’s story for a podcast after researching and reporting on the U.S. biathlon team during the 2017 Winter Olympics.
“In my research, I read about the groundbreaking 1984 world championship bronze medal won by Kari and her teammates, and remembered the story of her ordeal. Coincidentally, the 30-for-30 folks had wanted to reach out to Kari for a while,” Ford wrote in an email.
“My deeper interest came from thinking about young survivors of violent crimes and sexual abuse who have been prominent in the news,” she continued. “I covered criminal justice earlier in my career, and have always wondered what happens when the bright lights go out. What is it like to manage the physical and emotional aftereffects along with all the normal challenges of life? I wanted to hear about recovery from a long-term survivor of trauma.”
Racicot, Anez and Van Valkenburg all spoke about how the national and international press tended to cover the crimes by “playing into the concept of the wild West,” as Anez put it. Van Valkenburg said the news stories tended to slant heavily toward the Nicholses, characterizing them as mountain men living in the wrong century. Racicot saw them much differently, calling them “feral” and “brigands.”
Anez noted that even a year after her kidnapping and shooting, when Swenson had to testify in court with her abductors sitting across from her, that she was very composed considering her ordeal.
“What a strong witness she was,” he said.
The two men were convicted in a Virginia City courtroom. Dan Nichols served 10 years for the kidnapping. His father was given a 85-year sentence for the shooting death of Alan Goldstein, a 36-year-old co-worker of Swenson’s at Big Sky’s Lone Mountain Guest Ranch. In 2017 Don Nichols was granted parole.
Goldstein was one of the many searchers scouring the Big Sky area looking for Swenson when she didn’t return from her afternoon run. Hearing the searchers calling her name and a plane buzz overhead, Swenson yelled, warning Goldstein to stay away. Armed with a hunting rifle, Don Nichols had promised to shoot anyone who came to her rescue.
Ignoring Swenson’s advice, Goldstein pressed on, discovering her chained and padlocked to a pine tree. True to his threat Dan Nichols shot Goldstein, killing the cowboy known to Swenson for his gentle care of the Lone Mountain Guest Ranch’s big horses. As Swenson screamed in terror, Don Nichols ordered his son to “shut her up.”
As Swenson described the incident, the younger man drew a pistol and shot her at close range. The bullet struck just under her collar bone, exiting near her shoulder blade. Dan Nichols would contend in court that the pistol accidentally discharged.
“All of a sudden the gravity of my situation really kind of kicked in,” Swenson told Ford.
Listening to that description was the apex of the story in Anez’s mind.
“That was pretty raw,” he said.
Ford said she was transparent with Swenson about what she would be asking and the details she would need for the podcast.
“To understand her experience, we needed her to recount what happened in July 1984, but we also wanted to move beyond it and shine the light of perspective on who she was before and who she is now,” Ford wrote. “All credit to Kari for agreeing to be interviewed. She was at a point in her life where she was ready to bring her story into the present, and I happened along at that time. Several other people who are heard in the podcast would not have talked to us without Kari’s blessing, and I’m grateful for what they were able to add.”
As the Nicholses fled the makeshift campsite, they left Swenson bleeding and in excruciating pain. It took about four hours for rescuers to reach her. The gunshot had collapsed her lung, making breathing difficult. Relying on her biathlon training she regulated her breathing. Calm breathing is important to making accurate shots in the sport, after Nordic skiing between the target-shooting ranges.
Once evacuated from the mountains Swenson spent eight days in the hospital as law enforcement scoured the mountains for her captors, who wouldn’t be caught until December.
“It was a chaotic situation, and we certainly did not see it as some romantic tale of the wild West off the bat,” said Rob Dean, who was the editor at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle when the story broke. “We saw it as a crime story.”
National and international news outlets didn’t see it the same. Dean remembers getting a call from a Washington Post editor asking how common it was for the Chronicle to cover stories about mountain men.
“I don’t remember that I had a good answer,” Dean said, still somewhat flabbergasted by the question.
For Anez, the former AP reporter, preparing for his podcast interview reignited memories of covering the kidnapping, manhunt and trial that followed. He had left his Helena office with only a shaving kit and no change of clothes and ended up spending a week at Big Sky. In the middle of the morning he would be awoken by calls from European news outlets seeking more information on the story.
“It was a crazy time,” he said. “Europe was mesmerized by the whole wild West nature of the story.”
The fact that the manhunt dragged on for so long, another five months, likely added to the perception Swenson and her family had that the news media had ignored the victims of the crimes.
“That manhunt was so extensive, complicated and long-running — that story was the one that really lasted,” Dean said. “It attracted and deserved a lot of attention.”
He also remembers that people in the surrounding communities remained concerned about whether the Nicholses would hurt others as they roamed the Madison Range, adding to the need to continue telling the story.
“When they were finally found it was almost like it was out of a movie,” said Dennis Swibold, a University of Montana journalism professor who was a beat reporter at the Chronicle in 1984. “And frankly, they were so strange.”
Madison County Sheriff Johnny France captured the Nicholses after snowmobiling into their camp by himself.
“I’m glad this podcast came out,” Swibold said. “It’s a lesson that it’s easy for the victim to be overshadowed. In the middle of a story it’s hard to see that.”
In the midst of the coverage, Swibold said he struggled as a reporter to find some social significance in the story, but it was too bizarre and brutal. “It didn’t make any sense at all,” he said.
That the Nicholses were called mountain men by some news outlets romanticized the criminals and their lawless actions. In examining that characterization Swibold said the media at the time overlooked the reality of the fur trappers of the 1800s and their actions, which even today continues to be glamorized.
“If you look into the history of those guys, they were a pretty cruel and violent society,” Swibold said. “It glorifies this lonely alienation that we see in this western myth. That played a role in how this story was received.”
Not long after her hospital release, Swenson began pressing her physical and pain thresholds to speed her recovery.
“As an athlete, my goal was to get back to competing,” Swenson said in the podcast.
Although challenged by her mother to take it easy, Swenson told her that if she didn’t push herself she would never get better. So the two would take walks; each time Swenson would strain to go farther.
“I wasn’t going to let this define who I was,” she said.
Prior to the kidnapping and shooting, Swenson was at the top of her sport, finishing fifth at the Women’s Biathlon World Championships in Chamonix, France, in the 10 kilometer race — the best finish for any American biathlete at the time. She was also a member of the U.S. women’s relay team, which won bronze in Chamonix, the first medal won by any U.S. biathlon team.
After the shooting she was able to regain some of her physical prowess, but the pain continued due to scar tissue and shrapnel from the bullet still lodged in her body that would inflame nearby nerves when she exerted herself.
By 1986 Swenson had recovered enough of her physicality to compete in a biathlon at Oslo, Norway, where her fellow competitor pulled her higher up onto the award podium in celebration of her fourth place finish. By that spring she decided to retire and focus on her veterinary career, attending school in Colorado.
The key to the whole podcast was having Swenson tell it in her own voice, Ford wrote.
“It’s so plain and powerful, and conveys both her strength and the joy she gets from her lifelong relationship with the outdoors.”
Ford praised her producer and sound designer, Mitra Kaboli, who also “worked incredibly hard to give the piece intimacy and dignity. We deliberately kept the focus on Kari.”
Listening to the completed podcast, Anez said he was amazed by the vividness of Swenson’s memories. He wonders what it must be like to be a rather ordinary person, minding their own business, and suddenly being thrust into an international news story.
“I don’t know how people cope with that,” he said.
Likewise, Swibold and Dean were struck by Swenson’s intimately detailed story of her recovery. She now counts cars at the trailhead parking lot to try to determine if she’s alone with anyone else in the woods.
"I still don't feel threatened in the mountains but I've had to work on that," Swenson told Ford.
Through a combination of medication, meditation and counseling Swenson said she is now able to go through most of her life without thinking about the kidnapping and shooting 35 years ago.
“I’m glad she was able to tell her story,” Dean said. “How that event has dominated her life, it’s a really heroic story. And it’s told in such a detailed way that all of us can honor.”
Swibold said the podcast recounts a tragic story, one so brutal and fantastic that it captured the world’s attention and imagination.
“I’m so glad this podcast came out and showed Kari’s resilience,” he said.