'Stronger for it'

Kasilof Olympic biathlete hosts clinics for youth

Jay Hakkinen has endured a lot of attacks during his 18-year career as a biathlete and Olympian.


The 32-year-old homegrown kid from Kasilof has traveled the world with skis under his feet, a rifle on his back and what he refers to as “attacks” constantly trying to topple his dreams.

The attacks can vary — from politics to team dynamics, self-doubt and competition, he said.

Even the weather can attack.

At the Vancouver Olympics, Hakkinen said a snowstorm came in the middle of the race giving the biathletes who started earlier an advantage.

“Everyone else had glue under their skis with the new snow and there was no chance,” he said. “You spend four years in preparation and it is taken away just like that.”

But don’t be afraid to fail, Hakkinen advised the crowd of about 20 listening Saturday at Kenai Central High School. That’s how you show yourself where you are, he said.

“If it is windy, if it is snowing, no matter what the conditions are, you have to focus on what you are doing,” he said. “Your goals, your results, your system and it may be that you are not going to win. But you are going to get through that attack and you are going to be stronger for it.”

Hakkinen, who has been to four Olympics and is currently training to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, hosted two of three planned biathlon clinics over the weekend. On Saturday, Hakkinen will put on a competition combining track sprinting with shooting a laser rifle at 10 a.m. at the Skyview High School track. It was his first time hosting such clinics, he said.

On Friday, Hakkinen worked with biathlon hopefuls on their shooting technique at the Snowshoe Gun Club in Kenai. On Saturday, Hakkinen and his students practiced drills on the KCHS track with laser rifles to simulate a real biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and precision rifle shooting. Afterward, he spoke about what it takes to train and compete at the Olympic level.

In addition to helping a new generation of biathletes sharpen their skills, Hakkinen said he hoped the clinics would be the seed needed to grow a local biathlon program on the Kenai Peninsula and beef up ones already in the state.

“Part of this is also gaining momentum to getting a biathlon range and biathlon facilities,” he said. “I loved the enthusiasm you guys had, the focus and there is a lot of talent in you guys. It was a lot of fun to watch this happen.”

Hakkinen said he was confident the Peninsula community “has every possibility to create a system that creates better athletes than anyone else in the world.”

Before hitting the range Friday, Hakkinen focused on shooting techniques, from breathing, to pulling the trigger, to implementing a personal system.

“I love systems,” he said with a smile.

Just hitting the targets is tough enough, Hakkinen said, but biathletes earn their keep by managing their body and breathing against the stress of competition and weather.

The variables are many — how hard you ski, approach and timing, among a host of others. 

Being alert is key, like feeling the wind across your cheek, he said.

“That awareness will also make you a very good shooter,” he said.

But the shooter must also be smooth, fluid and “everything needs to be automatic.”

He encouraged members of his audience to find their system — his has four phases and he knows just how much time to give each. He said he has poor eyesight and can’t see the targets perfectly. But that isn’t a fraction as important as controlling his body and fitting in his system, he said.

“If the system is perfect then you will hit the targets,” he said.

Hakkinen spoke at length about breathing techniques and finding the “moment of stability” as he referenced a chart showing the target moving through the sight as one breathes in and out. 

“Inhale, exhale, trigger, shot,” he said.

And, don’t forget the trigger pull must be slow and steady on the fingertip because a fast trigger finger twitches the whole arm and body.

“Try it,” he said as dozens of kids copied the motion he made in the air.

The students migrated to the shooting range where Hakkinen worked with them one-on-one.

“You see that last one? You kind of jumped with your head,” he said to a young girl.

Kasilof sixth-grader Tim Blakely said he was surprised when he hit the target on his first attempt with Hakkinen’s guidance.

“I like the feeling of hitting the target,” he said. “You kind of have that rush.”

He said he was proud that he goes to Tustumena Elementary — the same school where Hakkinen went decades ago. Blakely said he had never tried biathlon before, but was interested in the sport because he likes to shoot and he’s also skied quite a bit. 

“I have a few .22s, but I don’t think they are as high-tech as that,” he said.

Some attendees had more experience. Mariya Gilliland and her family drove down from Eagle River just for the clinic. The 14-year-old home-school student said she enjoyed Hakkinen’s instruction.

“I think it’s really inspiring,” she said after her personal session. “It is also really encouraging. Although it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve started shooting well, it’s really cool how a lot of (Olympic biathletes) started out ... not really great and got a lot better.”

Hakkinen echoed a similar sentiment Saturday morning as he discussed how he trains. He said the Olympic athlete has to be his own boss, find the best help and trainers and develop training cycles to break the body down and build it back up again to be perfectly conditioned for race day.

“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices in my life ... because you go into an eat-sleep-train routine,” he said.

He likened his training process to a surfer catching a wave. Climbing to, and riding the top, should come before the race and when the body, much like the water, crashes the surfer should glide along the water to the beach. When the body crashes and recuperates it propels the athlete to peak performance in a contest, he said.

“In the end, the winner is who can do the most work and the most development,” he said. “Although there are other things in your life, it is important to plan them in to optimize that work system. For example, 2014, it seems like a long way off, but I have to fit in as many of those training cycles (as I can.)”

Hakkinen answered a number of questions about his equipment, diet, how he qualifies for races, how old the best biathletes are and how he handles high-stress situations.

Athletes of any age, he said, should always strive for the best whether it is equipment, training or mental preparation.

“There’s no reason to be in sports unless you are going to be the best,” he said.

In biathlon, however, the difference between best and 30th place may only be 1 minute, 30 seconds, he said. It’s “absolutely brutal,” he said.

“One place per second,” he said.

But thoughts like those can’t penetrate the biathlete’s mind. Hakkinen referenced a video of a recent competition in which he pulled off four quick shots, but hesitated on the last.

“That’s where things weren’t working,” he said. “My legs were shaking, there was a lot of stress and I was fighting for a good result. But instead of just taking the shot or just panicking, I stopped, redid the whole system and then took the shot.”

It takes a lot of mental stamina, especially when “you are fighting for every second,” he said. But all good athletes must stay psychologically strong and take the time to self-analyze, win or lose.

“Then once you do that, put it away, the last season is gone,” he said. “I’m not living off the four Olympics that I’ve done, I’m working to the one I’m going to do. That’s what you have to focus on. Nothing is more boring than hearing old people talk about old races.”

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.


Mon, 05/21/2018 - 21:33

Brothers accused of assaulting, threatening woman

Two brothers face assault charges after allegedly hitting and threatening a Kenai woman during an argument over the weekend.

Read more
Mon, 05/21/2018 - 21:32

Assembly to consider bonds for K-Selo school

Kenai Peninsula Borough voters may be asked this fall to take on several million dollars in bond debt to pay for a new school in... Read more

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 21:32

A woof over their heads