Kasilof athlete prepares for winter Olympics

Posted: Monday, January 28, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Versatility is part of the job description for biathletes. For Jay Hakkinen, it's a trait that could broaden his post-Olympic employment opportunities.

Will Ski 4 Food.

Will Shoot 4 Food.

It might happen. ''I'll probably be broke at the end of the Olympics,'' Hakkinen said.

Hakkinen, a 24-year-old from Kasilof, has spent the past eight years competing in biathlon, the sport that mystifies a good share of the U.S. population. Though huge in Europe, biathlon doesn't land Americans on Wheaties boxes or in Nike commercials, so people from this country who compete in the sport that combines cross-country skiing with riflery do so on shoestring budgets.

Eight years of that adds up to nothing, monetarily speaking. That's why Hakkinen once consumed more than a pound of red meat, gristle, fat and all, at a restaurant that offered a free meal to anyone who could eat the biggest steak on its menu.

That's why his apartment in Midway, Utah, is furnished with a mattress, a stool and a picture. He bought the picture when he was shopping for furniture and saw how much couches and chairs cost.

''Everything's so expensive,'' he marveled.

All he could afford was a framed print -- ''a maiden sniffing flowers,'' Hakkinen said -- and even then he had to be in bargain-hunting mode.

''It cost $40, it was on sale for $25, and I told the guy, I'll give you $15,''' Hakkinen said.

Sold, to the man in red, white and blue.

Hakkinen is one of 10 Alaskans who will compete next month in the Winter Olympics and one of three who will compete in biathlon.

The perfect scenario has penny-pinching Hakkinen striking gold on the Utah hills -- a triumph that would bring him $25,000 from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which has pledged to pay that sum to any American who wins a gold medal in Salt Lake City.

Hakkinen has never won a World Cup biathlon race and an American has never won an Olympic medal in biathlon, so such a victory would be an unqualified upset. The money would pay a lot of bills -- and buy a lot of furniture -- but Hakkinen has never expected a paycheck for his labor.

''I'm a pretty boring guy and I'm in a pretty unpopular sport, so it's not about money for me,'' he said. ''I'd go for it anyway.''

Hakkinen is quick with a joke, whether he's playing with words, poking fun at himself or firing off a one-liner.

At the Olympic trials this month, he used the occasion to thank the guys at the Wildwood Pre-Trial Facility in Kenai.

''They're my biggest fans,'' he said.

He was talking about the prison employees, who include his dad, Brian. But the inmates are welcome to cheer him on too.

''Bring 'em over. I could teach them a thing or two,'' Hakkinen said, nodding at his rifle.

Hakkinen has always been a hot shot, with or without a gun.

As a youngster in Kasilof, Hakkinen showed promise in wrestling and hockey in junior high. As a hockey player he could skate forever without getting tired, and that endurance helped convince him skiing was his sport.

He was drawn to the solo aspect too.

''I wanted to prove myself individually,'' he said.

He did that by winning a junior national ski championship a year after picking up the sport. He entered a couple of biathlon races around the same time, but he didn't pursue the sport.

''There were too many variables,'' he said. ''Too many challenges. I didn't think I'd ever do it.''

That changed when Hakkinen was 16 and he spent his junior year in Norway as an American Field Service exchange student. His host family was involved in biathlon and lived in Vinstom, only several kilometers from Lillehammer. It was winter 1993-94 -- the winter the Winter Olympics came to Lillehammer -- and Hakkinen heard that members of the U.S. biathlon team were in town to check out the Olympic course.

''I asked them to put me on the junior national team,'' he said.

Hakkinen was told he'd have to attend tryouts, which he did. He made the U.S. team that competed in the 1994 World Junior Championships and caught the eye of a U.S. Biathlon Association program that was reinventing itself.

Americans had done little to distinguish themselves in the sport at that point. Josh Thompson's silver medal at the 1987 World Championships and a bronze medal in the women's relay at the 1984 World Championships were the nation's lone notable international results.

In 1994, the biathlon association decided to focus on junior-level racers, with the goal of developing them into medal contenders by 2002. Hakkinen was among them.

''They came to me with a specific idea, and that was to win a gold medal in 2002,'' he said. ''Very specifically, we are made and bred for these Olympics.''

It didn't take long for Hakkinen to become the leader of the U.S. team. He made history in 1997 by becoming the first American to win a World Junior Championship and was the youngest man on the 1998 Olympic team.

Since then, he has recorded four top-10 finishes in World Cup competition, which make him perhaps the most consistently successful biathlete in U.S. history.

But things went awry last season. He started with a seventh-place finish, but he didn't finish higher than 31st in his next four World Cup races. Hakkinen thinks he may have overtrained or maybe peaked too early. All he knows is that by December, his season was over, and months passed before he was able to resume training.

''It took longer than I expected to recover,'' he said. ''Now all the old things that brought me good results are coming back.''

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