SALT LAKE CITY -- American biathlete Jay Hakkinen has his sights set on the medal stand at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
American biathlete? Medal stand in the Olympics? This a joke?
Apparently, the world is no longer snickering.
Hakkinen, who hails from the small fishing village of Kasilof, Alaska, thinks the U.S. has a shot in the sport that combines cross-country skiing and shooting.
And the best in the world are now giving more than a passing sneer at U.S. biathlon, one of two sports in which Americans have never medaled in the Winter Olympics.
"About eight years ago, we were pretty pathetic, to be honest," said Hakkinen, the first American to ever win a world championship (the World Junior Sprint championship in 1997). "We wanted to do something about it by the time we got to Salt Lake City."
Basically, biathlon in America was in a fight for survival: Get competitive or get out.
The United States Olympic Committee made the commitment -- more courses, better training, more money for development at the youth level and better equipment.
Algis Shalna, who won a gold medal in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics for Lithuania, was hired to coach the Americans on the finer techniques of the sport.
"We looked at every reason why we were losing races," Hakkinen said. "It started with equipment. It included practice techniques. Now, I feel we have the fastest skis in the world, as good as the Europeans have. I feel we are much more stronger physically. And, I've never been so confident in our chances for success."
Biathlon involves four competitions -- cross-country, sprint, pursuit and team.
Equipment, particularly a good wax job, can be the edge.
The proper mixture of wax on the skis helps the participants perform at their optimum in different snow conditions. The Americans now have highly rated wax technicians from Italy and Germany.
"The German wax technician is more structured," Hakkinen said. "The Italian is more artistic, more laid-back. So, they work together well."
Hakkinen, one of three Alaskans on the U.S. biathlon team, is from a fishing village of about 400.
"It's basically an elementary school, a post office and store," he said. "There is a city of 5,000 nearby, but I never got into city life. I was able to sit in my room for long periods without doing anything, which has helped me learn the concentration that is necessary."
His mother, Yvonne, owns a commercial fishing business. His father, Brian, is an electronic technician in a prison.
Hakkinen will be making his second Olympic appearance and has been the No. 1-ranked American man for three years.
Fellow Alaskans on the biathlon team are Jeremy Teela and Rachel Steer, both of Anchorage.
"We know each other's families pretty well, which is great support for the long trips we have to make," Hakkinen said.
Hakkinen is hoping a big Olympic victory will increase America's knowledge of the sport.
"The USOC and officials here have done everything they can do to improve the sport over here," Hakkinen said. "Everything is in place. It's up to the athletes now.
"We've decided we want results. I learned at Nagano that beyond the medals, nothing matters at the Olympics. That's why I'm here."
David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark., is part of the Morris team covering the Winter Olympics.
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