All 10 Alaskans bring different stories to games

Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2002

One Alaskan is competing in the Winter Olympics a record fourth time for a female U.S. cross-country skier, while another gave up a high-paying job as a securities trader to return to athletic competition.

Another of Alaska's five cross-country skiers is only a year out of high school.

Two of Alaska's three biathletes went to their high school prom together, while an Alaska ski jumper goes by the appropriate nickname of "Airborne." Finally, there's the snowboarder with the diamond chip embedded in her front tooth who wears wildly colored wigs while clubbing on tour in Europe.

Ten Alaskans will be going for the gold in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. This is the largest contingent of Alaskans ever to participate in a single Olympics, and Alaskans make up about 5 percent of the 211-member U.S. team. Three of the eight biathletes are from Alaska, as are half of Team USA's female Nordic skiers. During the 17 days of the Olympics, which end on Feb. 24, there could be Alaskans competing on as many as 15 of the days.

Alaskans only make up 0.2 percent of the country's population, but if an Alaskan should medal it wouldn't be the first time an Alaskan's excelled on an international stage. Six Alaskans have won seven Olympic medals over the years (five golds and two silvers).

Olympic competition was supposed to open Friday with the 90-meter ski jumping event, held before the opening ceremonies. Alan "Airborne" Alborn of Anchorage is considered a darkhorse threat to medal. The start of the ski jump competition was delayed by high winds and a snowstorm Friday.

"One of the great things about this sport is that things change from day to day," Alborn said in a Tuesday press conference. "On any given day, something can change and it could be the slightest thing you don't even realize, but the outcome is huge."

Alborn and snowboarder Gabrielle "Rosey" Fletcher of Girdwood are both making their second trips to the Winter Olympics and are probably the best hopes to win medals among the Alaskans. Fletcher competes in the parallel giant slalom snowboarding event.

But neither Alborn, nor Fletcher, has been to as many Winter Olympics as cross-country skier Nina Kemppel of Anchorage, who will be competing in her fourth Olympics.

Kemppel is one of five cross-country skiers, also known as Nordic skiers, who are from Alaska. Besides Kemppel, the others are all rookies in the Olympics. They are Wendy Wagner of Anchorage, Aelin Peterson of Fairbanks (the former securities trader), Kikkan Randall of Anchorage (the recent high school student) and Lars Flora of Anchorage.

"This is a very solitary sport," Kemppel told the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. "Our motivation comes from within. Our careers are defined by the four-hour runs we do as a team on Sundays. We have to truly love what we're doing."

Jay Hakkinen of Kasilof is competing in his second Olympics and he leads three Alaska biathletes in Salt Lake City. Besides Hakkinen, the other two Alaska biathletes are Jeremy Teela and Rachel Steer, both of Anchorage. When they attended Anchorage's Service High School a few years ago, Steer, then a junior, was Teela's date at his senior prom.

"First things first, making the team was stressful," Teela said in a Thursday press conference. "But once I made the team and I got my weight back up to where it normally is, it's exciting. Going through the apparel room, filling up my shopping cart, that was a blast."

But going to the Olympics is about the medals, even though some athletes may think differently.

"One of the things that I was pretty shocked at in Nagano (Japan), my first Olympics, was that beyond the medals nothing matters at the Olympics," Hakkinen said in the press conference. "So that's why I'm here. Not everyone can get on the podium, there's not much room, but that's what we're here for."

"I try to keep that kind of mentality," Steer added. "When I am going to the venue and I'm starting a competition, training, workouts, anything, I'm keeping that mentality. It's the things that go on outside of it. We're the epicenter of the world's attention right now and to have all that attention and media coverage and high competition and all the sports together at one venue is very exciting."

And now, a capsule look at Alaska's 10 Winter Olympians:


Hometown: Anchorage.

Sport: Ski jumping.

Olympics experience: 1998 in Nagano, Japan. Tied for 42nd place in 90-meter jump, 44th place in 120-meter jump.

Capsule biography: Alan "Airborne" Alborn, 21, is the first U.S. ski jumper to jump more than 200 meters, posting a jump of 210 meters in a ski-flying training session (ski-flying records are recognized from both training and competition) last season in Oberstdorf, Germany. Alborn's father is a commercial pilot and Alan has his own pilot's license and a Cessna 185. This summer, Alborn took eighth place in the international Grand Prix series. This season, Alborn posted the first three top-10 World Cup finishes of his career, and all three finishes were in the top six. Alborn started ski jumping when his parents dropped him off for a day of Alpine skiing at Anchorage's Hilltop Ski Area, and Alborn noticed the nearby Karl Eid Ski Jump Complex. Alborn headed to Colorado at age 15 so he could train on bigger hills. Only one American has ever won a ski jumping medal in the Olympics, and that medal wasn't discovered until scores were recalculated nearly 50 years later.


Hometown: Girdwood.

Sport: Snowboarding.

Olympics experience: 1998 in Nagano, Japan. Fell in first run of giant slalom and did not finish.

Capsule biography: Gabrielle "Rosey" Fletcher, 26, will compete in the parallel giant slalom, which replaces the giant slalom this Olympics. Fletcher won the silver medal in 2001 FIS World Championships, but was only listed as a training team member in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's annual media guide this season. Fletcher took third place in the 2000-01 World Cup combined parallel standings, finishing behind Italy's Carmen Raningler and 1998 gold medalist Karine Ruby of France. Fletcher has a tattoo of a raven on her upper right arm, while her two sisters, Kate and Beth, also have bird tattoos that Fletcher said are based on a Tlingit legend. Fletcher's two sisters are also competitive snowboarders, but they compete in the non-Olympic sport of boardercross. Fletcher said she prefers the parallel giant slalom to the regular giant slalom, where a single snowboarder competes against the clock. In the parallel giant slalom, two snowboarders compete head-to-head in races.


Hometown: Anchorage.

Sport: Cross-country skiing.

Olympics experience: First Olympics.

Capsule biography: Lars Flora, 24, was the last Alaskan selected to the U.S. Olympic Team and his biography doesn't yet appear in the U.S. Olympic Committee's media guide for Salt Lake City. Flora battled through chronic allergies to win his first national championship, in the sprint race, last month in Montana. He followed that result with a third-place finish in the 30-kilometer freestyle race. When Flora's allergy problems were mentioned to Dr. Jeff Demain, an allergy specialist in Anchorage, Demain prescribed weekly shots to clear up Flora's stuffy nose. Not only did Flora's nose stop running, but the company that makes the medicine in his shots became one of Flora's sponsors. Flora grew up in Oregon, but came to Alaska after his older brother, Erik, started skiing for the University of Alaska Anchorage. Flora is one of four skiers to make the Olympic team from a program called APU/Gold 2002 started by former Olympic skier Jim Galanes. The program is connected with Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.


Hometown: Kasilof.

Sport: Biathlon.

Olympics experience: 1998 in Nagano, Japan. Finished 42nd in the 20-kilometer individual race, 60th in 10K individual race and his team was 17th in 4x7.5K relay race.

Capsule biography: Jay Hakkinen, 24, was introduced to biathlon when he was an exchange student in Vingrom, Norway, when he was 16 years old. Hakkinen, who played hockey and was a cross-country skier for Soldotna's Skyview High School, was frequently caught sneaking onto the courses to ski in nearby Lillehammer, the site of the 1994 Olympics. After he was caught one too many times, his host family arranged for Hakkinen to train with a local biathlon club. In 1997, Hakkinen became the first American to win a World Junior Biathlon Championships title, claiming the 10-kilometer sprint race. No American has ever finished better than 14th place in a non-relay event at the Olympics. Hakkinen said he still has a bit of the hockey player in his skiing style, "I'm uncoordinated and bullish. I have no finesse, so everybody hates it when I do a mass start (a format not used in the OIympics) and relay." After his disappointing results in the Nagano Olympics, Hakkinen began to move up into the world's top-15 biathletes and even posted a fifth-place finish in a 1999 race at Lake Placid, N.Y. In 2000, Hakkinen appeared to be on his way to his first World Cup victory when he faded to sixth place. Living the spartan existence of a U.S. biathlete, which is the least-funded of all Olympic sports in this country, Hakkinen's apartment in Utah has only a mattress, a small table and one picture on the wall. He has no cable or phone, and his biggest purchase of the year was $600 for a new rifle scope.


Hometown: Anchorage.

Sport: Cross-country skiing.

Olympics experience: 1992 in Albertville, France. Took 52nd place in 10-kilometer freestyle pursuit race. 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway. Finished 27th in 30K classical race, 28th in 5K classical, 31st in 10K freestyle pursuit race and 42nd in 15K freestyle event. 1998 in Nagano, Japan. Finished 52nd in the 5K classical and the 15K classical races, then withdrew from the 30K classical and the relay events because of illness.

Capsule biography: Nina Kemppel, 31, is making her record fourth appearance in the Olympics, and she said her performance in Nagano, Japan, in 1998 is why she came back for another try. Kemppel, a 1992 Dartmouth graduate, was sick through most of 1997 and her doctors finally realized she'd overtrained and her body was worn down. Kemppel has won a record 18 U.S. national titles, including three this year. She is also known around the state as a mountain runner and has won several Mount Marathon titles. Kemppel, who attended West Anchorage High School, said she was born in a canyon in Colorado when her mother fell while rock climbing and started having labor. Kemppel's younger sister, Denali, has a title that Nina never earned, a Junior National championship. Kemppel's best finish in a World Cup individual race is 14th, but when training in Norway a few years ago she teamed up with two Norwegian Olympians to finish first in a three-person relay event at the 1996 Norwegian National Championships.


Hometown: Fairbanks.

Sport: Cross-country skiing.

Olympics experience: First Olympics.

Capsule biography: Aelin Peterson, 27, became a equity trader for a large mutual fund in Milwaukee, Wis., after graduating from Northern Michigan, selling millions of dollars in stocks every day for four years. She was in line to earn a six-figure salary, but chucked it all to return to skiing less than two years ago. Earlier this year, Peterson earned her biggest check of her skiing career, $1,000 for finishing second to Nina Kemppel in the Nordic Gold Cup. Peterson was born in Unalakleet and started skiing while her parents were teachers in the Bering Strait School District. When she was older, the family moved to Fairbanks and Peterson became a two-time state Skimeister while competing for West Valley High School. She also was the top-ranked junior skier in the nation from 1992-94. But she stopped skiing after her junior year at Northern Michigan, where she earned NCAA All-America honors. Peterson was only on her skis about four times in the four years after she quit competitive skiing. But she spent a year training as a speed skater in Milwaukee, and that got her competitive fires going again. Peterson's comeback was geared toward the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, but she's ahead of schedule.


Hometown: Anchorage.

Sport: Cross-country skiing.

Olympics experience: First Olympics.

Capsule biography: Kikkan Randall, 19, is the youngest of Alaska's Olympians and is only one year removed from East Anchorage High School. But she already has a national title on her resume after winning the sprint race in Montana last month. Randall's aunt is Betsy Haines, who competed in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., and her uncle is Chris Haines, who competed in the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Randall is the first second-generation Olympian from Alaska. In high school, Randall was a three-time state champion in both cross-country running.


Hometown: Anchorage.

Sport: Biathlon.

Olympics experience: First Olympics.

Capsule biography: Rachel Steer, 24, grew up sailing, skiing, swimming and hunting, but started competing in biathlon in 1992. Since then she has become the country's top female biathlete the past three years, even though she prefers to train in Europe instead of with the U.S. Team in the United States. Steer was the top-ranked American at this year's Olympic Trials, even though she didn't win a national title and took second place in all three events. Steer did hit 30 shots in a row, which meant no dreaded penalty laps. Steer was one of three athletes chosen to model the official U.S. Olympic Team clothes for a photo shoot last July, before she made the team, and was sweating in winter jackets and vests while Utah was having a heat wave. Steer's parents both work in medicine (her father specializes in internal medicine and her mother is a phlebotomist). Her older brother Zack has run the Iditarod twice, finishing 22nd in 1998 and 14th in 2000, and her older sister Becky is a triathlete. Steer attended Service High School in Anchorage and the University of Vermont, where she took home two medals from the 1997 World University Games.


Hometown: Anchorage.

Sport: Biathlon.

Olympics experience: First Olympics.

Capsule biography: Jeremy Teela, 25, didn't try the biathlon until his senior year at Service High School, where he competed as a swimmer, cross-country skier and runner, and was a track athlete. Teela serves with the U.S. Army as part of its World Championship Athletes Program, which allows soldier-athletes to train and represent the United States at an international level as part of their military service. Teela just missed making the cut for the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but he said that made him "harder, meaner, stronger and more motivated" as he pursued a spot in the 2002 Olympics. Teela took longer than fellow Alaska biathlete Jay Hakkinen to find his form, but he had a breakthrough in the 2001 season. Teela had been skiing well, but struggled with his shooting in early years. Last year, he finally began to shoot as well as he skied. He posted a ninth-place finish in the World Championships 10-kilometer men's sprint race in Pokljuka, Slovenia, the best American finish since Josh Thompson took second in an individual event in 1987.


Hometown: Anchorage.

Sport: Cross-country skiing.

Olympics experience: First Olympics.

Capsule biography: Wendy Wagner, 28, has the least connection to the state of the 10 Alaska Olympians, having grown up in Park City, Utah, and attending Western State College of Gunnison, Colo. But to further her training, Wagner came to Alaska five years ago and joined the APU/Gold 2002 program. While her good friend Nina Kemppel has been the top American woman the past several years, Wagner has moved into a solid No. 2 spot on the U.S. Nordic Ski Team. Kemppel and Wagner were the only two female Nordic skiers to have their biographies published in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's media guide this year. Wagner was sick during this year's Nordic Gold Cup and national championship races, which affected her performances. But she'd already earned a spot on the team based on the end of the 2000-01 season, when she earned her first World Cup points with a 23rd-place finish in a 30-kilometer classical race and had two top-30 finishes in the World Championships in Lahti, Finland. She then went to the Women's Vasaloppet race in Sweden and finished in fifth place. As a child, Wagner was a gymnast and volleyball player.

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