An American has never won a medal in the biathlon at the Winter Olympics. As Kasilof’s Jay Hakkinen, 28, gets set to compete in his third Olympics starting Saturday with the men’s 20-kilometer biathlon in Cesana San Sicario, Italy, his goal is to get America that first biathlon medal.
“The medal is what I want. It’s what I’m here for,” said Hakkinen by phone after a World Cup race in Antholz, Italy, in late January. “It’s what I’ve been working all year for. I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get it.”
Hakkinen is accustomed to taking U.S. biathlon to levels it has never experienced before. In 1997, the 1995 Skyview High School graduate became the first and only American to win a gold medal at the World Junior Biathlon championships.
After qualifying for the Olympics in 1998 at the age of 20, Hakkinen gave U.S. biathlon another big boost four years later in Salt Lake City. He finished 13th in the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit the highest finish ever at the Olympics for a U.S. biathlete. Before that, four other American biathletes had finished 14th in Olympic races.
To get the United States that elusive medal this year, Hakkinen will need to come up with the performance of a lifetime. Since Hakkinen won gold in the World Junior Biathlon Championships, he has been competing in World Cup races full-time and has yet to finish in the top three in any event.
Hakkinen has a fifth-place finish, two sixth-place finishes and two seventh-place finishes in World Cups. Most recently, he was seventh at a race in Ostersund, Sweden, during the 2004-05 World Cup season.
All of Hakkinen’s previous top-10 finishes came before the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Based on that statistic, it’d be easy to conclude Hakkinen’s career has been in decline since his historic finish at Salt Lake City.
While the results over the past four years have not been as good as the results leading into Salt Lake City, Hakkinen says he is more confident than ever in his ability to win a medal.
Why? Think Tiger Woods and his swing changes, which had him winning two majors in 2005 but playing substandard golf in 2004.
“After the last Olympics finished, I was not totally satisfied,” Hakkinen said. “I wanted to win a medal, and I didn’t. I wanted to start learning what it would take to win a medal.”
Hakkinen broke away from U.S. biathlon coach Algis Shalna for the 2002-03 and 2003-04 World Cup seasons. His 2002-03 season was tough due to a case of tonsillitis and a new shooting technique he was learning from a German coach.
“It was a disaster,” Hakkinen said of that season. “That was the start of the process of learning a new shooting technique.
“The idea was that the next Olympics, when I come into standing in first place, I know 100 percent sure that I’ll hit all five targets.”
In 2003-04, Hakkinen started to improve with four top-30 finishes in the World Cup.
“It really matured me as an athlete,” Hakkinen said of his two years apart from Shalna. “It brought me a lot of ideas that made me faster and stronger. ... It allowed me to work with the German and Norwegian teams more, and gave me the freedom to accept their ideas.”
Hakkinen and Shalna got back together for the 2004-05 season.
“One of the most important things I realized is that I couldn’t do it alone,” Hakkinen said. “You have to have the (United States Biathlon Association) and the (United State Olympic Committee) aligned, like planets.
“When everyone is supporting everyone, that’s where you get great results.”
Hakkinen’s goal for the 2004-05 season was to get the two top-15 World Cup finishes it would take to qualify him for the Olympics. He took care of that by mid-January, getting the seventh in Ostersund and a 15th in Ruhpolding, Germany.
Hakkinen finished the season with 16 top-30 finishes, quadrupling his effort from the year before. The season showed Hakkinen is back in form.
There are several factors Hakkinen said may put him over the top at the Olympics.
Last year, Hakkinen finished 14th in a 10-kilometer World Cup sprint on the Olympic course at Cesana San Sicario.
“I really like the Olympic course,” Hakkinen said. “It goes down, then you climb back up. The way I ski, especially this year, is strong climbing and not as fast on the flats.”
Hakkinen also said the course is just under 5,000 feet in elevation.
“I tend to do very well at altitude,” said Hakkinen, listed at 5-foot-11, 155 pounds in the U.S. biathlon media guide. “I’m fairly strong with a light build, and that is very good for altitude.
“You don’t want to be a big guy. It’s harder to pump blood through.”
Hakkinen also has complete confidence in the U.S. team that will prepare his skis for race day.
“To win a race, you’ve got to have good skis preferably the best skis,” Hakkinen said.
Hakkinen also said he may have an advantage over his competition because the United States let him qualify last year for this year’s Olympics.
“Every other biathlete had to qualify for the Olympics this year, and many qualifications were very difficult,” Hakkinen said.
While other biathletes had to peak long enough to qualify for the Olympics, Hakkinen has been able to design his whole season with the idea of peaking for the Olympics.
Last year, Hakkinen said qualifying for the Olympics left him drained.
“This year, I’m now in great ski shape,” Hakkinen said. “I feel great. I feel strong. I’m ready to train and really attack.”
In his last World Cup race before the Olympics, Hakkinen finished 25th in the 10-kilometer then moved up to 15th in the 12.5-kilometer pursuit on Jan. 20.
Hakkinen notes that those results are similar to the 26th in the 10-kilometer and 13th in the pursuit he had at the last Olympics.
“That gives me motivation because I’m at the level I was at the last Olympics, and I’m still getting better,” he said.
Hakkinen said the Norwegian biathletes are the fastest skiers. He said at his last World Cup race, he was only 20 seconds behind the fastest Norwegian skier.
“The way it works is you have to have skiing speed,” Hakkinen said. “There are people who always shoot well, but they’re slow skiers so they never win. Then there are those that are fast skiers, so when they shoot well they win.”
Hakkinen, who still does commercial fishing every summer in Bristol Bay with his family, said he will wait to see how he performs in the Olympics before he decides his future in biathlon.
If he performs well, he said he will continue in the sport, which typically sees its athletes peak between 28 and 32.
“If I do well, it’ll be no problem to keep on going,” Hakkinen said. “And I expect to do well.”
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