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 medalled 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 champ 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, better equipment. Algis Shalna, a multiple World Cup winner for the Soviet National team, was hired to coach the Americans on the finer techniques of the sport.
"We looked at every reason why we were losing races," said Hakkinen. "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, is often 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 -- in the "true Alaska, the tundra," he said. "It's basically an elementary school, a post office and store. 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 during anything, which has helped me learned concentration that is necessary."
His mother, Yvonne, owns a commercial fishing business (the area is renown for its salmon). 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 male for three years.
Fellow Alaskans on the biathlon team are Jeremy Teele and Rachel Steer, both of Anchorage. "We actually grew up within a couple of blocks of each other and we know each other's families pretty well, which is great support for the long trips we have to make."
Steer shares the new excitement for biathlon in America.
"You go to Europe and hear the biathlon is the most-watched sport on TV over there," she said. "In America, most people are not sure which two sports are included in biathlon. Some think it's three sports."
"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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