Hakkinen resumes medal quest: Kasilof biathlete tries be 1st American to nab Olympic biathlon hardware

Posted: Friday, February 12, 2010

Kasilof biathlete Jay Hakkinen, 32, will resume a medal chase that has consumed nearly half of his life when he competes at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Hakkinen will race in the men's 10-kilometer sprint at 10:15 a.m. AST on Sunday. If he finishes in the top 60, he will qualify for the 12.5-kilometer pursuit on Tuesday at 11:45 a.m.

On Thursday, Hakkinen is already qualified for the 20-kilometer individual at noon, but he will need a medal to get into the 15-kilometer mass start on Feb. 21 at 9:45 a.m. He will complete his Olympics on Feb. 26, when he competes in the men's relay at 10:30 a.m.

"The first race is a sprint, so that's kind of a key race toward qualifying for several other races, like the pursuit and mass start," Hakkinen said in early February in a phone interview. "It will be important to be in peak shape."

Hakkinen is the most accomplished U.S. biathlete in Olympic history, but that status has left him short of the medal he has put squarely in his sights since he became serious about biathlon in his teens. In all, 59 U.S. biathletes have tried to earn a medal at the Olympics, and 59 have failed.

In 1997, the 1995 Skyview High School graduate became the only American to win a gold medal at the world junior biathlon championships. Hakkinen qualified for his first Olympics in 1998 at the age of 20, then four years later earned the then-best Olympic finish by an American with a 13th in the 12.5-kilometer pursuit at Salt Lake City. Before that, four other biathletes had finished 14th in Olympic races.

At the 2006 Olympics in Italy, Hakkinen continued to raise the bar for American biathletes, although he took U.S. biathlon fans on a wild ride in the process.

In his first event of the Olympics, Hakkinen finished 10th in the 20-kilometer individual. If he had hit one more target, he would have earned a bronze medal. Two more hit targets would have meant the gold medal.

After just missing a medal in the individual, Hakkinen had a shooting meltdown -- missing five straight shots from the prone position -- and finished 78th in the sprint. That meant he didn't qualify for the pursuit.

Just as suddenly as his prospects dimmed, they brightened. In the men's relay, Hakkinen skied the first of four legs and tagged off in first place. The Americans fell to a ninth-place finish.

For a finale, Hakkinen took 13th in the mass start. That gave him the top three U.S. Olympic biathlon performances.

Before the start of the 2006-07 World Cup season, the United States Olympic Committee took note of Hakkinen's Olympic performances made a strong commitment to the United States Biathlon Association with the goal of earning a medal in 2010.

An example -- U.S. biathlon waxing technicians have gone to Vancouver for the past three years and have tested over 200 different ski grinds in order to assure U.S. biathletes will have some of the fastest skis regardless of weather and snow conditions.

"Getting to the podium requires that sort of commitment," Hakkinen said. "Without that support, we had no chance. We wanted to have that chance."

Starting with that 2006-07 season, the USBA developed a program that pushed athletes to the podium. The big surprise is that those athletes were not Hakkinen.

Last March, Jeremy Teela, originally of Anchorage, finished third in the 20-kilometer individual at Whistler Olympic Park, which will be the Olympic venue, to become the first American in 17 years to finish in the top three at a World Cup event.

This year, Tim Burke, from the state of New York, has burst onto the scene. Burke has three top-three finishes in World Cups this year. He became the first U.S. biathlete to take the overall World Cup points lead.

"That was a very important step for the U.S., especially since you see that it was a process getting to those performances," Hakkinen said. "With the staff working and the way things are organized, it's nice to see the program has come so far.

"It gives motivation to all of us because we know what's possible now."

Hakkinen has eight World Cup top 10s in his career, with the top result being a fifth in a sprint during the 1998-99 season. His last top 10 came during the 2007-08 season, although he did finish 11th in a pursuit last season.

This season, Hakkinen's best result is a 28th-place finish in his first race of the season.

"The World Cups didn't go quite as I had hoped," Hakkinen said. "I wanted to build up more confidence with those races.

"The training is all good, and I feel things are coming along. Things weren't working out in races, but my focus the entire time has been on the Olympics."

Hakkinen said that focusing on getting into peak shape for the Olympics may have left him a little tired for some of the World Cups. None of that will matter if the stored energy pays off at Whistler, where Hakkinen finished 44th in the individual and 72nd in the sprint last season.

"It's a working course -- you have to work constantly -- and that's something that favors me," Hakkinen said. "In the end, it's mainly who's in the best shape, and I hope to be in good shape."

The biathlete also is looking forward to the extra motivation provided by fans. Never before has an Olympic biathlon event been held so close to Kasilof.

"It'll be a nice motivation to have people on the course cheering for Americans directly," Hakkinen said. "In Salt Lake, that made a big difference."

As for the shooting, Hakkinen said he has put in a lot of work with U.S. coach Armin Auchentaller, who is Italian, this season.

"He's brought our shooting to a new level," Hakkinen said. "That's a weakness we've had in previous years."

At 32, Hakkinen's chances at Olympic medals are running out.

"To be honest, I don't feel too much pressure," he said. "I'm mainly focused on training right and shooting right. I feel if I do the correct work, the performance will come."

Hakkinen has a daughter, Stella Amalia Hakkinen, with his fiancee, Kristin Orlamuender, who is from Germany. The trio has not thought about much beyond this Olympics, though.

"I haven't started checking the want ads yet," Hakkinen said. "Right now I'm competing in the Olympics, and my future will be determined based on results. I don't really possess a plan for after. I want to complete what I'm doing here."

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