Biathlon team has high hopes for Teela

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2002

MIDWAY, Utah (AP) -- Let's hope Spc. Jeremy Teela of the U.S. Army is good at following commands, because here are his marching orders for Wednesday's sprint race at the Winter Olympics:

''We expect him to medal,'' said Lyle Nelson, president of the U.S. Biathlon Association.

Uh-huh. And the Jamaicans are gonna grab that bobsled medal, too.

But before you scoff too much -- and if you know anything about America's history in the sport of biathlon, you're probably scoffing -- consider that Teela has already pulled off two feats of Olympian proportions here.

He got President Bush to talk to his fiancee on his cell phone during the opening ceremonies. And on Monday he matched the best biathlon performance by an American in Olympic history.

Teela, a 25-year-old from Anchorage, placed 14th in the men's 20-kilometer race, an event he almost skipped because he didn't think he was physically prepared to race.

You have to go back 30 years and more to find the U.S. results that match Teela's. And those, by Peter Karns in 1972 and John Burritt in the 1960 Winter Games, came before what is called the modern age of biathlon back when large-bore rifles were used instead of small-bore, back when the classical technique was used instead of freestyle.

Teela missed two of his 20 targets and finished almost three minutes behind gold medalist Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway, a gap so large it might make you wonder what Nelson is talking about.

Nelson, however, knows his stuff. He's a four-time Olympian, and he knows that biathlon is a sport where once you reach a certain level, anything can happen.

''Anyone here in the top 20 today could've won a medal. In biathlon, if you are in the top 20, you are world-class,'' Nelson said.

Nelson proceeded to prove his point as he scanned a list of results. Sven Fischer, the world champion from Germany, was 29th three spots behind another Alaskan, Jay Hakkinen of Kasilof. Ludwig Gredler of Austria, one of the best skiers in the sport, was 11th. Raphael Poiree of France, the World Cup leader, was 10th, with the same number of misses as Teela.

''The sprint is wide open,'' Nelson said. ''Jeremy is absolutely a candidate to medal. He's gotta shoot clean, but so does everybody.''

Teela is ready to take on the challenge.

''I'm really focused,'' he said. ''The 10K (sprint) is my best chance and Jay's (Hakkinen) best chance to finish in the top 10 or even medal.''

Teela said he almost didn't race because he didn't think he'd done enough intervals, wasn't sure he'd done enough races. He changed his mind at almost the last minute on the day before the race. He would use the 20K as preparation for the 10K sprint.

''I didn't feel very good, but instead of resting another day or doing more intervals I decided to race,'' he said. ''I thought this would be a good race to get the Olympic feeling and get the jitters out.''

He didn't feel any snap in his legs and, after missing one shot in each of the first two shooting stages, he didn't think his shooting was on target.

''I thought I was out of the competition,'' he said. ''I really didn't think I was in the race.''

But he shot cleanly in the next two stages, and his skiing picked up, too. Because he thought he was having a poor race he approached his shooting perhaps a bit more casually than usual.

''And usually when you don't care, everything goes perfect,'' he said.

His skiing improved, too, because he got used to the crowd at Soldier Hollow, where about 10,000 spectators showed up on a gloriously sunny day. The crowd cheered loudly for the Americans, who aren't used to much support.

Teela won't back off Wednesday. The sprint is his race. He placed ninth in it last year at the world championships. A medal would shock the nation, but it might not shock Teela, Nelson or others in the sport.

''He's a young guy, and in the eyes of the biathlon world he's an up-and-comer,'' Nelson said.

The same goes for Hakkinen.

''Everyone in the biathlon world knows that those two are really classy athletes,'' Nelson said. ''Any team in the world would be happy to have Jay or Jeremy on it.''

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