Kasilof Olympian makes history

Hakkinen's finish best ever for U.S. biathlete

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2002

HEBER CITY, Utah -- Jay Hakkinen couldn't see the leader board or hear the public address announcer, but the roar of the American crowd told him something special was happening.

The scoreboard that everyone but Hakkinen could see told the crowd of 14,115 and a live TV audience that the Kasilof biathlete had moved up impressively from his No. 26 starting berth and suddenly was in eighth place after the fourth and final shooting stage of the men's 12.5-kilometer pursuit Saturday.

Let's put that in perspective. No American has ever finished higher than 14th in any Olympic biathlon event. A top 10 finish would be a watershed event for Hakkinen's sport in the United States.

But Hakkinen also knew something the crowd did not. He knew his standing should have been higher.

He'd just missed his first shot in the last round of 20 targets. He knew the extra 150 meters he just skied on the penalty lap would cost him dearly, both in time and energy.

And it did. Hakkinen faded slightly to 13th after his final 2.75-K loop on the cross-country course. It was just good enough for the best finish ever by an American biathlete. U.S. biathletes had finished 14th at the Olympics four times.

"To see that curse broken is a huge achievement," Hakkinen said. "The only thing better would have been a medal."

And while Hakkinen's placement was cause for celebration in the stands and the American biathlon camp, it produced only a bittersweet feeling for the Skyview High School graduate.

"I knew I'd lost several places on the last loop, but I couldn't see the scoreboard immediately after the finish," he said. "When I saw (where I finished), I broke down (with joy). It overcame me."

But it also was a slightly disappointing moment. Had he not missed the third shot on his final shoot from the standing position, Hakkinen might have had the top 10 finish he'd always dreamed of.

"I was concerned after the last shoot about how many places I'd lose, but I knew I was still in the thick of things," he said. "That last loop wouldn't have hurt so much if I hadn't missed that last shot."

With little left in the tank for the bell lap, Hakkinen watched himself being passed too often for his liking.

"I know I can do better than this," he said. "I know I could have done better today. I'd been working hard to get as close as I could to the strong skiers -- I could see (silver medalist) Sven Fischer just in front of me -- but I didn't have much response in my legs at the end."

But nobody was going to be better than Norway's Ole Einer Bjoerndalen. After winning the 20-K and 10-K sprint earlier in the week, he became the first person ever to win three biathlon titles in one Olympics when he held off Germany's Fischer by a margin of 28.9 seconds. That was exactly the head start Bjoerndalen had over Fischer at the start of the race, that margin being decided by the results of Wednesday's 10-K sprint.

American Jeremy Teela of Anchorage, who recorded the 14th-place finish in the 20-K event last Monday but started 20th and 1:45 behind Bjoerndalen Saturday, finished 21st after taking three penalty laps.

It wasn't the top 10 finish he'd hoped for, or the medal performance he dreamed of, but Hakkinen's performance Saturday had U.S. biathlon coach Jerry Kokesh believing his lightly followed skiing-shooting program is close to turning a corner.

"It's a huge step," he said. "For our program to have the results we've had at these Games, which are far better than anything we've ever had before, is what we need. We're struggling with the USOC to get future funding, and we've got to show results. We're heading in that direction.

"And, people got to watch this live today. In some aspects, that's as huge to the sport as the placing. We had a live biathlon competition on NBC; you can't imagine how we've struggled to do that. Then to have one of our athletes in the mix, and to have the NBC commentators talk to us, that doesn't happen.

"Jay's been swarmed by those people in Europe, but to have it happen on our soil is very special."

With his No. 13 finish, Hakkinen qualified for the remaining events on this year's World Cup circuit. He needed a top 13 finish to qualify or he would have gone back to Alaska, his season over.

In the women's 7.5-K pursuit, the Americans were no factor. Kara Salmela finished 45th, four spots better than her qualifying position, and Andrea Nahrgang was 47th.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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