United States Jay Hakkinen turns toward the finish of his opening leg in the Men's Biathlon 4 X 7.5 km Relay at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympics Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006, in Cesana San Sicario, Italy.
(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
The wildly up-and-down Winter Olympics of Kasilof’s Jay Hakkinen is back up again.
Hakkinen, 28, put the U.S. men’s biathlon team in the lead after the first leg of the 4-by-7.5-kilometer relay Tuesday in the sunny and calm hills of Cesana San Sicario, Italy.
The U.S. team met its goal of a top-10 finish by taking ninth, with Germany wrapping up gold, Russia nabbing silver and France edging Sweden for the bronze.
The relay leg was Hakkinen’s first competition since his disastrous 80th-place finish in the 10-kilometer sprint on Feb. 14. Hakkinen had his medal hopes up after finishing 10th in the 20-kilometer individual on Feb. 11 the all-time best American finish in Olympic biathlon.
Those medal hopes were crushed by an 0-for-5 prone shooting performance in the sprint.
“Today was very important,” Hakkinen said by cell phone shortly after the relay race concluded. “I had a lot of fun racing in the Olympics again. Tagging off first was an amazing feeling.
“I knew the whole time that I was not a bad shooter. It was a fluke, and now I’m back to business.”
In the relay, each team member does a prone and then a shooting stage. At each stage, competitors get eight bullets to knock down five targets. The first five bullets are in a magazine, while the next three must be hand-loaded, which usually costs 8 to 10 seconds for each bullet that is hand-loaded. For each target left standing after the eight shots, competitors must ski a 150-meter penalty loop.
Hakkinen arrived at the first shooting stage near the front of a large pack of skiers. U.S. team members and Hakkinen had never pinpointed the reason for Hakkinen’s 0-for-5 performance in the sprint, but Hakkinen had been shooting fine in practice since the sprint.
He quickly hit on 5-of-6 prone shots and left the stage in fourth place, just 1.3 seconds out of the lead.
Hakkinen said the relay race was a perfect place to mend his shooting troubles. He said the extra rounds allowed him to shoot fast and not spend a lot of time thinking about his shots.
At the next shooting stage, Hakkinen nailed 5 of his 7 shots to move into the lead by five seconds. When he tagged Tim Burke, 24, of Paul Smiths, N.Y., Hakkinen had given his squad a three-second lead.
“It about killed me to keep in first,” Hakkinen said. “I thought the guys behind me were going to catch me. It’s been a really dramatic Olympics.”
Burke fell back into eighth place after six misses, Lowell Bailey, 24, of Lake Placid, N.Y., fell back into ninth after four misses and Jeremy Teela, 29, of Anchorage held that ninth position despite skiing a penalty loop after the standing stage. The U.S. team finished 2 minutes, 31.9 seconds, behind Germany.
The best finish for the U.S. men’s relay in the Olympics is sixth in 1972. The ninth-place finish is the best relay finish in Hakkinen’s World Cup and Olympic career.
“It was a great result, especially at the Olympics,” Hakkinen said. “We’re really excited about our potential. All the guys are skiing well, and we all feed off each other. We have a good team, especially looking toward 2010.”
The team, considered young by biathlon standards, also had a 10th-place finish earlier in this World Cup season.
“After the Olympics, everyone will take a breather and look at their situation and funding,” Hakkinen said. “We’re all still barely scraping by and looking for sponsors. The potential is there. If we stick it through, we could be on the podium.”
Although Hakkinen’s ski time was nowhere close to the top ski times Tuesday due to the conservative first loop, Hakkinen said his skiing is still going great heading into the 15-kilometer mass start, which will take place at 12:01 a.m. Alaska time on Saturday and be broadcast at 7 p.m. Saturday on NBC.
After his sprint race, Hakkinen did not expect to qualify for the mass start, but he learned Saturday he was the last to qualify for the field of 30. Hakkinen’s best career World Cup or Olympic mass start finish is 18th.
“Traditionally, my 10-kilometer (sprint) has been my best, and that was my worst at the Olympics,” Hakkinen said. “I hope I have another opposite day.”
Before the sprint race, Hakkinen said his focus was getting on the podium. Before the mass start, Hakkinen said he will focus on having his best race and not focus on the podium.
“My shape is still where it should be and that gives me confidence for the mass start,” Hakkinen said. “I’m going to be wiser and more cautious on the predictions.”
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