If the biathlon world were a stage, and Jay Hakkinen merely an actor, today would begin the dress rehearsal for what could be a headline opening act next year.
Hakkinen, a 23-year-old Skyview High School graduate from Kasilof, will begin competition in a biathlon World Cup today at Soldier Hollow, which is just east of Salt Lake City.
There are nine World Cups this year, but this one is special. A little under a year from now, the Olympics will be in Salt Lake City and 31 nations and over 260 biathletes are in Utah this year to check out the Soldier Hollow course that will stage the battle for gold.
As one of America's top medal hopes in the biathlon for the 2002 Winter Olympics, this World Cup, which starts with a 20-kilometer individual race today, will be a trial run for Hakkinen.
The odds against him are steep. No American has medaled at the Olympics in the biathlon, the sport that expects an athlete to muster the precision of riflery while dealing with the grind of skiing.
"The whole training year has been based on this World Cup," said Hakkinen earlier this month in a phone interview from Utah. "I missed my peak during the World Championships, actually I missed it completely, but the idea was to still be in very good shape for this World Cup.
"The idea is to be peaked and do the exact Olympic plan to make sure it works."
Algis Shalna, the coach of the U.S. Biathlon Team, said he wouldn't go so far as to call this World Cup a test, but he also didn't deny its importance.
"All the teams are here trying out the courses, the range, experiencing the wind, rain -- everything," Shalna said. "It's just a practice, like before every Olympics one year prior they make a World Cup a pre-Olympic event.
"The one word I would use would not be a test. It's more of a trying out."
The World Cup also is important to Hakkinen and the Americans because they have done more "trying out" of the Soldier Hollow venue than any other nation.
That experience could help, because Soldier Hollow has some interesting variables. It's at about 6,000 feet of elevation, which is about as high as the international skiing federation will allow a race. Also, the area commonly gets wet rain and snow, so much of the snow on Soldier Hollow is man-made and the trails can get slushy. The Europeans also must adjust to the time and culture change.
This World Cup could start to answer the question of whether all of the U.S. Ski Team's "trying out" will pay off.
"Overall, as a team, we're more prepared than anyone else for this World Cup," said Hakkinen, who returned to the United States on Feb. 8 after having been in Europe since Nov. 26. "You can never predict how it's going to go with the altitude and time zone change."
Trying to shake off a slow year
The problem Hakkinen faces as he goes into the Salt Lake City World Cup, which also includes a 10-kilometer sprint Friday and a 12.5-kilometer pursuit Saturday, is that, lately, his .22-caliber rifle has not exactly been blazing.
Hakkinen is in a slump the way Tiger Woods is in a slump. He has traditionally gone places American male biathletes have not gone before, and now a season with some impressive results is still considered an off season.
His best result this year in a World Cup was his seventh-place finish in a 10-kilometer sprint in early January in Oberhof, Germany.
There have been six top-10 finishes by an American man in a World Cup, World Championship or Olympics. Hakkinen's performance in Oberhof gave him four of those six top 10s. Pretty impressive, but Hakkinen clearly was expecting to be higher than his current 55th in the World Cup rankings.
For Hakkinen, this has been his toughest season since he started competing in biathlon.
"It hasn't been a normal season for me," Hakkinen said. "If there's any season to be down, it's really this year. Every year I've competed, I've been having great results and things have gone well.
"I can't quit at the first sign of hardship. I want to use it to motivate me."
Indeed, this year has been an off chapter in what so far has been a storybook career. In 1994, when he was a junior at Skyview, Hakkinen qualified for the U.S. Junior National Team in his first season as a biathlete and his career has been burgeoning ever since.
In 1995, the year he graduated from Skyview, Hakkinen became the first American biathlete to garner a top-10 finish in the World Junior Championships. In 1996, he became the first American to win an international competition when he won the Europa Cup Series. Finally, in 1997 he became the first U.S. biathlete to win a World Junior Championship title.
He followed that by qualifying for the 1998 U.S. Winter Olympic Team, then finishing 42nd in the 20-kilometer individual race and 60th in the 10-km race in Nagano, Japan.
Then, of course, there's also those four top-10 finishes in the World Cups.
"He's experiencing a really difficult year," said Shalna, who won a gold medal in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics for Lithuania. "He's had only one good race this year and he does not feel the way he normally feels."
Hakkinen said one of the main reasons for his disappointing season is a virus that caused him to miss the second World Cup of the season in early December.
"I began the season sick," Hakkinen said. "I also had trouble getting into race shape. I've always felt a couple of steps behind and haven't been able to catch up so far this year.
"It feels like the season is just starting now. I'm just starting to get into race shape."
Hakkinen said one of the toughest parts of his tough season has been the feeling of letting down the U.S. Biathlon Team.
"The staff has been doing such a professional job so I'm disappointed I can't get the results for them," he said. "They're doing everything right and the results aren't coming."
Both Hakkinen and Shalna agreed that they will analyze what happened this year after the season and make adjustments for the Olympic year.
"It's fixable 100 percent as long as his motivation stays up," Shalna said. "He has high goals and I don't think his goals went down at all.
"He may have been a little burnt out for this season but his goals for the Olympics remain pretty high."
Reappearance of an old rival
Until this year, Hakkinen has grown accustomed to achieving the top American biathlon results among men. This year, that has changed with the sudden emergence of Anchorage's Jeremy Teela on the biathlon scene.
Teela pulled a major shocker by finishing ninth in a race at the World Championships in Pokljuka, Slovenia, in early February. It was the top finish by an individual American biathlete in the World Championships since Josh Thompson finished second in 1987.
Teela and Hakkinen enjoyed many close races when Hakkinen was at Skyview and Teela at Service High in the mid-1990s. Teela was the state Skimeister in 1995.
Hakkinen, who rooms with Teela and says he spends more time with Teela than Teela does with his fiancee, said it's been interesting watching Teela achieve great results and thirst for more.
"I always hoped that someone would jump up if I started doing bad," Hakkinen said. "I still wish it was me, but the season's still young."
While one might expect that Teela has put pressure on Hakkinen to do better, Hakkinen said that a little pressure is actually off him because he no longer is the lone soldier for American biathletes.
Shalna also feels the emergence of Teela is a positive for the American team.
"He's made a big jump and a lot of eyes are turning in his direction," Shalna said. "Jay, Jeremy and the other athletes know that when an athlete improves in results, that means the training they are doing is efficient."
What happens when it's all over?
At age 23, Hakkinen is now at the stage of his life where his high school friends are getting done with their educations and getting entrenched in their careers.
Does the longing for the "normal life" ever burn in the back of Hakkinen's mind?
"There's absolutely no way to complain about my lifestyle," the globe-trotting Hakkinen said. "It takes me where I want to go.
"I live a rich man's life, really. I'm basically unlimited in what I can do as far as travel and expenses. I don't even think of how much the hotel bill is. It's a pretty unreal experience.
"I have no regrets."
Another thing that can be tough for a United States biathlete is simply being from the United States.
In Europe, the biathlon is big time. Hakkinen said every race he does is shown on live television in Europe. Even the World Cup in Lake Placid, New York, will be started early in the day to better suit live television in Europe.
Plus, the European stadiums he competes in can be packed. He calls the crowds "pretty deafening."
In America, meanwhile, biathletes are anonymous. Hakkinen gets fan mail from Europeans. He doesn't get fan mail from Americans, although he said his parents let him know that people at home are very supportive of him.
Hakkinen said when he started his career it was tough getting respect from the Europeans. But as the results have come, so has the respect.
"We Americans have gained a lot of respect over the past couple of years," Hakkinen said. "The Europeans are very excited to see us doing well.
"They're very helpful and I actually get a lot of fan mail from Germans, Austrians and even French guys. It's interesting how excited they are. It makes you feel like a big shot."
In biographical sketches, Hakkinen has always listed himself as a commercial fisher. But he said since he hasn't fished in four years, he's having a hard time calling himself a fisher anymore.
He even talks about having to "adapt" to America, with its hamburgers, french fries and pickup trucks instead of fuel efficient cars.
If it sounds like Hakkinen's in this for the long run -- to the 2002 Olympics and beyond -- that's because he is.
"I've thought about after the Olympics quite a bit," said Hakkinen, who still spends his summers training in Alaska. "It wouldn't make sense to stop. The peak years for a biathlete are between ages 24 and 28. All the work I've done over the past years, this is where it all kicks in.
"There's no reason I should stop."
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