It may be more than three years before the Winter Olympics begin in Vancouver, Canada, but Kasilof biathlete Jay Hakkinen believes the United States is closer than ever to winning its first Olympic biathlon medal.
“Overall, I must say this is the best-prepared we have been four years off from the Olympics,” Hakkinen, 29, said late last week by phone from Sweden.
As Hakkinen prepares to start his World Cup season on Thursday in Ostersund, Sweden, he is optimistic because of his performance at the 2006 Turin Olympics and because of a strong financial commitment by the United States Olympic Committee to a reorganized United States Biathlon Association.
In Turin, Hakkinen started the Olympics by finishing 10th in the 20-kilometer individual race. It was the best Olympic biathlon finish by an American. One less shooting penalty would have given Hakkinen the bronze medal.
After a disastrous performance in the sprint which also eliminated him from the pursuit, Hakkinen recovered to give the United States the lead after the first leg of the relay. The Americans ended up finishing ninth.
Hakkinen then closed his Olympics with a 13th place in the mass start. Combined with his 13th place in the pursuit at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Hakkinen now has the top three U.S. finishes in Olympic history.
The performance of Hakkinen at the Olympics, along with his Junior World Championship in the sprint in 1997, have this year’s USBA media guide calling Hakkinen the best U.S. biathlete of all time.
The USOC has taken notice of the athlete with the best chance to break Europe’s stranglehold on biathlon glory.
Over the summer, Hakkinen said the USBA made its board smaller and appointed Max Cobb the executive director. Swedish coaches Per Nilsson and Mikael Lofgren also replaced Algis Shalna.
“He took the bull by the horns,” Hakkinen said of Cobb. “He really started pushing forward with the idea and structure for a program for 2010. The big thing he did was brought that idea to the USOC.”
According the Hakkinen, the USOC believed in biathlon’s plan and bought in.
“Since I began with the USBA in 1994, I realized that I wanted to get a medal,” Hakkinen said. “It’s been a long process. We’re not like Norway. Norway knows the system and process to get on the podium.”
The United States has always had trouble excelling at sports that involve Nordic skis. The country has just two Olympic medals in that category Bill Koch’s silver medal in the 30-kilometer cross-country ski in 1976 and Anders Haugen’s ski jumping bronze in 1924.
Hakkinen said bit by bit, the USBA has figured out the little things that the European powers figured out long ago.
A look at the final World Cup standings from last season show the power and depth of Europe’s talent. Hakkinen was 37th, with six from Norway, Germany and Russia, plus three from France, Sweden and Czech Republic finishing ahead of him.
While using those results shows the power of Europe, it is not a fair barometer of Hakkinen’s talent. He was already qualified for the Olympics heading into the season so the Olympics, and not the World Cups, were his focus.
“My overall World Cup was lower than my ability showed,” Hakkinen said. “I’m at a level that I could win World Cups or Olympics if I put together skiing and shooting at my highest ability.
“If I ski well and shoot well, I could beat all those guys, though it’d still be tough to beat Ole Einar (Bjoerndalen).”
That kind of talk shows the biggest difference between the current Hakkinen and the Hakkinen of four years ago. After Salt Lake City, even with his 13th-place finish in the pursuit, Hakkinen said he still did not know how to beat the best biathletes in the world.
“Four years ago, I was starting over,” Hakkinen said. “I wasn’t really sure how I could get on the podium and move my results forward.
“I experimented and tried new things over the next four years and established a system that’s making me faster.”
Hakkinen definitely will not be starting over after the 2006 Olympics. Even with Nilsson and Lofgren as the two new coaches for the United States, Hakkinen still works with Shalna because many of his successful training ideas came from him.
“When you’re on the World Cup, you have to work with a lot of people to keep improving,” Hakkinen said.
One of the areas Hakkinen has targeted for improvement this year is prone shooting. The consistent top performers on the World Cup have shooting percentages in the mid-80s.
Last year Hakkinen was at 79 percent overall, with 85 percent while standing and 73 percent while prone. His problems with prone shooting were highlighted at the Olympics in his disastrous sprint race, where he missed all five of his prone shots.
“It was just a glaring weakness I couldn’t figure out,” Hakkinen said. “This year, I feel my position is much better. I want to do much better at it at least 10 percent.”
By 2010, Hakkinen would like to have medals from World Cup events to give him confidence at the Olympics. The biathlete has 43 top 25 finishes to his credit in the World Cup, but his best finish is fifth. To get on the podium, Hakkinen will have to break through a group of performers that have been dominating biathlon for years.
Norway’s Bjoerndalen, 32, has won four overall World Cup titles and nine Olympic medals, including five gold. He won his first medal in 1998 in Nagano.
France’s Raphael Poiree, 32, has won four overall World Cup titles and three medals, with his first coming in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Germany’s Sven Fischer, 35, has won two overall World Cup titles and eight medals, including four gold, with his first coming in Lillehammer in 1994.
At 29, Hakkinen knows his Olympic chances are fast closing. The Skyview High School graduate is still proud of his Alaska roots and spends time commercial fishing with his family in Bristol Bay in the summer.
Hakkinen said the reception he got upon returning home after the last World Cup season made all the hours of practice and training worth it. He knows an Olympics in Vancouver is as close to home as the Olympics are going to get during his career.
“I hope to create an enthusiasm and make (the next Olympics) seem like a home-course advantage,” Hakkinen said. “Hopefully, a lot of people will be able to go there and enjoy the Olympics.”
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