In the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, 14 of the 15 medal positions in men's biathlon went to athletes from Germany, Norway, France and Russia.
In the 2006-07 World Cup season, the top 25 in the season-ending standings included five Germans, five Russians, five Norwegians and three Frenchmen.
While wearing a medal takes a strong individual effort, the backing of a strong national program also plays role. That's why Kasilof biathlete Jay Hakkinen, 30, continues to feel better about his goal of wearing a medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.
After the 2005-06 World Cup season, the United States Biathlon Association appointed Max Cobb the executive director. Cobb took a program to the United States Olympic Committee and the committee bought in. Swedish coaches Per Nilsson and Mikael Lofgren also replaced Algis Shalna.
One year into the program, Hakkinen said by phone on Tuesday from Finland that the results are encouraging.
"The coaches aren't so new anymore," he said. "We're getting into a system of healthy competition. It's been a very strong training year. Hopefully, it will be just as strong of a season."
The World Cup season starts on Thursday for Hakkinen with a 20-kilometer individual race. Last season, Hakkinen still was working with Shalna because most of Hakkinen's successful training ideas had come from Shalna. This season, he has been working directly with Nilsson and Lofgren and said the results have been encouraging.
Nilsson and Lofgren have the best U.S. men's biathlon team of Hakkinen's World Cup career, which saw the Skyview graduate earn his first World Cup points in the 1997-98 season.
Throughout Hakkinen's career until the 2005-06 season, the most U.S. men to earn World Cup points during a season was two. In 2005-06, Hakkinen, Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid, N.Y., and Anchorage's Jeremy Teela all earned points.
Last season, Tim Burke of Paul Smiths, N.Y., joined Hakkinen, Bailey and Teela in earning World Cup points.
"I must say, it's kind of unique to have four strong athletes at one time," Hakkinen said. "Also, the whole staff and the whole USBA is really focused on us four and what we all want to accomplish.
"In my experience, the best results come when the athletes, the USBA, the USOC and the sponsors are all moving toward the same goal, when the stars are aligned. That is happening now."
When the best results have come for U.S. Biathlon, it has usually been Hakkinen delivering them. He has the top three biathlon finishes in U.S. Olympic history and also a Junior World Championship in the sprint in 1997 the only Junior World Championship for the U.S.
Last season, Burke also began delivering.
He had a breakout season and scored points in 18 of 24 World Cup competitions to finish 25th in the year-end standings the highest ever for an American. Hakkinen said Burke is even stronger this year, giving athletes confidence in the U.S. program.
"It's really difficult to say until the results are there," Hakkinen said. "I never like to predict anything. A big difference is our confidence going into World Cups. We all feel like we've worked very hard to prepare to race.
"We're not intimidated by anybody. We're doing intervals as fast as everyone else. That's what's exciting going into the season. We don't feel like underdogs."
While Burke was having his breakout season, Hakkinen said he had a tough season due to being sick several times. His confidence is still intact due to a strong performance in the World Championships at Antholz, Italy, in February. Hakkinen finished ninth in the mass start his first top 10 at a World Championship. It was his seventh top 10 in World Cups, Olympics or World Championships.
"That was really important for me," Hakkinen said. "With the Olympics always in the back of my mind, you want to reach certain markers and World Championship results are certainly an important one. This year, the World Championships are important, but I want to be stronger throughout the whole year. That's easier said than done."
A key for Hakkinen will be prone shooting, where he hit 68 percent of his shots last season. The world's champion biathletes typically hit at least 80 percent of their shots for the season.
"Overall, the shooting feels very stable this year," Hakkinen said. "More disciplined, I would say. I put a lot of emphasis on that throughout the whole (training) season.
"It's always tough in races. The World Cup adds a lot of new pressure, and I'm not able to train under that sort of pressure. Under training conditions, my shooting is the best it's ever been."
With the Olympics coming so relatively close to home in 2010, Hakkinen said he is making an effort to keep Alaskans informed about his career. A major part of that is his Web site, jayhakkinen.com. The site should be getting almost weekly updates now that the season is beginning.
"It's not too exciting in the summer," he said. "I just train and do some fishing. During the season, it's much more consistent. I hope to make it as interesting as possible."
Having missed a bronze medal by one shot in the individual in Turin and having turned 30 over the summer, Hakkinen said he has a new sense of urgency this season.
"I don't want to look back and say I could have won that medal if I wouldn't have missed that little shot," Hakkinen said. "That's not a fun story to tell. It's time for me to be really serious now. That's what makes racing and training fun good results."
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.