SALT LAKE CITY -- American biathlete Jay Hakkinen has his sightsset on the medal stand at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
American biathlete? Medal stand in the Olympics? This a joke? Apparently, the world is no longer snickering.
Hakkinen, who hails from the small fishing village of Kasilof, Alaska,thinks the U.S. has a shot in the sport that combines cross-countryskiing and shooting. And the best in the world are now giving morethan a passing sneer at U.S. biathlon, one of two sports in whichAmericans have never medalled in the Winter Olympics.
About eight years ago, we were pretty pathetic, to be honest, saidHakkinen, the first American to ever win a world championship (theWorld Junior Sprint champ in 1997). We wanted to do somethingabout it by the time we got to Salt Lake City.
Basically, biathlon in America was in a fight for survival: Getcompetitive or get out.
The United States Olympic Committee made the commitment - morecourses, better training, more money for development at the youthlevel, better equipment. Algis Shalna, a multiple World Cup winnerfor the Soviet National team, was hired to coach the Americans onthe finer techniques of the sport.
We looked at every reason why we were losing races, saidHakkinen. It started with equipment. It included practice techniques.Now, I feel we have the fastest skis in the world, as good as theEuropeans have. I feel we are much more stronger physically. And,Iíve never been so confident in our chances for success.
Biathlon involves four competitions, cross-country, sprint, pursuit andteam. Equipment, particularly a good wax job, is often the edge.
The proper mixture of wax on the skis helps the participants performat their optimum in different snow conditions. The Americans nowhave highly rated wax technicians from Italy and Germany.
The German wax technician is more structured, Hakkinen said. TheItalian is more artistic, more laid-back. So, they work together well.
Hakkinen, one of three Alaskans on the U.S. biathlon team, is from afishing village of about 400 in the true Alaska, the tundra, he said.
It's basically an elementary school, a post office and store. There is a city of 5,000 nearby, but I never got into city life. I was able to sit inmy room for long periods without during anything, which has helpedme learned concentration that is necessary.
His mother, Yvonne, owns a commercial fishing business (the area isrenown for its salmon). His father, Brian, is an electronic technician in a prison.
Hakkinen will be making his second Olympic appearance and hasbeen the No. 1-ranked American male for three years.
Fellow Alaskans on the biathlon team are Jeremy Teele and RachelSteer, both of Anchorage. We actually grew up within a couple ofblocks of each other and we know each otherís families pretty well,which is great support for the long trips we have to make.
Steer shares the new excitement for biathlon in America.
You go to Europe and hear the biathlon is the most-watched sporton TV over there, she said. In America, most people are not surewhich two sports are included in biathlon. Some think itís threesports.
The USOC and officials here have done everything they can do toimprove the sport over here, Hakkinen said. Everything is in place.It's up to the athletes now. Weíve decided we want results. I learnedat Nagano that beyond the medals, nothing matters at the Olympics.That's why I'm here.
David McCollum, sports columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat inConway, Ark., is part of the Morris team covering the WinterOlympics.