The biathlon, a sport that combines cross country skiing and rifle shooting, has long been dominated by competitors from northern Europe and the former Soviet republics. The United States hopes its new talent will win a medal next month at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
25-year-old U.S. Olympic biathlon team member Jeremy Teela spends much of his day training. "You pretty much have to [do nothing but the biathlon] to win a gold medal," he said. "You can not do anything else, especially in an endurance sport. You train twice a day, sometimes two-and-a-half hours in the morning, and 2.5 hours in the afternoon, [then] two-hours sleeping after lunch. There is no room for anything else."
Jeremy Teela is a product of the U.S. Biathlon Association Olympic development program. He was a three-time national junior Nordic champion and was recruited by the U.S. National Biathlon team and asked to give the sport a chance. "And I liked it, stuck with it, and ever since I have been doing the biathlon," said Jeremy Teela.
The biathlon calls for endurance on skis and precision shooting with a .22 caliber rifle. Competitors race against the clock on a cross-country course and stop at intervals to fire shots at five targets, 50 meters away. In the men's 10 kilometer event, each missed target forces the competitor to ski a 150 meter penalty loop. In the 20 kilometer event, each missed target adds one minute to the biathlete's total time. Jeremy Teela says what he likes about the sport is that it is fast-paced and unpredictable. "There is not one guy who can win every single race in a season," he said. "Someone is going to mess up and someone else is going to do well. The lead will change. The winners will change, and it has a good mix."
No U.S. athlete has finished better than 14th in an individual biathlon Olympic event. Jeremy Teela finished first in the U.S. Olympic Biathlon Sprint Trial and placed ninth in the 2001 World Biathlon Championships in Slovenia.
Another contender is 23-year-old Jay Hakkinen, the first American to win a World Championship. Hakkinen says during a year as an exchange student in Norway, where the sport is a national obsession, he got interested in training for the biathlon.
Like team member Teela, the U.S. Biathlon Association grassroots program gave Hakkinen a chance to develop his skills. "They decided to take kids my age - I was 16 at the time - and develop them into Olympic champions [in time] for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics," he said. "And, they actually gave the National Team coach to us junior [athletes] and they have been developing us ever since. So, we are specifically made and bred for the biathlon and for these Olympics."
In 1997, his rookie season, Hakkinen won the world junior biathlon title. He joined the U.S. Olympic team a year later, but finished a disappointing 53rd in the sprint event at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Team member Jeremy Teela says there will be stiff competition at the Salt Lake City Olympics, but he is confident that a podium position is well within reach. "No one is slacking," said Jeremy Teela. "Those Russians, those older guys are going to be out for blood. The Norwegians, the Germans are incredible shooters. It is going to take a perfect performance. I am not going to be able to miss a shot and win. It is going to take clean shooting from either Jay or myself or anybody else on the team."
The biathlon is not well known in the United States and does not get the same level of support or sponsorship as other Olympic events. Biathlete Jay Hakkinen says in Salt Lake City the U.S. is under pressure to perform. "The future of the [American] biathlon [team] is heavily dependent on this Olympics," he said. "We have known that for eight years. They were threatening to pull the plug on biathlon eight years ago because we had never gotten results, and it is hard to fund a program that is on the last page. So, we need to prove ourselves at this Olympics. We just have to start showing results. And, I hope I can be a part of that. That is the key to our future."
Jay Hakkinen and Jeremy Teela were both born in Alaska. Hakkinen still lives there. But Teela now lives in Utah and has been training in conditions similar to the Salt Lake City Biathlon venue at an area called Soldier Hollow. He hopes the home course advantage will help push the team to the top.