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Alaskans falter in last chance for Olympic gold in biathlon

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Posted: Saturday, February 27, 2010 4:00 am | Updated: 1:05 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

• For complete Olympics coverage, visit our Olympics page.

• Matias Saari is in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games. Get the Alaska perspective here.

WHISTLER OLYMPIC PARK — If Friday’s 13th place in the men’s biathlon relay was the last Olympic race for Jay Hakkinen and Jeremy Teela, it was a forgettable finish. 

But Hakkinen, of Kasilof, and Teela, formerly of Anchorage, haven’t yet decided — or aren’t saying — what their biathlon future holds.

“I’ll go on the course and cheer on the other guys for right now,” the four-time Olympian Hakkinen said when asked, after completing the team’s second leg, what his plans are. “The rest will be decided after (the season).”

Said three-time Olympian Teela, after a disastrous anchor leg during which he dropped almost three minutes to the winning Norwegian team: “Where do I go from here? I’ll probably go into Whistler and have a steak and a beer and try to forget about this race.”

The Americans came into the Olympics with high aspirations, but leave with only one top-10 finish (Teela’s ninth in the sprint) and no results even close to their coveted podium. 

And on Friday, with four penalty laps and 12 total misses, none of the 16 other teams shot worse.

“We wanted to improve on our best (relay) result, which was fifth,” said Tim Burke, who briefly this season wore the yellow bib as the overall World Cup leader but managed no better than 17th at these games. “We haven’t been 13th (in the relay) in years.”

Teela and Hakkinen were emphatic that U.S. biathlon is still on the right track.

“It’s true this games has been a little disappointing, but we’ve made a lot of good progress this year,” Teela said at the venue’s media center. “So we’re not going to let two weeks get us down.”

Added Hakkinen: “We’ve come a huge ways and this Olympics has been more bad luck than anything for us ... but the work we’ve done has been correct and the results will come from it.”

While poor starting positions and unfavorable weather hurt Hakkinen and Burke in the individual races, Friday’s relay was simply a bad performance.

Wearing a visor to repel the wet and heavy snow that fell, Hakkinen got the tag from Lowell Bailey 44 seconds behind the leaders. Hakkinen shot clean in the prone stage, but then pressed too hard and needed nine shots to strike five targets in the standing stage. The first three misses simply meant he had to take the time to reload, but the last required a 150-meter penalty lap.

“I got a little too aggressive and too motivated to catch that group (ahead of me), and so it caused some shooting problems,” Hakkinen said. “It was frustrating. I just wanted it so much, too much.”

Hakkinen tagged Burke 1:56 off the pace, but the New Yorker lost another 90 seconds after five misses and two penalty laps. 

Finally it was Teela’s turn, and on his final lap the Heber City, Utah, resident skied under a bridge exiting the stadium at about the same time that Norway anchor Ole Einar Bjoerndalen — considered the best biathlete of all time — cruised on it in the opposite direction. Bjoerndalen then grabbed a Norwegian flag from a spectator and coasted home to clinch gold. Austria outsprinted Russia for silver almost 39 seconds later.

Teela still had about two of his 7.5 kilometers to go, and poor shooting, heavy legs and slow skis weren’t helping matters. He arrived 6 minutes, 20 seconds later.

Teela and Hakkinen will dissect the Olympic races before continuing with this season’s World Cup circuit.

“I’ll see where I made mistakes, but also find the things that did work,” Teela said. “That’s all you can do. If you don’t learn from the mistakes, you’re just going to repeat them.”

Teela, 33, said any decision about his future will come when he gets a break this spring.

“I’m not going to say whether or not I’m leaning yes or no for four (more) years, but I’m not going to say no (at this point),” Teela said, adding that he takes inspiration from the continued success of 40-year-old Norwegian Halvard Hanavold.

Does Teela know what Hakkinen’s plans are?

“We keep asking each other, but we don’t really tell each other anything. It’s kind of a mind game,” Teela said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all (if Hakkinen kept competing).”

With two top-15s at the 2006 Olympics and a successful 2009 World Championships, Hakkinen — as well as Teela and Burke — talked openly about wanting a medal in Whistler. 

But Hakkinen, 32, was undone by a snow squall that slowed conditions dramatically in the sprint race. Making matters worse, that result put him near the back of the pack for the pursuit. In the individual 20K, he had another late starting number and said by then “the sun cooked the course and it got soft.” The first three results are used to qualify for the mass start, so Hakkinen didn’t even get to enter that race.

“I never started in the top 50, so I had no chance even to try for a medal, so that was really tough on me,” Hakkinen said.

However, after the third race gone awry, he didn’t sulk.

“It was nice that it was a long break and then I took a few days completely off and enjoyed the Olympics,” he said.

Hakkinen attended the thrilling U.S. men’s hockey victory over Canada on Sunday as well as some of the Nordic races. And he made an important discovery.

“It’s a part of the Olympics — you see the winners but you also see people who things go incredibly wrong for ... and that kind of helped me psychologically,” Hakkinen said, mentioning a team sprint skier from Belarus who was eliminated after accidentally going the wrong way. “But you also see, the people who keep fighting, they move up, and that’s kind of my focus.” 

For years, Hakkinen has lived and trained in Germany, where he has a fiancee and young daughter. But since he now gets a week off and he’s not far from his hometown on the Kenai Peninsula, that where’s he’s headed almost immediately. 

“I get back there (to Kasilof) tomorrow,” Hakkinen said Friday. “I’m looking forward to it.”

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