Hochfilzen, Austria. Hakkinen led off for the US Team today struggling on the shooting range from the outset. He skied the first loop comfortably in the lead group. While most teams shot clean, he shot all three extra rounds, leaving the range with three targets missed. This pushed the team to near the rear of the 22-team field. In standing, the results were similar as he again used all of his three extra rounds, leaving the range with two additional penalties.
Hakkinen tagged Lowell Bailey (Lake Placid, NY) in 22nd position. Bailey aggressively tried to move the team back into contention, as he could not see any other teams when he left the stadium. He shot clean in prone moving up in time against the nearest teams. Coming to the standing stage, he was now in the mix with several other nations including China and Great Britain. Bailey needed two extra rounds to clean, but flew around the tracks to tag off to Tim Burke (Paul Smiths, NY) in 19th position. Bailey commented, “Today was the first time I felt good skiing. That helped me catch up to the others. This was our first relay of the season, and even though we did not start so well, I know we will put it together.”
By the time he passed to Burke, the snow that had started during Hakkinen's leg was becoming a major storm with the shooting mats needing continuous sweeping to keep them safe and clear. Burke, like his teammate, attacked on both the tracks and the shooting range. He shot aggressively in both prone and standing, needing two extra rounds each time, and like Bailey, leaving with no penalties. Burke slowed some in the final loop, as did his competitors, but he still gained ground on the field.
Burke passed to Jeremy Teela in 16th position, putting the US men in sight of Canada, Czech Republic, Latvia, and Slovenia. Teela came to the prone stage, just behind this group. He needed just one extra round to clean, leaving Slovenia behind on the penalty loop. The standing stage was critical, because it was snowing so hard, the race was surely going to be decided on the shooting range. With the US and three others on the range, Teela needed three extra to clean, but managed to get past all three, bringing the team home in 12th place, 7:18.2 behind Norway.
The smiling Teela talked about his day. “After the first leg, we said our goal now was to at least beat the Canadians. We got back up with them and it was (Canadian) Jaime Robb and I on the range together in standing. I shot two extra rounds and still had one target left and just one round. It was now or never. I hit it and Robb, who picked up a penalty, was leaving the penalty loop just in front of me. I had nothing left; the tracks were extremely slow, so I did not want a sprint at the finish. I decided to attack as we left the stadium. I passed him quickly and luckily, he did not respond. The distance I gained there was the difference, as I was basically walking by the time we finished.”
Video interview with Teela talking about his leg in detail.
The 12th place finish, as Bailey suggested, showed the potential of the US Team, despite an uncharacteristically sub-par opening leg. From leg two thorough four, the team had only 10 extra rounds, which is acceptable, and despite continually deteriorating conditions, the men continued to fight to improve their position.
At the front of the pack, Norway dominated as Russia, which is usually flawless in relays, faltered to finish 2:25.5 back. The Norwegians only shot six extra rounds, while the Russians fired ten and picked up two penalties. The key to Norway's victory was the final two legs of Halvard Hanevold and Ole Einar Bjorndalen. Both shot clean with no extra rounds, while the Russians had two penalties and nine extra rounds. The young German team, with nine extra rounds for the day, finished 31.1 seconds behind the Russians.
Several members (Bailey, Teela, Hakkinen, and Lanny Barnes) of the US Biathlon Team will now travel to Pokljuka, Slovenia for the final World Cup before the holiday break.
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