Ostersund, Sweden. The ten-person US Biathlon Team, combining experience and youth, opens competition on Saturday in this city of 60,000, situated on the shore of Lake StorsjÃ¶n in west central Sweden.
US Biathlon Executive Director Max Cobb commented on the diverse nature of this year’s team, â€œThis team represents a great mix of youth and experience; two junior athletes are on the team, while three of the five men have had top ten performances at the World Championships in previous years.â€
Topping the US roster are two Top 10 finishers from 2007: Tim Burke (Paul Smiths, NY), seventh in the Individual competition at the World Championships and Jay Hakkinen (Kasilof, AK), who finished ninth in the Mass Start at those same Championships. Hakkinen and Burke are currently ranked 34th and 41st in the Overall World Cup rankings. After an early fast start, with top 15 finishes in the Kontiolahti World Cup, and a December slump, due to illness, both have recently come back with excellent results. Hakkinen had a 17th place in the Sprint and 16th in the Pursuit at Ruhpolding. Burke placed 26th in the Antholz Sprint and came back with 17th in the Pursuit. With these results, Burke and Hakkinen, as well as Bailey expect to vie for top positions in Ostersund.
Joining these two on the men’s team are Lowell Bailey (Lake Placid, NY) and Jeremy Teela (Anchorage, AK). Teela had top 10 finishes in the Sprint competition at the 2001 and 2003 World Championships. These two, along with Hakkinen and Burke comprise the men’s relay, which placed 8th at Ruhpolding and hopes to have a top six finish here in Ostersund. Bailey had two top 30 finishes at Ruhpolding as well as an outstanding relay leg there. Teela’s ski speed in the final meters at Ruhpolding gave the US the eighth place finish in a photo finish with the Czech Republic.
Russell Currier (Stockholm, ME), added this week after the Youth/Junior World Championships, boosts the men’s team to five. Currier had three top 20 finishes last week in Ruhpolding, Germany. He will start in at least one competition here.
The US Team finished their pre-World Championships training camp today and Coach Mikael Lofgren commented, â€œWe had a really good training camp. Conditions were perfect. Jay, Tim, and Lowell looked very good throughout training.â€
Cobb feels the experienced men’s team could provide some thrills in Ostersund, â€œThe team suffered some illness this season but is back on track now. I think they will have some Top 10 results, while I also think they have a chance to finish in the top six in the relay, which would be a huge stride for his group.â€
As with the men’s team, five women will compete in Ostersund. This group includes Lanny and Tracy Barnes (Durango, CO), Caitlin Compton (Minneapolis, MN), Haley Johnson (Lake Placid, NY) and Laura Spector (Lenox, MA). The Barnes’ sisters, among the most consistent performers on the shooting range in biathlon, are veterans of several seasons on the World Cup circuit and numerous World Championships. However, the other women are all World Championships â€œrookies.â€ Compton, as the US 5K cross-country champion is the fastest woman on skis in the US, but in just her first year of biathlon competition. Johnson, a veteran of several seasons in the Europa Cup circuit recently placed 12th in the Sprint at Osrblie, Slovakia.
Spector is a junior competitor, who competed in the Youth/Junior World Championships last week. She had three top 25 results there including 20th in the Sprint. Like Currier, Spector will start in at least one competition at these Championships.
On the relatively inexperienced women’s team, Cobb added, â€œThis is a rebuilding year for the women’s team with three women on the World Championships Team for the first time. Together, these three represent the broad spectrum of development programs in the country; Laura from Dartmouth College is on the Junior National team, while also training at the Maine Winter Sports Center in Fort Kent. Haley recommitted herself to biathlon after college and has trained with the development team for several years, while Caitlin, began biathlon in May and has made excellent progress.â€
Beyond the US Team, the 2008 Biathlon World Championships should provide plenty of action for biathlon fans. On the men’s side, the â€œkingâ€ of biathlon, Norway’s Ole Einar BjÃ¶rndalen, who competed in cross-country and biathlon in recent seasons, is â€œfully committedâ€ to biathlon this year, which is bad for any other man who steps on the starting line. BjÃ¶rndalen has devastating ski speed and when â€œonâ€ can shoot with anyone in the World. He has 80 World Cup victories and is aiming for the all-time record of 86. He could get closer with several wins here.
Besides the venerable Norwegian, Michael Greis of Germany is probably his number one rival. Greis, a 2006 multiple Olympic Gold medalist, had rounded into form recently including two wins in the Ruhpolding World Cup.
The hometown Swedish team has been building towards these Championships for four years, and now has a strong core of men including Bjorn Ferry and Carl Johan Bergmann, as well as Olympic Champion Anna Carin Olofsson on the women’s team. Sweden’s Head Coach Staffan Eklund commented on the Swedish prospects, â€œRealistically not thinking about Gold medals, I think we can make three medals here. That is the goal.â€
The women’s competitions in Ostersund will have one underlying theme, the German women. The German women’s team has dominated the season so far. They are unbeaten in relays, using several different line-ups. At the same time, the current overall World Cup rankings looks like this: Kati Wilhelm and Andrea Henkel, first and second; Magdalena Neuner and Martina Glagow, fourth and fifth; Sabrina Buchholz and Simone Denkinger, twelfth and thirteenth, while Katrin Hitzer sits in seventeenth position. Russia and Sweden (Olofsson in sixth) with three and two respectively are the only teams with more than one woman in the top twenty rankings.
Olympic Gold medalist Wilhelm and the new â€œgolden girlâ€ of German biathlon, Magdalena Neuner are good best for victories here in Ostersund. Beyond the Germans, several young Russians including Svetlana Sleptsova and Ekaterina Iourieva will offer serious challenges to the Germans. Norwegian Tora Berger could also be in the race for Gold as thousands of fans from nearby Norway are expected here to cheer for her and BjÃ¶rndalen.
Ostersund, a long time World Cup venue and host of the 1970 Biathlon World Championships has pulled out all stops for the 2008 Biathlon World Championships.
They have taken a relatively small stadium with a capacity of less than 2000 and rebuilt it into a modern facility with capacity for 11,000 spectators. In addition, the stadium now boasts permanent lighting capable of fully supporting nighttime television transmissions (the Men’s and Women’s Individual competitions will begin at 17:15 CET). The whole facility is supported by the most modern data networks, a new competition building, new permanent wax cabins, and reconfigured trails. The organizers have transformed a park on the lake in the center of the city into The Winterpark, which will host the opening and awards ceremonies as well as Vinterfestivalen, the Winter Festival, with daily activities, local food, and entertainment.
Somewhere in between all of the competitions and fun, the International Biathlon Union will celebrate 50 years of biathlon during the week, as the first Biathlon World Championships were held in 1958 in Saalfelden, Austria with the first World Champion, Adolf Wiklund from appropriately, Sweden. The IBU will host a gala dinner with many stars from the past and present attending and provide those in attendance a brand-new 350-page book â€œFifty Years of Biathlon, A Success Story.â€
The parties (and competitions) begin with the Opening Ceremonies on Friday February 8, followed by Sprint competitions on Saturday and Pursuit competitions on Sunday.
From February 8-17, Ostersund, Sweden is the place to be if you are a winter sports fan!
Live streaming video coverage of the Biathlon World Championships as well as Biathlon World Cup competitions for the remainder of the season, and archived highlights, are available by clicking the athlete photo at the top of the news column at www.usbiathlon.org.
Stadium and banner (Courtesy of USBA)
Guess what it is doing here (Courtesy of USBA)