It’s not often that the U.S. biathlon team gets to race a relay in front of a home crowd—in fact, it hasn’t happened in more than seven years.
So when the American squad of Sara Studebaker, Haley Johnson, Jay Hakkinen and Jeremy Teela took to the course in Presque Isle in Saturday’s World Cup mixed relay, the race was just as much for the hundreds of red-white-and-blue-clad spectators as it was for the athletes themselves.
“It’s about them, too,” Teela said.
The Americans were aiming for the top half of the field of 12 teams, and up until the very last shooting stage, things were going to plan. Teela, the anchor, was locked in a duel with the last Swedish skier, Fredrik Lindstrom, for the sixth position—and he wasn’t having trouble holding the pace.
“[Lindstrom] was very easy to ski with—I knew I had much better shape than he did,” Teela said.
But when the two came in to shoot standing, it all unraveled, as Teela had to use all three of his spare rounds and still left one of his five targets untouched. He had to take a trip to the penalty loop—a relatively rare occurrence in a relay race—while Lindstrom used just one extra round and easily wrapped up the sixth spot, relegating the Americans to seventh.
Teela skied hard into the finish, thanking the Presque Isle faithful with a bow, but he still said that he was “upset” with his race. The misses in the final shooting stage, he said, came despite feeling “very good” in the range.
“I was very aggressive, and sometimes aggressive works, and sometimes it doesn’t,” Teela said. “That’s what confidence and experience is supposed to help you with.”
While Teela’s collapse came in full, clear view of the spectators, he wasn’t the only American who struggled on Saturday. Johnson, in the second leg, didn’t have to ski any penalty laps, but she did need all three of her extra rounds for both shooting stages.
“It takes four athletes…to make a great relay,” Teela said. “Two of them were really good.”
The teammates Teela was referring to were Studebaker and Hakkinen, who both skied stellar legs. Studebaker hung with the leaders through her first of three trips around the women’s two-kilometer loop, and used just a pair of spare rounds over her two shooting stages.
Hakkinen, meanwhile, needed just one spare round in the third leg, moving the American team up from tenth place to eighth place in the process. After struggling with illness in the early season, the veteran is getting his legs under him, as demonstrated by his racing on Saturday and his 28th in Friday’s sprint.
“The more time I have, the better I can be,” he said. “I need training. I need races.”
The Americans will be back in front of the Presque Isle faithful one last time in Sunday’s pursuit. While the fans’ numbers didn’t seem much larger than on Friday, when they tallied somewhere in the low thousands, they didn’t lack for enthusiasm.
The crowd—which included three shirtless young men with chests emblazoned with ‘U,’ ‘S,’ and ‘A’—cheered every time the Americans came through the stadium, no matter their position.
On Sunday, they’ll have a chance to shout for what could be another groundbreaking result, after Studebaker’s 14th place on Friday. She’ll start in that position in the pursuit, and with just one minute separating her from Helena Ekholm, the first starter, Studebaker certainly has a chance to move up. While some top athletes opted to sit out the mixed relay to be more rested for the pursuit, Studebaker said she wasn’t worried.
“I feel confident in my ability to come out here and race, and just kind of flush it all out and go again tomorrow,” she said.
One thing that will help? The fact that Studebaker was able to stick to the leaders for her first lap on Saturday.
“It gives you that confidence that you can ski with those girls,” she said. “Maybe I can’t do it for three full laps, at their pace, in a sprint race, but I’m getting there. And I think that’s a really good thing.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.