RUHPOLDING, Germany – After winning a World Junior title in 1997, Jay Hakkinen has gone on to compete in four different Olympic Games and notch nine individual World Cup top-tens, including one this year.
But despite Hakkinen’s long contribution to the U.S. team, in past years he has been more visible in Europe than in the sport in his home country. In 2008 he moved to Oberhof, Germany, when he and his girlfriend Kristin Orlameunder welcomed a daughter to the family. Since then, Hakkinen has often spent the springs in his native Alaska, but otherwise traveled to the U.S. only for a few camps each year.
At the moment he’s back with the team in Ruhpolding, where all of the U.S. “A” team athletes are having a two-week training camp before heading to Oberhof to test skis in the ski tunnel. FasterSkier took the opportunity to catch up with Hakkinen in person and snagged an interview at the team’s hotel.
FasterSkier: So how has your summer been going so far?
Jay Hakkinen: I think it has been good! It’s nice to be here with the team. I’ve been training on my own, in Alaska in the spring and then in Germany in the summer until now. So it’s good to have the checkup with the team, especially heading towards the season. It’s been relaxed, but really good training.
FS: For the summers, do you have a coach on the ground here in Germany that you work with, or are you working entirely based off the plan the U.S. team coaches give you?
JH: I work closely with Per [Nilsson] and Armin [Auchentaller, the U.S. team coaches] for the training and the training plan. Then when I can, I recruit some help from friends to help with specific training, but a lot of the training I can do on my own because training is training.
FS: And you’ve been doing it for a while.
JH: Yeah, it’s not rocket science.
FS: Do you have any training partners?
JH: Man, now it sounds depressing! No, I actually prefer a lot of training on my own. I like my pace, my heart rates, my system. So I like coming to camps and comparing with the others and training with the others, but even then I need my time where I can do it the way I like to do it.
With shooting, the way I like to do it is that I use the camps and checkpoints and to get the ideas, but I find that the time when you’re on your own is the time that you can really advance in certain areas. I need that time because I’ll have a weakness or a problem and I need to internalize and figure out in my head why this is happening without the pressure of, oh my god, if I miss, the coach is going to see it. With that pressure away, I solve the problem and come to the next camp even better, or I try to.
FS: How has your plan evolved in the last couple of years?
JH: Every year is very much an adventure. The biggest thing has been getting a good structure. It’s always about finding the way to get the best results and how to arrange everything and a support base around an individual. Each person on the team does that, even in a team environment, you still need a coach to talk to you specifically. So that has been my challenge, is getting that structure strong enough to support the top results.
FS: Do you feel like you’ve been making positive progress on that?
JH: The results have picked up in the last couple of years, which has shown that the structure has been better and the cooperation has been better. It’s coming along, and just in time for the Olympics, too.
FS: Is it limiting to be outside of the regular national team structure?
JH: No, no, it doesn’t have to be. And they do provide the same national team support for me. I get the same stuff as the other guys. The difference is the daily support, but there have been people who have really supported me with that so it hasn’t been a disadvantage.
FS: What are the facilities like in Oberhof?
JH: That’s one thing that’s impressive about Europe. They think of everything that an athlete needs for their training and they provide it. There’s a lot of cultural issues when you’re training in Europe, too, though. The German system can be really rigid, such as with shooting times and when you train. It actually took several years to figure out which range belongs to which organization and how to get permissions and things like that. But now I have a good system.
FS: Was it hard when you first got over here to figure out how things worked?
JH: I had been traveling for a long time, and I like Europe. I always have. I started my biathlon career in Norway and I’ve been traveling with the biathlon national team since I was 16, so that wasn’t an issue. The biggest issue was adapting to that rigid culture as an independent athlete going into a system that only allows clubs. It was very difficult too because I didn’t want to barge into the national team structure, but there also wasn’t quite a fit with the other clubs. Overall, it was challenging, but I’ve figured it out.
There was also a question of figuring out which camps to do, because living over here, if I was to do all of the camps it was going to create a lot of travel. I did actually at first go between Alaska, and camps, and Europe. I was going in circles, getting exhausted without the training. So I have been trying to make it more efficient, and then I finally reached that level of efficiency.
FS: Has it affected your understanding of the sport to be living here in Germany?
JH: That was one of my big motivations for coming over here, was to see what we were missing as an American program and why we weren’t getting the medals and they were. That was an interesting learning process of what the difference is in our two programs.
FS: And what is it?
JH: [Laughs] And the answer is… Simply… [throws hands in the air] No, the basic thing is that in Europe they consider their career as their job. There’s coaches watching the shooting all year round for each training. In the U.S., it’s a college-based system, and sports in general is thought of as something you do, and then you go to college and you get a life. Europe recycles their athletes into coaches, into physiologists, so they have this whole system where you’re actually doing job training for your career until you retire, really retire, when you’re 60. That’s what I see as the big difference. And the support is a lot better too.
USBA has made good strides with the Lake Placid program, realizing that it’s not just about having camps and then you go home. Every day there’s that support system there.
FS: Would you recommend to someone that it would be useful to come spend a year in Europe, or five years?
JH: What I thought was great when I spent my foreign exchange of Norway was not just the sports side of it, but the cultural side of it. I thought it was very eye-opening and I would absolutely recommend for anybody to do that. It really expands your world. It’s a little strange to go back and you see that everyone is enclosed in high school cliques and things and you think, wow, they don’t realize there’s a whole world out there. But also for the sports, you actually see that there’s not that much of a difference. They’re doing the same training, it’s just maybe on a more regular basis. There’s no secrets.
I think we are getting there. The realization is happening. This generation for some reason gets it, where the past nordic and biathlon generations were too landlocked. Europe was too far away. They tried what they wanted in the U.S. – I don’t want to get into the old days, but we’d fly over to Europe, we’d be jetlagged, we’d race, we’d lose, we’d go back and we wouldn’t understand. Now we’re over here, we see the competition and when we go back for the summer and work on where they’re beating us. And just even talking to them. They don’t keep secrets, but if you’re not there to talk to them, you don’t learn.
FS: What has kept you in the sport so long, and kept you motivated?
JH: For me, it has always been that as long as the results have been there and I enjoy doing it, I’ll do it. And I still have goals I want to achieve. Especially, you get a taste that you had it, it was that close, and you go back to the workshop and try it. And it’s strange too because you can try a new concept, and it can take a whole year to try that and fail at it, and then you have to start from scratch and that’s one year lost. So these Olympic cycles go quicker than you think.
I love the training effect. I love it that you can run 100 meters and check your time, and then train for it and your time improves. I find that just a miracle and I am fascinated by that. You can do that for anything. And in biathlon there’s a lot of little things to work on, maybe what’s the different between a split bullet and a hit, how can I move it that one millimeter over. That’s always been a good motivation for me.
FS: The team as a whole has been doing a lot better in the last couple of years. Has that added to your motivation?
JH: It drives me crazy, because a lot of the time they’re doing better than I am! But it’s a positive competitiveness. It’s great, and it’s what I had hoped for for many years when I was developing in the younger years, to put it horribly. We used to do relays and we had the hope that we wouldn’t be last. If we could beat one team then it was great. But now there’s another motivation, it’s not just an individual motivation, but I think the team is good enough that we can be fighting for the top of the Nations Cup points, or fighting for medals in the relay. So there’s another element that gives you more pride in what you’re doing.
FS: What do you think made it happen?
JH: What happened is that USBA had a very good support base, and they brought in coaches that clicked with the athletes. It was a professional organization that built around the athletes and then the USOC supported the system. And the results just started coming very quickly.
And then it has to be credited very much to Tim [Burke] because he was the first one to have a really big breakthrough, and then that gave everyone else the confidence to say, “hey, I beat Tim in training, I can outshoot him, but he was in the yellow jersey and on the podium!” So it doesn’t seem so detached. It kind of goes back to Europe being so far away, and the winners being so far away. When you bring them close, then you start seeing that he doesn’t train so differently. There’s little details, but then maybe you can do those details and improve on them.
FS: Has it made a more productive atmosphere at training camps to know that all of you are right at that level?
JH: It’s very professional. Nobody is joking around – everything is very much for the results and for the season, and it’s a really good thing to be a part of. It’s the way camps should be, but it’s not even just the camps. You realize that everyone is going home and training really hard too, trying to improve, staying disciplined. It’s really nice.