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An amazing story is playing out at the Winter Olympics in Sochi in the sport of biathlon. That's the event that combines a cross-country ski race with target shooting. A Norwegian skier is going for his 13th Olympic medal in the sport. Ole Einar Bjoerndalen is 40 years old. This is his last Olympics. He's already announced his retirement. But if he wins just one more medal, he will be the most decorated athlete ever at the Winter Games. NPR's Robert Smith was at his race today.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: The event is called the biathlon pursuit and it is a devious race.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
SMITH: The fastest man goes first. And that is Ole Einar Bjoerndalen. Bjoerndalen gets a head start on his cross-country skis, then everyone in the race tries to catch him before the finish line. And just to remind you, Bjoerndalen is 40 years old. The guys chasing him are in their 20s.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
SMITH: In one sense, these kids will never, ever catch Ole Einar Bjoerndalen because no one has ever been so good for so long in his sport. Now, biathlon is often mocked in the United States. Skiing and shooting, yeah, yeah, come on. But think of it. Six different Olympics, seven goal medals, 12 metals total. If Bjoerndalen had done that in downhill skis, he would be on every cereal box, which in Norway, he sort of is.
ANDREAS SMITH: He is very, very, very famous in Norway. And in Germany, you wouldn't believe how popular he is. I've heard of at least two or three children named Ole Einar in Germany.
SMITH: Andrea Smith is the biathlon expert for Norwegian broadcasting. And he's amazed not just at all the medals but at the way Bjoerndalen approaches the sport.
SMITH: He's a perfectionist. His mind is different from anyone else, I believe.
SMITH: Why do you say that? What's different in his mind?
SMITH: He's 40 years old now and he's motivated like an 18-year-old.
SMITH: Combine that motivation with something that an 18-year-old will never have, a certain mental calm. Remember, this sport isn't just about skiing fast. You have to stop, pull out a rifle and shoot at a target. They literally lower their heart rates so their hands don't shake. They clear their minds.
SMITH: You can't have any thoughts in your mind. The only thing you should focus on is to be focused on how to handle the rifle and get a good shot.
SMITH: After the first lap on the course, Bjoerndalen is still ahead. He pulls out his rifle, he lays down in the snow and fires six shots.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
SMITH: Bjoerndalen hits every one. On the next lap, though, he's getting tired. He misses a shot. He has to go on a penalty loop. The third time, he misses again.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The hard work on the trails may be starting to take some toll on these skiers. The first four shooters through have each a penalty loop.
SMITH: What this means is the young guys have finally caught up with Bjoerndalen. A French skier named Martin Fourcade has hit his targets and taken the lead. Bjoerndalen drops to sixth place. And although he skis faster than anyone else on this course, he cannot make up the time he lost. Coming into the stadium for the last time, Bjoerndalen has kicked his way up to fourth place. He's a ski-length behind the bronze medallist, a ski-length away from history. In the stands, a grown man with his face painted just like the Norwegian flag drops his head.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: He just missed his shots. It's as easy as that. Biathlon is tricky that way because you can ski as fast as you want, but if you miss those shots, there's nothing to do.
SMITH: And as Bjoerndalen walked away from the course, I asked him if the pressure of getting that 13th medal had gotten to him when he aimed that rifle.
OLE EINAR BJOERNDALEN: No. No pressure. I do my job and I focus on my job and I was - it's a funny race today.
SMITH: A funny race today. Bjoerndalen has a few more races to go in this Olympics, a few more chances to win his 13th medal. But looking forward, Bjoerndalen just waves his hand and says he doesn't think about it. His mind is clear. Robert Smith, NPR News at the Biathlon Center in Sochi.
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