U.S. Biathletes: Aiming For Respect, Hoping For Medals : The Two-Way The U.S. Olympic Committee and American biathletes are shooting for respectability at the Vancouver Winter Games after spending big, $1 million for the current season, and recruiting top coaching talent to raise the U.S. team's performance in a sp...

U.S. Biathletes: Aiming For Respect, Hoping For Medals

Wynn Roberts, center, of the U.S. aims his rifle at the shooting range during an official training session at the Biathlon track at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Monday, Feb. 15, 2010. Jin-man Lee/AP Photo hide caption

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Jin-man Lee/AP Photo

Wynn Roberts, center, of the U.S. aims his rifle at the shooting range during an official training session at the Biathlon track at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Monday, Feb. 15, 2010.

Jin-man Lee/AP Photo

The biathlon, the skiing-shooting event that's one of the most intriguing sports in the winter Olympics because of its undeniable hunting-military flavor, has long been the province of northern European nations, especially the Scandanavians.

But the U.S. Olympic Committee and American biathletes are shooting for respectability at the Vancouver Winter Games after spending big, $1 million for the current season, and recruiting top coaching talent to raise the U.S. team's performance.

The U.S. biathlon team will be in action Tuesday and while they have improved greatly, as NPR's Tom Goldman reported on Morning Edition they still have their challenges. A lengthy snippet from his report:

TOM: Late last week at the practice range at Whistler, Tim Burke steadied his rifle, pulled the trigger, and hit the target. Again and again. The 28-year-old burke is the most visible return on the USOC's investment. This past year was his, and by extension, U.S. Biathlon's breakout season. Last December, he became the first American to be number one in the World Cup standings. Currently his world ranking is number five.

BURKE: I think it's years of hard work coming together

TOM: But if there is one particular reason for his success, Burke says it's his shooting. Much more consistent this year, thanks in large part to Armin Auchentaller, world-class shooting coach hired away from the Italian national team, with some of that USOC money. Burke says Auchentaller has helped with the all-important transition moments in a race when the athlete skis up to the range, takes the rifle off his back, shoots, then skis off again.

BURKE: Basically, he choreographed the movement I'm doing there and made everything much smoother. And I'm saving a second or two every time I come into shoot.

TOM: Auchentaller had Burke practicing the movement constantly, not just at the range.

BURKE: In my apartment, at night, hundreds of times, with the lights off, my eyes closed. So it totally becomes something the second nature for me.

TOM: Apartment practice is just part of the work regimen installed by biathlon head coach Per Nilsson. He was hired in 2006, and, in a quiet Swedish kind of way, Nilsson applied a figurative cattle prod to the U.S. team. Veteran Jay Haakinen...

Haakinen: I mean, I think if he could get away with it, our training would be digging ditches until we hit China. I mean he's a traditional Swedish worker.

Nilsson figures the workload he imposed is about double what the team was doing when he arrived. He calls the low level of training when he started with the U.S. surprising. Despite America's low status in the biathlon world, Nilsson saw potential.

NILSSON: It was like a white picture and you can paint and they have followed the guidelines and that's great to see also.

TOM: The Vancouver games were to be the unveiling of Nilsson's painted picture. In the first biathlon event, a 10 kilometer sprint, American Jeremy Teela finished ninth, the best Olympic result ever.

But Tim Burke and a number of competitors got caught in a sudden snow squall that killed their times. Burke, who finished 47th, called it the most unfair race he's ever been part of. The bad news -- positions in today's event are determined by the sprint results. The good news? There are more events after today. More chances for U.S. biathletes to have a Johnny Spillane, medal-winning moment, and to remind the Nordic world they belong.