U.S. Biathlon Team Shines After Refocusing After a disappointing finish in the 2006 games, the U.S. Olympic Committee boosted funding for the men's team, which helped bring in world-class coaches and technicians. Now the biathletes — who cross-country ski and shoot a rifle at a target — come to the Vancouver Games with newfound international respect.
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U.S. Biathlon Team Shines After Refocusing

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U.S. Biathlon Team Shines After Refocusing

U.S. Biathlon Team Shines After Refocusing

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

Members of the U.S. biathlon team believe their turn is next. Biathletes are the guys who ski cross-country and then shoot a rifle at a target. They are in action today at Whistler Olympic Park. From Vancouver, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Jay Hakkinen remembers the discussion - actually, more like a dressing-down. Hakkinen, a veteran U.S. biathlete, had just finished ninth with his teammates in a biathlon relay at the 2006 Olympics in Italy. Early on, they led the race. Hakkinen wasn't happy that his team couldn't hang on. Here's what he said in that discussion with a few U.S. Olympic Committee members.

JAY HAKKINEN: You see what the potential of this team was, and you didn't give us the support to do that, to get that medal. You didn't believe in us, and that's why we didn't get the medal.

GOLDMAN: The USOC got the message from Hakkinen and others tied to the biathlon program that more money equals success. Going into the 2006 Turin games, the USOC gave biathlon $250,000 a year. After Turin and the discussion, funding tripled. This season, biathlon got a million dollars. The money has brought in world-class coaches and technicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRING RANGE)

GOLDMAN: 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, break-out season. Last December, he became the first American to be ranked number one in the World Cup standings. Currently, his world ranking is number five.

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

GOLDMAN: 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 Armen Auchentaller, a 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 movements that I'm doing there and made everything much smother and I'm saving a second or two every time I come and shoot.

GOLDMAN: 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 and my eyes closed, so it totally becomes something that's second nature for me.

GOLDMAN: Apartment practice is just part of the work regiment 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 Hakkinen...

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

GOLDMAN: 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.

PER NILSSON: Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News, Vancouver.

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