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U.S. Biathletes Slowly Improving

February 7, 1998

NOZAWA ONSEN, Japan (AP) _ On the snowy battlefields of Olympic biathlon, America’s riflemen on skis haven’t won too many skirmishes.

That doesn’t figure to change during these games, though U.S. biathletes are skiing faster and shooting better than ever.

In a sport that approximates warfare in the snow, Americans are hardly a military superpower. While Russia, Germany and Norway dominate, U.S. biathletes have never won an Olympic medal and currently rank roughly 20th in the world.

Still, they claim to have the medals podium nearly in their rifle sights.

``A few years ago being 30th in a race was considered good. Now that’s nothing. We’re slowly popping the top 15,″ said Kristina Viljanen-Sabasteanski of Richmond, Vt., who will compete in the women’s 15 kilometer race on Monday.

``We’re behind a lot of countries but they’re starting to take notice of what is going on in the United States,″ adds teammate Kara Hermanson-Salmela, also of Richmond

America-wide, only some 100 athletes compete in the rugged discipline combining cross-country skiing and target shooting. But the United States has finally started to support its biathletes and the effort is yielding dividends.

After the 1994 Winter Olympics, a junior development program was started to spot potential winners and bring them to summer training camps and biathlon centers at Lake Placid, N.Y., and Jericho, Vt.

Regional centers were set up in Minnesota, Utah, Vermont and Alaska _ prime biathlon states _ to develop up-and-comers.

In 1995, the U.S. military began a program that allows top talents to devote their time to training for two years while serving in uniform. Some 80 percent of the American Olympic team are in some branch of the armed forces or National Guard.

An American _ 20-year-old Jay Hakkinen of Kasilof, Alaska _ captured an unprecedented gold in the sprint event at the 1997 Junior World Championships and is competing for the first time as a senior here.

In World Cup competition, the women’s team currently is in 13th place and the men are 20th _ both having moved up in recent years from near the cellar.

``These are big achievements. It means our programs are working,″ said coach Algis Shalna, a 1984 gold medalist for the former Soviet team who moved to the United States seven years ago. ``It’s never going to be ideal, but we can keep moving ahead slowly.″

Before the support programs kicked in, Viljanen-Sabasteanski had to wait tables at night while training by day. Hermanson-Salmela sold T-shirts and taught shooting.

While they can now devote themselves full-time to training, the support is temporary and there are no guarantees for the good life after retirement. Corporate sponsors are few, and biathlon still receives limited funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

In contrast, Germany has more than 700 biathletes, with some 50 professionals in secure, lifetime jobs with the military or customs services.

``In the United States, biathlon is never going to be like basketball or football or baseball, obviously. We have to find our niche and go from there,″ said 24-year-old Ntala Skinner of Sun Valley, Idaho, the country’s top female biathlete and currently No. 52 in the World Cup standings.

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