As the men's 4x7.5-kilometer biathlon relay started at the 2006 Olympics, few could have guessed what would happen in the first leg of the race.
American Jay Hakkinen skated into the stadium in first place. An American? Leading in biathlon? There had to be some mistake. Where were the Germans? Or the Norwegians?
There was no mistake. Hakkinen handed off to Tim Burke, who then handed off to Lowell Bailey. Jeremy Teela anchored the team and crossed the finish line in ninth - the best relay finish for the U.S. since Martin Hagen, Lyle Nelson, Donald Nielsen, and Peter Hoag finished eighth at the 1980 Olympics (the best U.S. finish in an Olympic biathlon relay was sixth at the 1972 Games).
Sparked by this result, these four American biathletes are now aiming for a medal at the 2010 Olympics. In the world of biathlon, this would be like a couple of guys from Denmark winning the Daytona 500.
And Bailey and Burke - relative newcomers compared to veterans Hakkinen and Teela - could be key to this success.
Biathlon has its roots in the military in Scandinavia and Finland. Today, there are five events in biathlon - the 20km individual (15km for women), 10km sprint (7.5km for women), 12.5km pursuit (10km for women), mass start, and the relay. Cross-country skiers carry .22 caliber rifles on their backs and shoot, standing and prone, at five targets 50m away. For each miss, competitors must either ski a 150m penalty loop or, in the individual race, they are docked one minute for each missed target. For this reason, the fastest skier doesn't necessarily win, and the lead changes often.
Biathlon is huge in Europe, especially Germany, with tens of thousands of people often filling the stands at the World Cups and millions more watching on TV (it's the most popular televised winter sport in Europe). In Europe, biathletes are like rock stars, says Bailey.
Hakkinen and Teela, now both 31 years old, have both scored top 20 (even top 10) results for years. Hakkinen won the sprint at the 1997 Junior World Championships, and one of Teela's best early results was ninth in the sprint at the 2001 Worlds. Throughout his 14-year career, Hakkinen has finished in the top 25 in World Cups 58 times (including six top 25s, including relays, in the first three World Cups of the 2008/09 season), while Teela has been there 25 times. World Cup fields usually have over 100 competitors.
Only in the past two years have Bailey and Burke begun scoring World Cup points (by finishing in the top 30). Burke, 26, has accumulated 25 top-25 finishes in World Cups and at World Championships in 2007 and 2008. And Bailey, 27, had a breakthrough year last season, finishing 11th in the 12.5km pursuit at a World Cup in Pyeong Chang, Korea.
Burke is not exaggerating when he says, "I definitely feel that I am part of the strongest men's biathlon team that the U.S. has ever had."
Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke met as youngsters cross-country skiing in a children's program. The boys are only six months apart in age - Lowell being older (and now, an inch taller too) - and both lived in small towns in New York's Adirondack State Park. They skied at Lake Placid, a community steeped in winter sports.
They were good Nordic skiers who qualified for the Junior Olympics - considered junior nationals in the sport of cross-country skiing. In 1996, when Burke was 14 and Bailey 15, the U.S. Biathlon Association was recruiting young Nordic skiers, and the boys were invited to a biathlon development camp.
According to former biathlete Chad Salmela, who wrote in FasterSkier.com about Bailey's and Burke's first time shooting, they were pretty good shots. By 1999, Bailey had qualified for the Junior World Championships in Slovenia. The following year, Burke also raced at Junior Worlds.
"There was a lot of opportunity as a junior in the sport of biathlon because biathlon is a smaller sport in the U.S.," says Bailey. "It was a tangible goal for me to think about making the Junior World Championship team, even after only a year of training biathlon."
He particularly liked the idea of world travel-going to Slovenia for Junior Worlds versus Alaska or Maine for Junior Olympics.
"Growing up living and training in Lake Placid and being around the Olympic spirit and seeing international competitions come into town, from a young age I really wanted to see the world as an athlete," he adds. "It doesn't get any better than that."
Burke had a similar goal. Growing up and competing in Lake Placid filled him with thoughts of competing at the Winter Olympic Games.
Neither man qualified for the 2002 Olympics, and for Bailey, it was a disappointment. Burned out, he enrolled at the University of Vermont in the fall of 2002. He joined the top-ranked UVM ski team, and along with Ethan and Ryan Foster-two brothers from Weston, Vermont-the UVM men's Nordic team became one of the best in the country, an unprecedented feat for three Americans. The top collegiate cross-country skiers are typically guys with names like Ole and Sven, brought over from Europe as ringers.
Over the three years it took Bailey to finish his bachelors degree in political science and environmental studies, he won two NCAA silver medals in freestyle (the skating technique developed by Bill Koch in the 1980s, and the technique used in biathlon). He was so committed to his team that after winning his second silver at the 2004 NCAA Skiing Championships, held on Donner Pass in California, Bailey ran up the course - sinking to his thighs with each step - to cheer on Ryan Foster, who at that point was only two seconds out of a top 10 finish.
After graduating in 2005, Bailey dove back into biathlon with the same enthusiasm and commitment that he had shown in college racing.
"(College) allowed me to step away from the sport at a time where I was pretty burned out," he says. "I was mentally fried from the day in, day out pursuit of making myself a better biathlete. It really was an opportune time to go toward strictly Nordic skiing and to branch out and pursue some other things in my life in the academic arena."
"I came into the 2005-06 season with much more motivation and eagerness to learn the minutiae that really help you become a better biathlete," he adds.
He showed that he had returned to full steam by qualifying for the 2006 Olympic team.
Burke took a more frustrating path to the Torino Games. In 2002, he finished 11th in the pursuit at Junior Worlds. But then health issues derailed his career: he battled back from hip surgery, viral infections, the flu, and even a badly impacted tooth.
"Making the transition from successful junior to successful senior was tough," he says. "It took a long time for me. I spent many years living below the poverty level, just like riding in the back of the bus in a minor league baseball team."
The 2006 Olympic relay was a turning point for Burke. Not only were he and his teammates motivated by their ninth place finish, but positive changes on the team were on the horizon - changes that "have had a great impact on our team results," says Burke.
The most important change was hiring Per Nilsson, 38, who coached biathlon at the National Sports Academy in Solleftea, Sweden, before coming to the U.S. He "believed in our team's ability to succeed," says Burke. Nilsson started coaching the U.S. team in the late spring of 2006.
"Per introduced me to a more professional style of training and my results immediately improved," Burke adds. "Through my improved results I really started to believe in my ability to win and that has made a huge difference."
Burke's confidence has grown to the point where every time he steps on the starting line, he expects to finish in the top 30.
Bailey's confidence from his 11th last year carried through to this season. In the first World Cup race in early December 2008, he finished 15th in the 20km individual race.
"I was really psyched to get off on a good foot with that 15th place," says Bailey. "I'm looking forward to improving on that throughout the season. I'm also really excited to see how we're able to place as a team in these next relays because I don't think we've really shown our potential yet."
At the World Cup on January 8, 2009, in Oberhof, Germany, the team placed 11th in the relay.
Looking ahead to the Vancouver Olympics, Bailey says that everyone on the team is also focusing on the individual races, not just the relay.
"As we've made improvements on our own - all of us really, Jay, Tim, Jeremy, and myself having individual successes along the way," he says.
Forever the team player, Bailey doesn't even care who wins a medal, as long as it's one of his teammates.
"The most important thing going into Vancouver isn't really whether or not the medal comes from our relay or from an individual event," he says. "Just the idea of being a part of a team that has the first U.S. Olympic medal in the sport of biathlon will be amazing."
Read more about Lowell Bailey in Peggy Shinn's blog "Lowell Bailey-guitar-picking, mandolin-playing biathlete".
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.