U.S. biathletes get no home-field advantage

Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2002

SOLDIER HOLLOW, Utah -- Kara Salmela stood on the rifle range until all five targets were down Monday morning. It took two extra rounds of ammunition, but the task was completed.

After the final shooting stage of her final Winter Olympics race, she put her 8-pound .22-caliber rifle on her back and skied away with some satisfaction.

The U.S. women's biathlon team had to settle for little victories in the 2002 Winter Games.

The Americans took last among 15 teams in the 30-kilometer relay and had Rachel Steer of Anchorage's 31st place in the 15K as the best individual finish.

They were 12 minutes, 21 seconds behind Germany's winning relay time of 1:27:55. Each of four members, Andrea Nahrgang, Salmela, Steer and Kristina Sabasteanski, had a 7.5K cross-country ski leg and two shooting positions.

Being on home soil wasn't the advantage Salmela hoped for.

"There were so many people here who were cheering for me, in every race, that I was probably too excited. I didn't know how to react to it," said Salmela, an administration specialist with the Duluth Army National Guard, in her second Winter Games. "This was new for all of us, because you don't have this kind of support when racing in Europe.

"You know your family is in the stands and you hear your name being yelled on the course, which is nice, and I really wanted to do well. You have to tell yourself to calm down and be focused, and I wasn't focused enough."

Salmela, 29, leaves Feb. 27 for the World Military Championships in Slovenia, which may mark the end of her competitive career. She begins massage therapy school in April in Boulder, Colo.

The last two weeks have hardly been a loss for U.S. biathlon fans. The American men have their best showing in Olympic history with six top-30 finishes entering Wednesday's final event, the 30K relay.

Alaskans Jay Hakkinen, 24, of Kasilof, and Jeremy Teela, 25, of Anchorage, have led the way for the Americans. Hakkinen posted a U.S. best-ever finish for an Olympic biathlon event of 13th place in Saturday's 12.5K pursuit race, bettering the 14th-place finish of Teela in last Monday's 20K race. At the time, Teela's 14th-place finish tied three other Olympic 14ths that had been the best finishes ever by American biathletes -- by Josh Thompson (1988), Peter Karns (1972) and John Burritt (1960).

Nearly every event here was sold out with crowds of 12,000 to 15,000. Preliminary NBC ratings showed that 17 million viewers tuned in for 20 minutes of biathlon pursuit coverage last weekend. And there was Monday's "Today" show feature on the American biathletes. That went so well there's talk of having Salmela on live Thursday on "Today."

A tough two weeks of rifle marksmanship is what hurt the U.S. women, including the veteran Salmela. The 5-foot-2, 115-pound athlete was disappointed because she thrives on competition. She grew up as Kara Hermanson in Rogers, Minn., the youngest of four children, and tried swimming, basketball, track and cross-country skiing while at Elk River (Minn.) High School.

"She was just a little pipsqueak, but she enjoyed sports. You could tell she had endurance when she was in swimming," says Jan Hermanson, her mom. "One thing she'll miss when she's done racing is all the training. She's never minded the regimen of training."

Kara Salmela started college at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, met her future husband, Cory Salmela there, but when skiing was dropped at the school, she moved to Northern Michigan and benefited from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Marquette, Mich. Cory, now the U.S. Junior Team coach, introduced Kara to the sport. Even though she came to biathlon late, at age 20, she was a strong skier and quickly caught up.

After six months as a biathlete, she was in the 1992 World Junior Championships.

"When Kara has set a goal of any kind, she generally makes it," said Don Hermanson, 64, her dad.

Cory and Kara have been married for eight years and had a coach-athlete relationship the past year as Kara chose to prepare for the Winter Olympics by training with the American juniors in Duluth.

Kara excelled at the U.S. Olympic Trials here in December and January, and was poised to improve on her performances at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

"She needs to have tunnel-vision to race well. She can't look at anything," Cory Salmela said of his wife. "She came and skied her best races of the year here, but didn't have her best shooting."

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