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    Tuesday, February 10, 1998

    America's best biathlete aiming for the top

     NOZAWA ONSEN, Japan (AP) -- Jay Hakkinen grew up in an Alaska fishing village of about 450 people, helping his family net sockeye salmon. As a child he learned to ice skate on a pond behind his house, then began cross-country skiing in high school.
     Now 20, Hakkinen is America's best hope for future glory in the biathlon, a sport with a rich history in Europe but none in the United States.
     "I'm in a vital building period," he said before Wednesday's start of competition at the Nagano Games. "I'll be at my peak six years from now, but in four years I want to be at the top. By the next Olympics I'll have it all -- if all goes well."
     While neither Hakkinen nor any of his U.S. teammates are expected to mount the victory podium here, Americans are scoring solid gains in the sport. Last year, Hakkinen won a 10-kilometer event as a junior -- the first for an American.
     He came to the sport, which combines cross-country skiing and target shooting, in 1994 while living in Norway as a foreign exchange student. He stayed in a town six miles from Lillehammer, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics.
     His host family introduced him to the local biathlon club, which trained on the Olympic course. The course chief loaned him an old rifle.
     Hakkinen was hooked. He threw himself into training, supported by the U.S. biathlon development program, and in 1995 emerged ninth in the Juniors individual event.
     Two years later he scored his unprecedented 10K victory, and was able to gain invaluable experience by moving -- still as a junior -- into World Cup competition, where he ranks 65th.
     At these Olympics, he will be skiing in all three men's events, beginning with the 20K individual competition.
     Although he probably will spend his life in Alaska and may go into teaching, the real certainty in Hakkinen's life right now is the biathlon.
     At these Olympics, he's bent on "putting together the perfect race." That does not translate as winning a medal. Instead, it would mean getting all the complex, disparate elements of the contest just right -- figuring out the course, adjusting his skiing pace to the demands of shooting, focusing on the firing range.
     "It's extremely hard to do," he says, "but this is the place to do it."