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    Sunday, February 8, 1998

    Forsberg makes easy switch to biathlon

     NOZAWA ONSEN, Japan (AP) -- The transition from cross country ski racing to the biathlon was an easy one for Magadalena Forsberg. Years of hunting birds in Sweden's forests had already given her a shooter's touch.
     She quit cross country racing in 1993 for the biathlon, which combines cross country skiing and shooting. Now she's a gold medal favorite in the women's competition Monday, though you wouldn't know it by the way she talks about her medal chances.
     "If others achieve their life's best there's nothing I will be able to do," the 30-year-old Swede said during training at this spectacular ski resort in the mountains outside Nagano. "Conditions are a bit slower than the icy, slick ones we are used to in this year's World Cup."
     Forsberg is ranked at the top of the World Cup standings and is Sweden's lone medal hope in the women's 15-kilometer individual event.
     But she faces tough competition from Andreja Grasic of Slovenia and Russia's Albina Achatova in a competition that likely will turn on how well the women shoot rather than how fast they ski.
     "It will all be decided on the shooting. And there are so many factors in that," said Zdenek Hak, a trainer on the strong Czech Republic team. "So one day you can be on top and the next you're in the cellar."
     The bulk of golds in the six events of biathlon likely will go to Russia, Germany and Norway. But the standings could be jumbled in bad weather, which can play havoc with the shooting.
     Weather was very much on the minds of 200 biathletes from 32 countries competing at what International Biathlon Union president Anders Besseberg describes as "probably the best facility in the world."
     Heavy snow fell on the course Sunday as the women went into their final practice session. Forecasts were for more snow, which would especially hamper the target shooting and slow down the skiing.
     In the 15-kilometer event, competitors start at intervals of 30 seconds and must master a total climb of about 1,500 feet over the course. They carry .22-caliber rifles, weighing about 8 pounds each, and 20 rounds of ammunition.
     Between stretches of skiing, they fire four times at 50-meter-distant targets, alternating prone and standing positions. Each target missed adds a penalty minute to the total time that competitors take to ski and shoot.
     The 1994 women's gold went to Canada's Myriam Bedard and the silver to Anne Briand of France. They will be skiing Monday but both have fared poorly in recent competitions and fallen in world standings.
     An improving American team includes Ntala Skinner, of Sun Valley Idaho, who has proved more consistent this year than the other top woman biathlete, Stacey Wooley, of Newbury, N.H.
     The United States has nine biathletes in the games, including a 1997 junior world champion, 20-year-old Jay Hakkinen of Kasilof, Alaska. But appearing as a senior for the first time, his chances of collecting a medal are slim.
     All, Besseberg says, will be challenged by a course he says puts high demands on the athletes, both in terms of endurance and technical ability.
     "They've used the terrain in a fantastic way," the biathlon chief said. "They looked at the best stadiums in the world and picked up little things they improved on."