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U.S. has never won a biathlon Olympic medal. This year's athletes hope to change that

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Another Winter Olympics means another chance for the U.S. biathlon team to finally win a medal. U.S. biathletes have the unfortunate distinction of being the only U.S. Olympians who've never stood on the medal stand. Innovations since the last Olympic Games are creating hope that Americans can break through in the combined skiing and target-shooting events traditionally dominated by Europeans. From Beijing, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: U.S. biathlete Clare Egan came to China ready for the question - why no U.S. medals? - and armed with an answer that people who know nothing about her quirky sport might understand.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Struck him out swinging

CLARE EGAN: In baseball, even the very, very best hitters are getting hits, you know, 3 out of 10 times while they're at-bat.

GOLDMAN: Meaning failure is happening more than success. Same in biathlon, Egan says. For the past decade, the U.S. has had outstanding athletes who've had international success - Lowell Bailey, a 2017 World Champion; Susan Dunklee and Tim Burke, who both won World Championship silver medals. But neither they nor any other American biathletes have been able to get the timing just right at the Olympic Games.

EGAN: The Olympics are once every four years and just a couple of competitions. So statistically, the likelihood that we might land on the podium on any given day is quite low.

GOLDMAN: And before you say, yeah, well, all those Norwegians and Germans don't seem to have any trouble winning Olympic medals, consider this - biathlon in those and other European countries is huge and heavily funded. There are hordes of Europeans in international competitions. So statistically, those countries do have a better chance of medaling.

But they too can strike out. In 2018, the Women's World Cup leader going into the Winter Olympics got skunked. Indeed, whether you're from a powerhouse country or the U.S., with its little-engine-that-could attitude, the unique nature of biathlon can get you. Max Cobb is U.S. biathlon's president.

MAX COBB: Biathlon is a very unpredictable sport.

GOLDMAN: It combines cross-country skiing and target-shooting. It's the combines part that makes it really hard. Cobb says no matter how much of a marksman you are with a .22-caliber biathlon rifle, try doing it lying on your stomach after charging around the ski course and getting your heart rate up to 170.

COBB: It's incredibly challenging. From the prone position, you're hitting something the size of a golf ball from 165 feet away, and you're trying to take a shot, you know, at least every two seconds, if not less.

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COBB: You know, the performance on the shooting range has such a drastic effect on the overall results.

GOLDMAN: That's where the unpredictability can happen. Coming into the range, you may be leading the event, but if your shooting is off because you can't control your heaving chest or gusting winds or falling snow, the lead can vanish.

Since the 2018 Olympics, when the U.S. finished medal-less again, Cobb says the program has taken steps to end the drought. They hired Matt Emmons, a former Summer Olympic gold medalist, in shooting. They did some innovative things with athlete's skis - no detail; the Euros may be listening - to improve glide on the snow. Whether or not that all worked for Clare Egan, she recently has been trending in the right direction.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: But look at that. Look at that. She's got into second place. And the Americans at last have something to cheer.

GOLDMAN: Egan finished fourth at that World Cup race a couple of weeks ago, one place off the podium. It was the second-best finish of her career. Does that mean she'll be the breakthrough biathlete for the Beijing Olympics?

Egan says she doesn't want to think about it. In fact, says Max Cobb, that's a U.S. strategy.

COBB: One of the things we say in biathlon is the more you want it, the less likely you are to achieve it.

GOLDMAN: The goal for these games, he says, is to focus on the process. And maybe Egan, the decorated Dunklee or some other American can time it right and finally smack that biathlon homerun.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.