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Harris Dirnberger, left, and Jakob Ellingson, who is also a member of the U.S. Youth Biathlon team, push each other in Hopkins practices. Dirnberger said, “It’s good to have someone to ski with like that.” Photo/MARLIN LEVISON • mlevison@startribune.com

Jakob Ellingson did not accompany his Hopkins' Nordic skiing teammates to the biggest meet of the season last Saturday, the Mesabi Invitational.

Ellingson's sights were set on something even bigger.

The home-schooled senior, who is the No. 4-ranked high school skier in Minnesota, according to Skinnyski.com, is leaving for Austria on Thursday as a member of the U.S. Youth Biathlon Team, where he will compete in the World Biathlon Championships.

Not bad for a kid who had neither strapped on a ski nor fired a rifle until he reached ninth grade.

"It's really a pretty quick advance," said Piotr Bednarski, Ellingson's mentor and director of athlete development for the U.S. Biathlon program. "To be really good, you should be starting by the time you are 10 years old."

Until discovering cross-country skiing, Ellingson had more common pursuits. He figured soccer to be his sport and dedicated his training in that direction. Possessing an enviable work ethic, he progressed through the usual soccer channels but never felt completely comfortable on the pitch.

"Soccer wasn't going as well as I'd hoped, so I started roller skiing," Ellingson said. "That helped me transition to snow skiing. I was a little frustrated early, but it got easier."

His desire to improve caught the eye of Bednarski, who is always on the lookout for athletes who might excel in biathlon, a traditionally European sport that combines cross-country skiing with target shooting.

"He expressed an interest and was clearly a very good all-around athlete," Bednarski said.

With Bednarski's help, Ellingson procured a custom-made biathlon rifle and threw himself into the sport.

"It felt really nice to get into biathlon," Ellingson said. "It's a sport where you pretty much get out of it exactly what you put into it."

To improve his skiing, Ellingson joined the Loppet Nordic Racing program (for which Bednarski is also a coach) and tried out for the Hopkins high school team, traditionally one of the state's elite.

Skiing for the Royals, who also feature the state's No. 1-ranked skier in senior Harris Dirnberger, Ellingson's snow skills improved drastically.

"We push each other," said Dirnberger, who finished second in the boys' Classic race at the Mesabi Invitational. "We're both fast. It's good to have someone to ski with like that."

Marksmanship practice comes at the Twin Cities' only biathlon course in Elk River, where Ellingson's improvement has been just as eye-opening.

"It's hasn't been that hard," he said. "The toughest part is going from skiing fast, then having to slow down and be precise on the shooting mat."

Bednarski likened it to sprinting down a basketball court, then stopping suddenly to shoot free throws.

"With 25 others shooting them right next to you," he added.

Ellingson is aware that, from an international perspective, he's barely a blip on the competitive scene. No matter. He feels he's got plenty of time.

"I don't expect to be in the top 30 percent or anything," he said. "But if I race up to my potential and shoot well, I think I can be about mid-table. I'm still learning. Most of the best [biathletes] are in their 30s."

Bednarski knows that this trip to Austria is primarily about getting exposure in a sport that gets little notice or mention in the United States outside of Olympic years. But he's high on Ellingson's drive and potential.

"He has some physical gifts, but there's nothing magical in how he's acquired the skills," Bednarski said. "He's worked his butt off. He's never sick, he's never late, he never has an excuse. That's how he's gotten as far as he has."

Ellingson returns from Austria in early February. He is adamant about shifting his focus toward helping Hopkins' postseason aspirations.

"That's pretty important," he said. "High school season is quite a big thing. We've been losing in some littler races, but when I get back, I think it will be a whole different story."

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