WHISTLER, British Columbia -- It was a moment Lenox biathlete Laura Spector will never forget -- the opening few strides of her inaugural Olympic race Saturday at Whistler's Olympic Park.
The 22-year-old, who attended Lenox Memorial High School and is now a senior at Dartmouth College, said she'd never had such an exhilarating atmosphere for the race.
"I was the first North American at the start, which was really cool because the crowd just went crazy," she said, explaining that there were lots of flag-waving Americans in the crowd that she would never see when racing on the World Cup circuit in Europe.
"I've never started a race and have it be like that before," Spector added. "So that was really exciting. But after I got past the stadium, I just kind of got in a zone. I knew I had to focus to do the race that I wanted to do."
In the end, Spector finished 77th in the race, which is known as the 7.5-kilometer sprint. Competitors ski the distance over three laps. The biathletes shoot a number of shots after each lap. For each miss, a penalty loop of 150 meters must be skied before the race can be continued. Spector missed two targets.
To qualify for the next race, the 10-kilometer pursuit on Tuesday, Spector needed to finish in the top 60 in the sprint.
"Top 60 would have to be nearly a perfect race for me today," she said, adding that she was still pleased with her performance overall.
"I was really nervous this morning -- really nervous. But I kind of got out there and I just had to tell myself I know how to prepare for a race. I know what I need to do. I need to just ignore what else is going on around me. I think that really helped calm me down," Spector said.
She noted that the course was difficult.
"It doesn't have the steepest hills but you definitely have to work on the entire course -- there's really no rest. So that makes it a really, really tough course," Spector said.
Slovakia's Anastazia Kuzmina won the gold medal. She hit nine of 10 shots and finished in 19 minutes, 55.6 seconds on the course that had to be sprinkled with fertilizer to harden the snow that had been pelted for days with rain and sleet.
Spector's next race will be Thursday -- the 15-kilometer individual. She will also compete in the team relay near the end of the Games.
She said it helped her a lot to have her family and friends there -- because they aren't often able to get to World Cup events in Europe.
"Just having my family there -- being able to talk to them, it calms me down and it makes me really happy," she said.
Spector said it has been particularly exciting to be in the Athletes Village, where she is able to rub elbows with many of the world's best athletes.
"Watching how they train and live -- how have down time and how they use that downtime -- conduct their daily business -- it's been a great learning experience," she said.
"It's reassuring to know that they just relax and watch TV like the rest of us. I thought they'd be all intense all time but they haven't been that way at all. I can really learn from that," she said.
Germany's Magdalena Neuner took the silver, finishing 1.5 seconds behind Kuzmina, and Marie Dorin of France won the bronze.
The top American, Sara Studebaker, finished 45th, more than two minutes behind.