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It was a vacuum salesman/aspiring motivational speaker who helped launch Ole Einar Bjorndalen from promising biathlete to one of the greatest Winter Olympics competitors in history.

Oyvind Hammer was hoping to get some sports psychology tips from Bjorndalen but found out, when introduced to the then 22-year-old Bjorndalen through a mutual friend, that the Norwegian biathlon team didn't have anyone working on the mental aspect of sport. So Hammer became psychology coach for the erratic yet fiercely talented Bjorndalen. Two years later, in Nagano, Bjorndalen won his first two Olympic medals. He carries nine in his pocket - five gold - as he arrives at Callaghan Valley near Whistler this month, poised to surpass countryman Bjorn Daehlie to become the most decorated Winter Olympics athlete in history.

This week, Bjorndalen and Hammer - now Norway's top motivational speaker - spent an hour on the telephone talking through final preparations for the first race, the Feb. 14 10-kilometre sprint, an event in which Bjorndalen won gold in 1998 and 2002 and is reigning world champion.

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"He is stronger and better prepared than probably he has ever been," said Hammer from his home in Norway. "The main focus now is not on whether or not it'll be medals, but preparing for perfect races. If he does it, he'll obviously win medals."

Biathlon, with its shooting and cross-country skiing components, is difficult to dominate and on each race day there are at least a half-dozen competitors who have a reasonable chance to win, making it rare for a single person to pile up victories consistently in the way Bjorndalen has.

This milieu makes Bjorndalen's career all the more remarkable and puts in him an elite sporting sphere occupied by the likes of Roger Federer in tennis and Tiger Woods in golf. NBC's Universal Sports in December chose Bjorndalen the best winter athlete in any sport of the past decade.

Bjorndalen, who turned 36 last week, is not an effusive or colourful man. He spurns booze, though does gargle with cognac in the morning "to ensure good health and keep away colds," he once said. He does allow himself a cappuccino before races but is all business: At the Salt Lake City Olympics - where he became only the third Winter Games competitor to win four golds - he is said to have restricted meetings with his then girlfriend and now wife to only public places and carried a bottle of hand sanitizer at all times to disinfect after handshakes.

After one victory this season, Bjorndalen described his performance as merely "good" and credited well-waxed fast skis. Last month, when he lost a 10-kilometre sprint to countryman and training partner Emil Hegle Svendsen by 3.2 seconds, after leading his much younger rival 800 metres from the finish - usually a lock for victory for Bjorndalen - the veteran displayed neither anguish nor animosity to the star 24-year-old. "I had a good race today, good skiing and perfect shooting," he told reporters. "However, in the end I knew I was not strong enough to beat Emil."

On his website Bjorndalen has publicly set a goal of two medals, which would increase his Winter Olympics total to 11, one short of the record 12 (eight gold) won by cross-country ace Daehlie during the three Games in the 1990s. Should Bjorndalen repeat his four-gold performance at last year's world championships, he'd vault past swimmer Mark Spitz and sprinter Carl Lewis to the highest echelons of Olympics history, behind only two Summer Games heroes, Larissa Latynina, the Soviet gymnast who won 18 medals (nine gold) in the 1950s and '60s, and swimmer Michael Phelps, who wears 16 medals on his neck - 14 gold.

"I would never bet against him but there's young people coming up," said Daniel Lefebvre, a high-performance adviser for Canada's Own the Podium and former Canadian team biathlon coach.

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Bjorndalen has been a constant innovator, developing new skiing techniques such as a skip-hop to go faster up hills. Swift skiing is his foundation: He is the only biathlete to win a cross-country World Cup. He has also worked with a skiboot maker to improve the equipment and this season focused on his shooting. While accurate, he's not known as the best marksman on the World Cup. So as he hustles constantly to get better. He has trained with Austria's Simon Eder, who has a reputation for quickest shot on the World Cup, saving valuable seconds as biathletes enter the shooting range to knock down five targets 50 metres away, standing or lying prone, with a .22-calibre bolt-action rifle.

There's a new .22, too - his wife's, Nathalie, a retired biathlete.

"I changed some things this year, because I always change something every year," Bjorndalen told reporters in Germany last month. "If I did not make changes, it would be boring. I changed the rifle because hers was better than mine."

Without doubt the greatest biathlete in history, Bjorndalen has finished in the World Cup top three every season since 1997 and has been first five of the past seven seasons. After the four golds in 2002, he stumbled, relative to his prowess, with two silvers and a bronze in 2006 in Turin, but has been in peak the past several seasons.

This year, however, has been imperfect. He has skipped one-third of the season, cutting short the December calendar and again in January to train for the Olympics. Though he's won three races - increasing his World Cup record to 91 - he is ranked No. 9 going into the Olympics as he has battled Svendsen and others such as Tim Burke, the first North American to hold the No. 1 ranking (in late December and early January).

"We can see it in [Bjorndalen's]shooting this year, he's trying to raise the bar yet again," said Geret Coyne, head coach of the Canadian team. "But the exciting thing about biathlon, new stars can emerge, you never know when, or at what age. Svendsen has really pushed Ole Einar, really working hard to steal some thunder."

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Vancouver 2010 is Bjorndalen's fifth Olympics. His first was at home in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway, when he was just 20. He aims to race at Sochi in Russia in 2014 when he is 40, which gives him at least another shot to surpass Daehlie if he doesn't do it at Callaghan Valley.

What is certain, according to the one-time vacuum salesman Hammer, is the past, success or shortcomings, won't influence Bjorndalen this month.

"When athletes fail in a competition, it's hardly ever because they're not in shape. It's usually because their head is not there," Hammer said.

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