WHISTLER, British Columbia, Canada - U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program biathlete Sgt. Jeremy Teela had the best performance in U.S. Olympic biathlon history Sunday.

Teela led four Team USA competitors with a ninth-place finish in the men's 10-kilometer sprint race at Whistler Olympic Park.

France's Vincent Jay, 24, won the gold medal with a time of 24 minutes, 7.8 seconds. Norway's Emil Hegle Svendsen, 24, a four-time winner this season on the World Cup circuit, battled illness and took the silver in 24:20. Croatia's Jakov Fak, 22, who is ranked 64th in the World Cup standings, claimed the bronze with a time of 24:21.8.

Teela, 33, of Heber City, Utah, missed one of five shots from both the prone and standing positions that forced him to ski two 150-meter penalty loops. He finished just over a minute behind the winner with a time of 25 minutes, 21.7 seconds. Had he hit either of the two missed targets, Teela likely would have medaled.

"I would say normally this would be a decent race with the amount of penalties that I had, but definitely not a medal race," Teela understated immediately after the race. "It was an OK race, but as far as trying to get on the podium, it was a little disappointing.

"I don't think anyone's going to land on the podium with two penalties. I missed one or two too many (targets) - however you want to look at it."

Teela, however, was relieved to put the first of a potential five Olympic races behind him.

"The nerves and the jitters you get from racing your first Olympics in the quad, having your parents here, and having kind of a home-course-advantage feeling, it was a little stress for a little bit," he said. "It's good to get this one out of the way."

At that point, Teela did not know the official outcome of the race.

"I think it will be a top-20 or top-25 performance, so I'll have a good position for the pursuit on Tuesday, so I can make another go at it and try to get back on the podium," he said.

Teela, who started 13th in the staggered start, led all Team USA competitors. Lowell Bailey, who cleanly shot his 10 targets, finished 36th in 26:26.6. Tim Burke was 47th in 26:54.8. Jay Hakkinen also shot perfectly and finished 54th in 27:17.4.

All four Americans qualified for the 12.5-kilometer pursuit race on Tuesday. Teela's ninth-place finish, much better than the "top-20 or top-25" he had anticipated before the results were announced, places him in a much stronger position to medal. He will lead Team USA's parade by starting ninth, 1:14 behind Jay.

On Valentine's Day, Teela was the biathlon heartthrob not only for Team USA but the U.S. Army, as well.

"It's an honor to be able to represent the United States, but I get the special privilege to also represent the United States Army and have the backing of all those Soldiers over in Afghanistan," he said. "I'm just trying to do something here to make them proud and give them something to cheer."

The race featured steady rain, which quickly turned to thick, wet snow, but Teela complimented Olympic officials for having the course ready. He was fortunate to start the race before snowfall drastically changed course conditions and hindered shooters who started later.

"They really did a good job for how bad it's been," Teela said. "It's been plus temperatures; it's been raining. They put fertilizer on the track so it stays hard. It started raining on my second loop but on my third loop it started to snow. If it snows during the race, it slows down quite a bit from the start and everyone's skis are already waxed for transformed snow that works in the rain."

The rested Teela said he needed this race to get his legs into competitive rhythm.

"I was a little tired, actually, a little lethargic," he said. "I think I needed this to get it into the legs. The last two weeks I've just been resting and prepping but really not pushing it to the extreme during my prep... I think this will be good for the rest of the week to have one hard race in."

Norway's Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, the 36-year-old sentimental favorite who holds five Olympic and 13 World Championship gold medals, finished 17th with a time of 25:48.9. He missed three shots from the prone position and another while standing.

All in all, Teela accepted his performance as a starting point for the Vancouver Games.

"It's an OK race to start," he said. "Obviously, you want to start out swinging. It would be nice to land on the podium first run at it. We have a race on Tuesday. On Thursday, we have the mass start, and we've got the relay. We've got five chances, four guys, so I think it's looking pretty good for us to medal."