24 Days to Östersund: Russia, with Anton and Company
Moscow, Russia. The Countdown to Östersund continues with a look at the Russian Team. Last season was very disappointing for the Russian men and women, with minimal highlights and not a single medal at the IBU World Championships. However, the new season means a new start and a chance for the Russian team to get back to the level both the athletes and their passionate fans expect.
Although last year was not the best in Russian biathlon history; it still had some high points to build on. The men finished third in the Nations Cup, the women in sixth, and there were victories by the men's relay, Anton Shipulin, Olga Podchufarova and Ekaterina Yurlova-Percht. Many teams would be ecstatic with those results, but for a nation with a legacy of Olympic and World Champions; anything less than big wins is disappointing.
Last season, the men's team actually stepped up in the Nations Cup from the previous season, when they finished fourth. Three things drove this deep squad all season: Shipulin, Evgeniy Garanichev and the relay team.
Shipulin, after battling Martin Fourcade for the World Cup Total Score title in 2014-15, hoped to best his French rival last season. However, that never happened. The unquestioned biggest star on the team started slow with 15th, 16th and 32nd in Östersund, and then seemed to get on track in Hochfilzen and Pokljuka with four top 6 results and a relay win. He was again at his best in Antholz and North America with another win and two second places. Two ninth place finishes in Oslo were below his expectations, and the season of high hopes was gone. Shipulin admitted in a February interview that "he had focused too much on beating Fourcade...I could not cope psychologically with this and I hope it will not happen in the future. But I could never forgive myself if I gave up fighting with him."
Typical of champion, Shipulin did top Fourcade on several occasions and had some of his best days in head-to-head competitions. His pursuit win in Antholz found the clean-shooting Fourcade 17.5 seconds back, while Shipulin had two penalties. In the Canmore sprint, both shot clean with Fourcade turning the tables by 15.7 seconds. The Russian star nipped Fourcade the next week by one second in the Presque Isle sprint.
Fitness never seemed to be a problem all season; it was mainly his shooting that let Shipulin down. When he shot well; he was in the mix.
Prepared to Battle
This summer, Shipulin again has trained separately from the main group of Coach Ricco Gross. He and teammate Alexey Volkov most recently have been in Khanty Mansiysk for on-snow training. There is no doubt that the Anton Shipulin who steps on the tracks in Östersund will be well-prepared both mentally and physically to battle for the podium once again.
Garanichev was the other bright spot for the Russian men, with two third places and ten times in the top 10. He also won a mixed relay Gold, sprint Gold and pursuit Silver medals at the IBU OECH in Tyumen, his home town. The Sochi sprint Bronze medalist matched his Total Sore best with seventh place last season. Had he not skipped a couple of World Cup competitions to go to Tyumen, Garanichev would probably have finished one of two places higher in the Total Score. Like Shipulin, he has the tools to compete for the podium, solid ski speed and accurate shooting. In his two podiums, Garanichev finished ahead of Fourcade once and was just 13 seconds back in the Ruhpolding mass start. Garanichev was close to the podium in Oslo, with sixth in the sprint and ninth in the 20K; his single miss in the sprint was the difference between a medal and his final place.
Tsvetkov and the Relay
24-year-old Maxim Tsvetkov had his first career podium with second in the Antholz sprint. That result, combined with his fifth in the Ruhpolding 20K show his potential that could help the Russian men move forward. This five-time IBU YJWCH Gold medalist led off the relay team in Oslo, shot clean and kept his team in contention.
The relay was a bright spot for much of the season, with wins in Hochfilzen and Antholz, plus second in Ruhpolding. Tsvetkov who replaced Alexey Volkov at the WCH, teamed up with Shipulin, Garanichev and Dmitry Malyshko. This squad generally only used 6-7 spare rounds which should always keep any team near the top of the field; a single penalty in Oslo was their downfall. If Malyshko returns to his World Cup-winning form; they easily could go shoulder-to-shoulder with the World Champions, Norway.
Full Year with Ricco Gross
After one plus years on the job, Coach Ricco Gross comes to the new season with a team that has trained under his program all summer. This stability plus the lessons learned from last year may be just what it takes for the Russian men to win some medals once again in Hochfilzen and head to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games poised for medals.
The Russian women finished sixth in the Nations Cup, after a season when their highlights all came on three days in January. Olga Podchufarova, just 23 at the time, won the Antholz sprint, with 2015 IBU World Champion Ekaterina Yurlova-Percht in third. Yurlova won the next-day's pursuit. They closed the weekend with a season-best third place in the relay, just 21.1 seconds behind first place France. The team missed the podium for the rest of the year. Yurlova-Percht's 11th and 13th places in Oslo were the best on the team. Going into the new season, Yurlova-Percht is close to delivering her first child but expects to be back later in the year. Podchufarova looks like the team leader and a potential star. New Coach Valery Medvedtsev recently said his goals for the season was a WCH medal and a top five finish in the Nations Cup to earn additional WC starters.
Forgetting and Looking Forward
Shipulin explained last winter a necessary change that could bring success; if that happens, the Russian camp will be smiling from ear-to-ear."Fourcade has the confidence that he will win the race and will disregard what happened before. However, my Russian teammates and I are getting nervous and simply thinking about how it eventually could not go well for us." The new season is the perfect time to forget what happened before and look confidently at the future