3 Days until Östersund: Doro, Kaisa, Krystyna and…
THREE DAYS until the always exciting mixed relays in Östersund; not all of the top athletes are on the powerhouse teams like Germany, France or Norway. Kaisa Mäkäräinen of Finland, Dorothea Wierer of Italy, and Krystyna Guzik of Poland, finished third, fourth and tenth in the World Cup Total Score last season.
The big teams do not have a monopoly on talent; top biathletes abound, but these three women from medium sized teams and several others will be chasing the podium once again this season.
Wierer has steadily moved up to the rare air of the top three female biathletes in the world. Her Total Score progression goes from 38th in 2012-13, 16th in 2013-14, 7th in 2014-15 to 3rd last season. She explained in an earlier interview, “Actually, after the medal in Sochi; I became more serious and trained much harder. Before that, I would train well for some weeks and then not so well. The whole atmosphere in our team changed after that." That is saying quite a bit, especially since she was a talented five time IBU YJWCH Gold medalist. She had her first podium, third in the 2014 Östersund pursuit, followed by second in the Pokljuka sprint; those two results set her rising star in motion. Last season, she rewrote her personal record book, relegating those two big days to ancient history with three victories. Her 15K win, again in Östersund was followed by another 15K win in Ruhpolding which propelled her to the small crystal globe for the individual competitions. The Canmore mass start win and her Silver medal at the IBU WCH plus 15 top ten results, gave her third place in the Total Score.
There is a pattern to Wierer’s success: she is very good on the shooting range, especially in four-stage competitions. In five of her top six competitions last season, two 15Ks, two pursuits, and a mass start; she hit 96 of her 100 shots. Besides that kind of accuracy, Wierer shoots fast, although she thinks not as fast as in her junior days. “I was a much faster shooter when I was young. I never thought about mistakes, just how fast I could go on the tracks. Now, I shoot as I feel, sometimes fast and sometimes not so fast.” Besides shooting skill, she is equally adept on the tracks, simply described as powerful.
Those skills plus her desire to win makes Wierer a threat to battle for the number one ranking this season. She commented about the podium last season. “Once you have one, you always want more and more.”
Two-time World Cup Total Score winner Mäkäräinen finished fourth last season, adding to her string of top 5 finishes that dates to the 2010-11 season. Victory in the Östersund pursuit kicked off her season; she ended December with another win in the Pokljuka mass start. That fast start might have led to another big Crystal Globe. Unfortunately, after second in the Ruhpolding 15K, she got sick, missed the mass start that week and it took a while to get back to her high standards, the podium. Yet at the end of the season, Mäkäräinen was at her best, flying through the last loop of the mass start at the IBU WCH to claim the Bronze medal. She followed that with two wins in Khanty Mansiysk. That all added up to another very good season for the 33-year-old veteran. Mäkäräinen’s strength lies in her ski speed. Although she admits to maybe not being as fast as she once was, there is probably not a woman in biathlon who wants to be next to her batting for medal with several hundred meters to go. Most likely, Mäkäräinen will come out on top.
She comes to the new season with two Gold medals (mixed relay, pursuit) at last summer’s IBU Summer Biathlon World Championships and surely the thoughts of adding to her 19 career victories and maybe another of those elusive big Crystal Globes.
Last season was the best in Guzik’s long career that dates back to 42nd place in the 2001 YJWCH in Khanty Mansiysk. Since that time, she has become one of the leaders on the Polish team, competing in eleven IBU World Championships, three Olympic Winter Games with four podiums and a WCH Silver medal on her resume. Guzik was in the top seven on five occasions last season. She was at her best in the North American World Cups, almost picking up her first career victory in the Canmore sprint; until Olena Pidhrushna’s blistering last loop gave the Ukrainian the win. Guzik ended the season with a career-best 10th place in the World Cup Total Score.
Then came the off-season brought a big challenge. The 33-year-old Polish veteran had major shoulder surgery on May 31 that took her away from training for almost two months and off the shooting range for longer. The veteran biathlete was back cycling indoors rather quickly while doing rehab on the shoulder, but biathlon training outdoors and especially rollerskiing was out of the question until mid-July. Standing shooting came first.
Prone shooting was out of the question. "When I started to try to shoot prone, it had been 5 months, April-September since I had shot prone. Initially I could not shoot prone; I could not get in position. The muscles had to be completely retrained and stretched; it was hard work, like being a beginner. I had to relearn to shoot prone all over again." Left out the Polish team training group, she found her way to Hochfilzen and has trained with the Alfred Eder group. As the new season approaches, she is fit and shooting well once again. She will be on the starting line in Östersund, surely thinking about all of the hard work and sacrifice it took to get back.
A Couple More
Beyond these three women in the top 10, there are a couple more athletes who could alter the face of this season, although neither is expected to compete for the Total Score title; two in particular are Anastasiya Kuzmina and Darya Domracheva. Kuzmina the two-time Olympic Sprint champion is coming back after almost 30 months away from biathlon due to the birth of her second child. She competed once last season in Martell to get her World Cup qualifier. Kuzmina is coming back not just to be on the team, but to be battling for the podium. She had a big summer of training and her return will be closely watched by both her rivals and fans.
The other expected returnee, later in the season is the 2015 World Cup Total Score winner Darya Domracheva. She missed last season due after a bout of mononucleosis and gave birth to a daughter, Xenia on October 1. Triple Olympic Gold medalist Domracheva has been training recently in Sjusjøen, aiming to a January return. Like Kuzmina, if she returns fit and fast, the women’s field will suddenly be a lot more competitive.