Anton, Alexey and Co…Aiming for a Big Season
The hard-fought Gold medal in the men’s relay at the IBU WCH last season may have been just the tonic the Russian men’s team needed as they headed towards the Olympic season. The Sochi Gold medalists had regained their crown as the best foursome in the world with a mix of veteran stars and rising talent. Anton Shipulin commented, “That win showed that we stand together as a family.” The recent almost medal-less days were over; the future of Russian biathlon once again looked bright.
Victories and Medals: Step in the Right Direction
The Russian team has a proud history of Olympic and World Champions, on a par with the German and Norwegian men. Yet, since the Sochi Relay Gold medal and Evgeniy Garanichev’s Bronze medal, the combined Russian team has only won four medals, two in Kontiolahti, none at Oslo and two this past season. Coaching and financial issues, retirements and a host of other distractions plagued the team, but the light began to shine for the men once again last season. A 1-2 Östersund pursuit finish by Anton Babikov and Maxim Tsvetkov kicked off the season, Anton Shipulin had nine podiums and two victories, Alexey Volkov and Alexander Loginov dominated the IBU Cup season and the relay team was on the podium in four of five competitions including that Gold medal, adding up to third place in the Nations Cup It was not exactly the “good old days,” but was a step in the right direction. The key in the new season is simply to keep the momentum up.
Anton in the Spotlight
Anton Shipulin is the undisputed leader of the Russian Team; as he goes, so does the team. This former IBU World Junior Champion has finished second, third and second in the World Cup Total Score the past three seasons. In that time, he has recorded 25 individual podiums, including five wins. Shipulin has been and will continue as the reliable anchor on relays; once he gets the tag, if there is a chance, he will put his team on the podium. He is by far the most experienced man on the team with 230 World Cup starts on his resume.
Closing the Gaps on Range and Tracks
Last season, he again found himself chasing his old nemesis Martin Fourcade. On his best days, it was hard for him to conquer his French rival. If Shipulin shot clean, so did Fourcade and then Fourcade would ski just a bit faster…and win. Shipulin is no slouch on skis; he regularly is in the top half dozen on the tracks. Shipulin’s downfall in many cases, is simply missing a shot or two too many. Over the past three seasons, he averaged 88% to 90.4% for Fourcade in prone and 87.3% to 87.6% in standing; small margins, but crucial, especially when Fourcade is generally faster on the tracks. Although Shipulin was well behind in the Total Score, there were reasons to smile: the first-ever 20K win at his favorite venue, Antholz and the 5.8 second win over Fourcade and his team in the WCH relay. As is his normal plan, Shipulin along with Volkov trained with their personal coach Andrey Kryuchkov all summer, focusing on the little things like shooting speed/accuracy that will close those gaps and bring him more success. Looking to the new season, he commented in a recent interview, “Every athlete says the Olympics are the main start in their career; I will try to go there in top shape.”
Volkov and the Relay
Shipulin’s training partner Alexey Volkov is a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Russian men. Relegated to the IBU Cup for most of the season last year, he performed admirably and was a true “team player.” He won the IBU Cup Total Score, helping his team gain an extra start spot this season. Yet when called up for the IBU WCH, particularly for the relay, he again responded like the Olympic Champion he is. His two spares and a fast tour of the tracks allowed Volkov to tag in first place; the team’s first step to the eventual Gold medal. He was well aware of the comment, “We need Alexey for the relay.”
96.2% on the Shooting Range
Volkov’s calling card is in his trigger finger; he is extremely reliable on the shooting range. Starting with the IBU OECH through the BMW IBU World Cup final in Oslo, Volkov fired 190 shots in individual competitions (WC and IBU Cup), he only missed seven times! That is a 96.2% hit rate; any team would love to have this guy leading off their relay! This past summer, he shot clean in the IBU SBWCH sprint to finish second, just 3.4 seconds from the Gold medal; then came back to win pursuit Gold with one penalty over Shipulin. He also teamed up on the winning mixed relay. The 29-year-old Khanty Mansiysk resident looks ready to stay on the World Cup squad and should be big factor in any relay success this season.
Garanichev, Looking for a Podium
Evgeniy Garanichev has been on an individual World Cup podium every season since moving full-time to the major circuit in 2011; that is until last season. After two years of 7th place finishes (and multiple podiums) in the World Cup Total Score, he slipped to 18th last year, with a season-best of 5th in the Pyeongchang pursuit. Like so many other World Cup veterans, Garanichev’s shooting slipped a notch last season, a couple of points in both stages. Even a small change like that can mean the difference between the podium and 10th place in the extremely competitive men’s field. He did salvage the season with OECH pursuit Silver and Single mixed Gold medals, plus 8th, 9th and 8th in the Oslo sprint, pursuit and mass start to end the season. A return to that kind of form will be a big plus for the team and will put Garanichev back on the podium this season.
The Next Generation
Two younger athletes stepped up big time last season, Anton Babikov and Maxim Tsvetkov. Babikov, the 2016 IBU Rookie of the Year opened his season with the first BMW IBU World Cup victory of his career in the Östersund pursuit and a second podium in the Nove Mesto mass start. His third-leg clean shooting in the WCH relay set the stage for Shipulin’s anchor leg and the victory. Likewise, Tsvetkov in his second World Cup season was second in that Östersund pursuit and had an equally impressive 10-for-10 relay leg at Hochfilzen. He did not have any other podiums, but a second solid season in a row gave the 25-year-old 19th place in the Total Score.
Behind these two are several others, all under age 25 who can impact the fortunes of the Russian men’s team, including Matvey Eliseev, with three finishes in the top 10 in his first full World Cup season. The returning Alexander Loginov won weight times in IBU Cup competitions and finished second to Volkov in the IBU Cup Total Score.
These relative youngsters all add up to the potential of the Russian men’s team. If the veterans perform as expected and the younger group makes further improvements, this Olympic season could literally be “return to the glory days” of Russian biathlon.
Post Script: the Women’s Team
The Russian women’s team has struggled mightily in recent seasons, but this year could be a step back to respectability. Last year, the brightest spot was 2016 IBU Rookie of the Year Tatiana Akimova who had her first World Cup win and a third place in Nove Mesto. She cooled off a bit after December, but still finished 16th in the World Cup Total Score.
Returning to the team is 2015 IBU 15K Individual World Champion Ekaterina Yurlova-Percht. After a long maternity leave, her experience and podium potential will be a strong addition for the women. The third woman to watch is Olga Podchufarova who was off form in her shortened season last year. However, in the 2015-16 season, she had a win and a third place in Antholz. The 25-year-old was a 97% prone shooter that year; a return of her health and ski speed will help the team’s fortunes. These three could provide some podiums and a solid core for the relay team, adding up to a potential return to the top five in the Nations Cup for the Russian ladies.