Jakov Fak: Smiling About New Daughter & New Season
11.10.2016 Bled, Slovenia It is a sunny afternoon in late September; Jakov Fak strolls anonymously down the lakeside promenade in Bled, just 20km but a world away from Pokljuka where he spends much of his training time. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt, few people recognize the twice World Champion and Olympic Bronze medalist as he sits down at a lakeside café to chat about 2016 that started at a low point but has been trending upward this summer. Fak is very relaxed on this fourth day away from training before starting a new cycle. He seems refreshed and stress-free although he had spent much of the day visiting sponsors and rushing from his home in Ljubljana to Bled. "It is never a problem for me to do sponsor work; I like it."
He ended last season with hard-fought 5th in the pursuit, 6th in the individual and 7th in the mass start at the IBU WCH. Yet those were his season's highlights, all in one week; he finished 34th in the World Cup Total Score, his worst place since the 2009-10 season and a far cry from his 2014-15 third place. He bluntly states, "It was the worst season in my life. The races in Oslo and especially the 5th place gave me a great feeling but after those races I told my coach that the season was over; my body did not want to run anymore."
Fak had completely depleted his limited reserves built up after a serious mid-season illness. He explained, "I did not feel good after the Antholz pursuit, but had to do the relay; Klemen was sick and we had no one else. I knew my body was not working as it should because my heart rate was up at 183. I got home and had a temperature of 42 and spent two days in bed; I could not move." Persuaded to go to the hospital for tests, he collapsed in the waiting room; the verdict, "Influenza." Ten days in bed at home followed, wearing a surgical mask with food being passed through the door.
Alone in Pokljuka
The much rested Fak went to Pokljuka alone to "retrain" for the WCH; the team was in North America. "It was snowing almost every day. I was on my own so had to do everything, including moving the snow. I had no support, but it gave me a new perspective and kept me motivated. When you win, you have to work really hard. No one ever wins by the easy route." The man who always seems to be at his best in major events came from 39th at the start of the pursuit to just 10 seconds from a medal at the finish. "When it comes to the big races, I am always there...that is why Oslo was good for my mind...I really do not understand what happens to me at big events. I am not always successful but I am usually close in a race or two."
Five Weeks Off
The effort took a toll; nothing left in the tank and basically nothing to show for the season. "After that, I skied at home in Croatia for about 2 weeks; then stopped everything for 5 weeks and did absolutely nothing." However, the timing was right in some ways; his long-time girlfriend Matea Korenić was pregnant with their first child. "I just tried to help with my girlfriend and make her pregnancy easier. I became a stay-at-home kind of guy."
Back to Training
By May, Fak was back training. His first session was running. After trying to change his running form from heel striker to mid-foot due to the "help" of an athletics coach, he moved to cycling. He laughs about what happened. "The coach had me running on my toes; after a 1:40 session, I could not walk or even go down the stairs! I immediately went to cycling. My longest cycling tour this summer was about 5 hours. I pushed hard this summer but not too hard until now."
"You are always learning; I think I will continue to learn about biathlon until my career ends." If there was a lesson learned from his worst season; it was probably train hard, but train smart. "Last year, I did exactly what the coaches said in summer training; I never did les. They said 10 repetitions, I did 11 or 12. I really gave it my all but when the winter came, I had nothing. This year, I backed down a bit. I am not running so fast as early last fall, but I think that is great, because I am building up slower so I will at the peak of my form as the season starts, not in September."
This was the perfect year for the Slovenian star to temper his training program. With a baby on the way, he skipped a team camp in Obertilliach. The day of his daughter Mila's birth was a bit like television comedy. He explained, "I trained twice; in the afternoon, a wasp bit me on the lip and inside my mouth. It swelled up the whole side of my face to my neck, so I had this huge ice pack on my face. We went to the scheduled checkup about the baby; the doctor said, 'go home and pack, you are having the baby today." I always thought it would be more dramatic! It was a bit crazy; she was giving birth; my head was swollen up but getting better. After the baby was born, they put her under this heat lamp. I was there next to her for about half an hour... and my face was all swollen again."
Life Changes with a New Daughter
Fak, the consummate biathlete with no outside interests now has a new perspective. "This was a life changing event; it is really something special; now having this responsibility for a family. It is really good to get your mind focused. It is very hard to get away from biathlon... Only when I get Mila in my hands and we are playing that I forget about biathlon I do not hear or see anyone else, it is just me and her. That is a very positive thing; all of those little things that bother you are not important anymore. But now it is harder to leave home for camps and competitions..."
Closer to Pokljuka
Biathlon remains his profession and priority, but family is getting in the mix. "Everything in my life is about biathlon. First I moved from my hometown to Ljubljana to be closer to sponsors and Pokljuka. Now, the next step is building a house near Bled, close to the highway, easy to get to Ljubljana and even closer to Pokljuka. I am building my life around biathlon. It is good that my girlfriend and my family understand. I am not sure what will happen later, but now I am going in the right way for my career and family."
Holidays and Mushroom Picking
There were no true holidays for Fak this year. "I am not a big holiday guy, but this year, I wanted to go to the coast so much! It was my biggest desire, but we stayed close to home. Of course if we went to the coast, after a couple of days, I would want to go off in the woods to train!"
No holidays this year, but he made it into the woods on his days off, "to pick mushrooms. I like it because it is good for concentration; you have to look for a certain color where there many similar colors. It is a lot like shooting; you have to be focused. It was good family time; I went with my Matea one day and another with my father and brother."\
Where He Came From
That family time was at home in Mrkopaj where he frequently trains in isolation.
"I like going home to Croatia to train, because I do not have perfect conditions there. It is going back to my roots. My father always tells me, 'When it is hard for you, just remember where you came from. Then everything will seem much brighter and better than you think.' I am alone there, no fancy targets or wind flags, just a place to train and focus; that is all you need sometimes."
Success Depends on Me
Putting biathlon and his life in those simple terms, the former World Champion knows the path to success. "This is going to be a hard season for me; I see it as a comeback. I want to get to a stable level again and stay healthy, and then every race is an opportunity. My success depends mostly on me. It is all up to me."
Like every champion, Fak is confident in his ability and mindset that has propelled him to podiums and medals for the past six years. "Every time I start a competition, I am convinced that I can beat everybody. If you do not believe that you cannot beat someone, you never will."
Always the Optimist
Walking along Lake Bled, pushing a baby stroller, Jakov Fak is smiling, confident, happy with his life, and ready for the new season. "I am always optimistic; sometimes when I think about the season I am scared, but generally not. Last season, I had four courses of antibiotics and influenza, missed twelve competitions and still finished 5th at the World Championships... I still have it!"