Moving On: Biathletes Hanging Up Their Rifles and Skis (Part 1)
Olympic seasons are bellwether years, full of career highlights and glorious medals for established and rising stars and sometimes, for even the most successful athletes: the time to step away from biathlon and move on to new challenges.
The just finished season was typical with a big group of retirees, some expected and some surprising on the long list that included the well-known Ole Einar Björndalen, Marie Dorin Habert, Emil Hegle Svendsen, Lowell Bailey and Weronika Nowakowska, as well as lesser-known athletes like Hilde Fenne, Florian Graf and Coline Varcin.
Six Olympic medalists are among the biggest stars to leave the sport this spring. Marie Dorin Habert, Jean Guillaume Beatrix, and Jaroslav Soukup are in this article with the others in part two.
Marie Dorin Habert
The 31-year-old Dorin Habert was the biggest non-surprise retiree this spring, since she let it be known last summer that the 2017-18 season would be her swan song. Although this season was not the best of her career, she went out on the highest of notes, with an Olympic Mixed Relay Gold medal and a Relay Bronze medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang OWG.
However those medals were just the icing on the cake of her career that spanned more than 15 years. Dorin Habert had 28 individual podiums, including four IBU World Championships, two in 2014 and two in 2015. She also had Sprint Silver and Relay Bronze medals in the 2010 Vancouver OWG.
Pregnancy and Gold Medals
The best years in her career unquestionably came after the birth of her daughter Adele in the fall of 2014. The French star trained throughout her pregnancy, still on roller skis and doing intervals eight weeks before Adele’s birth. As soon as possible after giving birth, she was back at the shooting range. That led to her return to the BMW IBU World Cup at Oberhof, accompanied by the baby in January 2015, where Dorin Habert went 10-for-10 in the women’s relay on the way to a second place finish. That auspicious start led to her first individual IBU WCH titles in Kontiolahti, taking the sprint/pursuit double then adding Silver medals in the relay and mixed relay.
“Dahlmeieresque” in Oslo
The next year in Oslo, she outdid herself with “Dahlmeieresque” performances, Gold medals in the 15K individual, mass start and mixed relay, sprint and relay Silver medals and pursuit Bronze. The run of WCH medals ended at Hochfilzen with mixed relay Silver and relay Bronze.
Olympic Gold and a Song
The French star’s last season was a struggle with fatigue until late January, a clean-shooting sprint in Antholz was the turning point. She admitted after that competition that finally she was feeling better. That led to a very close 4th in the OWG sprint and then the two big medals. The always unpredictable Dorin Habert was so excited with the Gold medal that she did a solo version of the “Marseillaise” on the podium to the delight of her teammates.
Hotel and Time for…
Her final sun-filled days on the World Cup circuit in Oslo culminated with a relay victory which she most-appropriately shared by taking Adele with her to the podium.
Marie and her husband Lois Habert are now in the process of building a sport hotel at Correncon-en-Vercors on the edge of the biathlon stadium and rollerski tracks. Although retired from competition, biathlon will remain a part of her life, along with her family, mountain hiking and running, horses, skiing, a bit of music among her varied interests.
Lowell Bailey and History
Like Dorin Habert, Lowell Bailey revealed more than a year ago that this year would be his last. Although Bailey may not have the glittering resume of his Norwegian rivals, he holds a place in biathlon history. Although he has but a single career victory, that one win was at the 2017 IBU WCH in the 20K individual. Bailey’s clean shooting and gritty, holding-on-for-dear-life last loop gave him the Gold medal and the first-ever IBU World Championship for the USA. That historic win came in the 302nd start of his long career that started back at the IBU Junior World Championships in 1999.
Long Road to Success
The affable 37-year-old took a long and winding road to reach a level that many biathletes dream of, but only a select few ever reach. Three times a US Olympian with near-miss 8th place in the Sochi 20K, Bailey more than paid his dues. He failed to win a spot on the 2002 US Olympic Team by a very slim margin, then went off to University, skied collegiately, earned a degree, returning to biathlon in 2005. From that point, it was endless hours of training at home in Lake Placid, New York, new coaches several times, months at a time away from family in Europe, countless long van rides from venue to venue, shaking legs and missed standing shots and then the best years of his career.
He always knew the keys to biathlon success. “If you put together a good race on a given day, you can be on the podium. That is my goal…it requires an absolutely perfect day.” That happened in Hochfilzen, giving him the win and another small record, the oldest individual IBU WCH Gold medalist.
Musician and New Career
Beyond his biathlon career, Bailey has always been known as a talented musician, with a guitar always in his luggage all winter long. He played in several bands, was the key part of several IBU TV music projects including his duet with Gabriela Koukalová “It’s in His Kiss.” Bailey is now moving from his home in Lake Placid, New York to Bozeman Montana to become the Executive Director of the Crosscut Mountain Sport Center that will provide a year-round recreation, sports training and educational facility.
The fact that Jaroslav Soukup retired after this season and not much earlier, is a remarkable story in itself. He overcame a devastating mountain biking accident in the summer of 2012 to return to the sport for six more seasons that included two medals in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
In August 2012 while mountain biking during a training camp in Slovenia, he crashed on a rolling downhill section of trail at high speed and went over the handlebars, hitting his right shoulder, arm and head. Soukup had a concussion, lumbar spine injuries, and fractures of the scapula, all of which were improving within two weeks after the accident. The biggest issue was the two breaks in his arm between the hand and elbow, with one of the two being more complex. The one closest to the elbow had to be stabilized with screws and a metal plate during surgery. After a career season the previous year, the 2012 World Championships Bronze medalist had been looking forward to competing in the IBU World Championships in his home stadium at Nove Mesto na Moravě, Czech Republic, but the accident put his career in jeopardy.
Two Olympic Medals
The next year provided the biggest highlights of his career. First was a surprise Sprint Bronze, just 5.7 seconds behind Björndalen. Then along with teammates Gabriela Koukalová, Veronika Vitkova and Ondřej Moravec, Soukup added a Mixed Relay Silver medal to his trophy case. He returned to the OWG this season, running a leg on the seventh place men’s relay team. Soukup’s late career success is a testament to his resilience and the comment he made during his very rigorous rehabilitation in 2012. “I expect to be doing biathlon for many years (and he did).”
Podiums for Jean Guillaume Beatrix
Beatrix is one of those biathletes who was a winner as well as on the podium at every stage of his career. The French veteran was the 2008 IBU Junior Individual World Champion, an IBU Cup and World Cup winner, IBU WCH medalist, and an OWG medalist.
Probably the biggest highlight of his career was at the 2014 Sochi OWG when he won the Silver medal in the pursuit to grab a podium spot alongside his good friend and longtime road roommate, Martin Fourcade. Beatrix came to Sochi at the top of his game, fresh off a pursuit second place and relay win in Antholz, just weeks earlier. His single penalty in the Sochi sprint left him in 14th place, 38 seconds back going into the pursuit. Always quick on his skis and a 92% career prone shot, he cleaned both prone stages, but was still back in 12th position. After one penalty loop in the first standing, he managed to close the last five targets; then summoned the ski speed to grab third place, 24.2 seconds back, just 1.7 seconds ahead of the Sprint Gold medalist Björndalen. At the finish, the two French teammates hugged, clearly elated with each other’s success.
Throughout his career, Beatrix was a constant presence on the French World Cup relay team, usually running the leadoff or third legs. He was on either the relay or mixed relay podium 19 times with seven victories in his World Cup career.
Cycling, Mountains and Music
The Autrans resident, although a great teammate, has always loved his solitary training, especially up in the mountains surrounding his home. Road cycling has always been one of his passions, as well as motorcycling and music. He, along with Bailey collaborated on the music for “The Spy Who Loved Biathlon,” playing piano in that production and guitar in several other pieces over the years. Beatrix has no solid plans after retirement, but hinted recently in an interview that he might try his hand at coaching. In the meantime while he decides on future plans, the affable Beatrix plans to “enjoy his friends, ride the motorcycle and travel.”
396 World Cup Starts…and One Victory for Eva Tofalvi
Only one other biathlete not named Ole Einar Björndalen retired this year with more Olympic Winter Games on her resume: Eva Tofalvi. Her appearance in Pyeongchang at age 39 was her sixth OWG. Tofalvi is another of the biathlon “lifers,” whose World Cup career started at age 18 in Ruhpolding. She has been the face of Romanian biathlon for years.
The high point in her career was the 2008-09 season, when she finished 11th in the World Cup Total Score. That was also the year of her only podium, a victory in the Hochfilzen 15K individual. Always strong on the shooting range, that day was the perfect storm of 20-for-20 that put her 50.4 seconds ahead of Russian star Svetlana Sleptsova and future multi-Olympic medalist Simona Hauswald.
One More Olympic Winter Games
Tofalvi had planned to retire before the 2017-18 season, but fate intervened: she was the only Romanian women capable of filling the one start for her country. And there she was last July, training in Antholz, her favorite spot to get ready for one last hurrah. She admitted in an earlier interview that as she aged, “I am suffering out there, but for some reason, I am enjoying it more than ever before. I do not know why, but I have this feeling.” She got a “perfect day” one more time in this year’s Antholz sprint, clean shooting and her ticket punched for that final OWG appearance. She made it and is now retired, like her very good friend Weronika Nowakowska. The two joked a few years back that “some day when we are retired and about 70 years old, we will go on another crazy holiday, like to Thailand; that would be a good place.”
Biathlon Over, On to School for Julia Ransom
Julia Ransom is not quite ready for the rocking chair at age 25, but ready for new challenges, so she ended her biathlon career last March. It is unusual for an athlete to retire after a career season, but Ransom was ready, looking forward to university.
Two Top Tens and Pyeongchang
Ransom’s fairly short career included three years on the BMW IBU World Cup circuit, but the last one was the best, with two 9th places: in the Östersund 15K individual and the Oberhof sprint. The good results earned a ticket to Pyeongchang, where her best day was in the pursuit, moving from 40th at the start to 28th at the finish with a single penalty.
Smiles, Champagne and Friends
The Canadian closed her career in another pursuit, at Oslo, “my favorite place in the world.” The result was unimportant, the future student left with a smile on her face and a few tears, while celebrating and sharing champagne in the finish area with her teammates and Dorin Habert. “It felt right…I’ve had better pursuits, but it was… I just had fun the whole time. I was smiling; I had my friends on the track. I crossed the line with Rosanna (Crawford). Then all the girls were at the finish line. It was just perfect.” Next stop: the University of British Columbia Okanagan and science studies leading to either dentistry or medicine.
Hilde Fenne, Youngest Retiree
At 24-years-old, Hilde Fenne is the youngest of this class of retirees. However, she has plenty of success. Fenne bounced back and forth from the World Cup to the IBU Cup. Her career highlight was the 2013 IBU WCH. She led off Norway’s women’s relay and when anchor Tora Berger crossed the finish line, Fenne was an IBU World Champion in the relay.
Fenne won two Gold medals in the 2012 IBU YJWCH, the Youth Sprint title and ran a leg on the junior relay, claiming her second Gold medal. She started the next season with a sprint win in her first-ever IBU Cup at Idre and immediately went to the World Cup in Östersund. In that golden 2012-13 season, she was on two more winning World Cup relay teams, at Hochfilzen and Ruhpolding.
After that, she had just two more visits to the top of the podium, both at IBU Cups. Her second and only other individual IBU Cup win came this past season when she took the sprint at Arber. She was given a fond farewell by teammates, who adorned their cheeks with hearts on one side and “Hilde” on the other in her final appearance at Holmenkollen in the women’s pursuit. Teammate Synnøve Solemdal, with tears in her eyes said, “She has been a very important for me. We have stayed a lot in rooms together. I'm going to miss her very much.”
Best wishes to all of these athletes in their future endeavors!