No one was particularly surprised to see Sturla Holm Laegreid, Emilien Jacquelin, or Tiril Eckhoff atop the podium at last season’s IBU World Championships. Yet when the dust settled after the men’s 10 km sprint, the Gold medal was around the neck of Martin Ponsiluoma, leaving causal observers to simply say, “Who won?”
Yes, Sweden’s Martin Ponsiluoma, with a previous IBU WCH best of 23rd in the 2020 pursuit, had a career day: shooting clean and speeding to an 11.2 second victory over Simon Desthieux, taking his first career victory and the title of IBU World Champion all in a single day.
“Perfect race on the right day”
Ponsiluoma recently reflected on that day. “I did not think I would do so great. I felt in the summer that I was stronger, but I did not think that would turn into a Gold medal... I got a really good start with the fastest (ski) times the first weekend of the season. I was on the sprint podium with Sebastian that first week. It was something new to be skiing at another level. I knew then I did not have to shoot clean to make a good result. After the season started so well, I knew I could make a real good World Championships. Then in Pokljuka, I had the perfect race on the right day.”
Hints of Sprint Potential
Before last season, the 26-year-old Swede had only one other brush with the podium, an almost shocking, then PR third place in the 2018 Nove Mesto sprint, also shooting clean but 54 seconds behind Johannes Thingnes Boe. Beyond that, in his three previous BMW IBU World Cup seasons, Ponsiluoma was simply a reliable teammate who bounced from leadoff to second to third to anchor on the Swedish relay teams. Still, hidden in his resume were hints of sprint potential: there was a zero or one beside his name in eleven sprints over three seasons. Still, he believed. “I always felt like I could be at the top. I never showed what I was capable of before.”
Topping the big Norwegian and French sprinters all in the same day was beyond his expectations. “It is something you dream of. You always want to be first. They are really strong. Every time you beat some of them, you are really happy; beating all of them is unbelievable. I was really happy!”
Like most of his peers, Ponsiluoma skied from an early age, but unlike them, he was not passionate about the snow sport. “I did many sports: football, handball, tennis but never got serious about skiing until I was about 14. Still, my dad a former xc skier started me on skis very early. My first biathlon competition was not a good experience. I missed nine of ten shots. Then on my second race, my dad said I would get one candy for each hit…and I hit nine! After that, I started shooting well.”
The 2020 Hochfilzen mass start second place, 1.3 seconds behind Arnd Peiffer was the precursor to Ponsiluoma’s first-ever win at Pokljuka. “It was an unbelievably good. One miss in the first shooting; if you have to miss it should be in the first prone. Then you can catch the pack in the second loop and you are back in the game. To hit the next fifteen shots after that was a really nice feeling.”
Unsurprisingly, the 2021 IBU Sprint World Champion considers that 10 km barnburner his best event. “It has been my favourite for a long time. Two shootings fit me well and 10 kilometers is my best distance in skiing. It is like the Formula One of biathlon. It is just two shootings where you have to have really good focus. The distance is perfect. You have to open really hard and keep going.”
Improving with the team
Despite going 10-for-10 at Pokljuka, Ponsiluoma’s shooting last season was not his best, ending the year at 79%. Accordingly, this summer his focus was “shooting, getting the percentage up, getting more comfortable. I know the skiing last season was very good and all I want to do now there is improve a little bit. I am confident with that. But the shooting is up and down. Sturla shoots well and is fighting for Yellow; he was not the fastest skier so it shows how important shooting is. Improving shooting is my biggest goal.”
Ponsiluoma thinks training together as a team helps him and the whole Swedish squad make improvements that pushed him to a World Championship title. “Everyone pushes in training and steps up. Sebastian (Samuelsson) is a really good shooter; he never misses in training. He shows that you have to shoot clean. That is good for the whole team.”
A full set of IBU WCH medals (Sprint Gold, Relay Silver and Mixed Relay Bronze), means his goals are going a notch higher in 2021/22. “Of course, my goals are higher than last year. It would be amazing to have an Olympic medal. I know it is really hard, but that is my goal.”
First thing I did at the end of last season: was go ski touring.
The best way to spend a rest day is: on the water, fly fishing.
My favourite food after a hard training session is: pasta, a lot of pasta.
My biathlon role model when I was young was: Ole Einar, for sure. I met him when I was pretty young; he was a really big idol. I had the Casco glasses and everything.
Four words that describe myself are: fast, kind, fun, and strong.
Photos: IBU/Jerry Kokesh/Christian Manzoni