The multi-faceted burning question is: will Quentin Fillon Maillet make it two-Crystal Globes in a row; will JT regain the top spot…or will some else have a magical season leaving everyone in the dust?
Seven of the top ten men in the WCTS from last year return this year: Fillon Maillet, Sturla Holm Laegreid, Sebastian Samuelsson, Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen, Emilien Jacquelin, Tarjei Boe and Benedikt Doll (1-6 respectively plus number 8 Doll). After ending his season after Beijing, JT finished 13th but easily would have been in the top 10 had he competed in the last trimester. That throws eight hats in the ring.
Until proven otherwise, Fillon Maillet, wearing Yellow when the season opens in Kontiolahti is the favorite to repeat. Ten victories last season with sixteen total individual podiums speak for themselves. No one else had more than three wins. The French star’s shooting was generally impeccable; with seventeen clean shooting days including relays and an 89% average. Fillon Maillet was an “Ironman,” toeing the line in every individual competition and every relay except Ruhpolding and Antholz. Considered the “King of the Four-stage Competitions,” he stepped up to handily win two sprints showing the versatility necessary to be #1. Fillon Maillet’s biggest assets are a strong will and quiet determination to win the seasonal title. The French team leader won the Martin Fourcade Nordic Festival and by all accounts had a solid and healthy training season. The ball is in his court as the season starts…
Laegreid did not match his breakout 2020/21 season but still finished second in the Total Score for the second consecutive year. If anyone is poised to challenge Fillon Maillet, it is the 25-year-old Norwegian. Laegreid’s shooting last season dipped from a superhuman 92% to a normal person’s 86%. That fueled a few very sub-par (37th OSD sprint, 21st ALGB mass start, 22nd KON sprint) efforts, all detrimental to his season. Still Laegreid, now past his “sophomore slump,” remains highly talented, motivated, and eager to get his hands on that big Crystal Globe. Like JT, Laegreid eagerly awaits the new season, recently posting on Instagram, “Can we skip the waiting and just start the new season?”
Samuelsson proved last year he could compete for podiums from November to March. A strong first trimester with two sprint victories at home in Oestersund set up his season. Battling with Laegreid for second in the WCTS at Oslo, the Swede had third and fourth places, not quite equal to his rival but enough to secure his career-best third in the season rankings. Samuelsson was strong on the tracks all season but his 83% shooting was not good enough to challenge for more podiums. He seems to be ready for big things this year, based on his two Gold plus one Silver medal punctuated by 45-of-50 shooting at the IBU SBWCH. Swedish Head Coach Johannes Lukas is supremely confident about Samuelsson’s ability to win big. “Sebbe is probably the craziest athlete I know. He spent more time on his rollerski treadmill in May than most others in a whole season…If he holds his energy in balance, there are not many men who can beat him.”
Christiansen thrust himself into the WCTS conversation with a career-topping-to-date season that included two wins, in the first and third trimesters. His shooting stepped up, bumping to 88% for the season. In the last trimester, Christiansen fired 120 shots, missing just six times. A full season at that level with his track speed and the sky is the limit. Summer went according to plan, adding three more Blinkfestivalen podiums to his resume. Christiansen is no longer a dark horse, but a real contender.
This guy comes to the new season thinking about a return to the top and little else, fueled by a long rest and recharge after Beijing. Thirteenth in the Total Score last season is not the story of his year. It is four Olympic Gold medals and one Bronze for good measure, handling the elements and pressure, showing true grit in the victories. After a second season of 84% shooting, the rifle business was his focus this summer, “It is all I have been thinking about… My biggest wish is to be a better shooter.” JT remains confident about his track prowess; if the shooting goes up significantly, there will be a “battle royale” between him and everyone else. Ending the season in the Yellow Bib for the fourth time remains the almost 30-year-old’s focus. “That is the goal; it is the main goal. In our sport, I have always looked at it as the ultimate prize. You are the best over the whole year.”
Once again, there is a huge logjam of talented men, including Jacquelin, Tarjei and Doll, capable of spoiling the chances for the five major contenders. The enigmatic Jacquelin has the tools and the desire to win many competitions and the Yellow Bib, but lacks shooting range consistency, ending last season at 82%, 3 points below the two previous seasons. When he is on, Jacquelin can flash through five shots like a superhero and has devastating track speed. Last season, his returning from wrist surgery may explain his single clean shooting day. Stable shooting, focus and his track strength could earn him a third consecutive Pursuit World Championship and more.
Tarjei accomplished several goals last year, his first individual Olympic medals and his second-ever small crystal globe for the World Cup Individual Score. He shot well at 86%, with an armload of single miss days. Admittedly the elder Boe probably cannot top the WCTS, but he has the tools and experience to challenge consistently and win once or twice on a perfect day.
Doll, like Tarjei took family time after the birth of his first child and may not battle for the big Crystal Globe but can be a player every week. The 32-year-old put together a nice season last year: his first win in over two years in the Antholz mass start showcased his improved shooting.
The competition deck is filled with wild cards that could turn into winning hands. IBU Sprint World Champion and Olympic Mass Start Silver medalist Martin Ponsiluoma is near the top. The Swede is confident on the tracks but needs mid-80s shooting to consistently podium. Johannes Kuehn has similar track speed, won the Hochfilzen sprint last year, and could win frequently with better shooting. Two young talents complete the Wild Cards: Filip Fjeld Andersen and Erik Perrot. Andersen, in his first full (except Oestersund) season on the senior circuit had two podiums, shot 80%, closing the season with three solid top 20s in Oslo. His promise and another summer of training could easily give him several more podiums and the top 10 in the WCTS. Although Perrot has just 17 World cup starts and a single top 10 result, the double IBU YJWCH medalist is on the success fast track. Perrot won a French Summer title last month and was second twice in other French Summer competitions. Going head-to-head and topping his older teammates, albeit in summer is a sign that Perrot is World Cup-ready.
There is one consideration to remember about the coming season: the rules change that eliminated the dropped competitions and changed the scoring. JT commented, “New system, new points…I think we will see early one who will have a chance (for the Yellow Bib) …Some may focus on the World Championships when they see they cannot fight for the Globe. But the main focus for many is to wear the Yellow, so that means people will have to race everything and the relays. The worst thing with this system is that some people will not race relays to save power… It will be interesting to see what happens. Stay tuned…"
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Vianney Thibaut