Champions Remember their First Biathlon

It is very easy to laud the success of mature athletes who win championships whether it is the World Cup Total Score, Olympic, IBU World Championships or IBU YJWCH titles. However, many of biathlon’s biggest stars including Magdalena Forsberg, Jakov Fak, Vanessa Voigt, Darya Domracheva and Benedikt Doll started their biathlon careers not atop the podium but struggling to master the sport.

Most biathletes start on the road to success at an early age, while some biathlon stars transitioned to the sport after years of competing in cross-country.

Forsberg, “If I shoot 10,000 Rounds”

Biathlon Legend Magdalena Forsberg, the winner of six consecutive World Cup Total Score titles was the first prominent women to move from cross-country to biathlon, at the age of 27. She told IBU TV several years ago about her first steps in the sport. “At the 1992 Albertville Olympics, I competed in cross-country and we were in the same stadium as biathlon. I saw the ladies with their rifles and I thought they were quite cool; it looked like a cool sport. I tried biathlon just for fun. I could not shoot. But I can learn; if I shoot 10,000 shots, then I have learned something. I hoped that I would be a better shooter than I am today.” The rest is history: 42 World Cup victories, 5 IBU WCH Gold medals 12 discipline globes and 2 Olympic medals.

Counting Loops

2006 Olympic Mass Start Gold medalist Anna Carin Olofsson-Zidek moved to biathlon in 2002. Her first biathlon competition was a wake-up call that reminded Zidek her newly chosen sport might be a bit of a challenge. “My first biathlon was the 2002 Swedish Championships. I had not been shooting much before that. I practiced a couple of times with a borrowed rifle. Since I had registered for the Championships, I thought I should shoot a little bit before I went to the starting line. I did not do so well. In the Sprint, I missed everything. I did eleven penalty loops! The first thing I had to learn about biathlon was how to count the loops!”

Which Target?

The lady who won Sprint and Relay Gold plus a Pursuit Silver medal at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games, Kati Wilhelm had an equally inauspicious biathlon debut several years earlier. “My first winter race, in Idre, was funny. I shot on the paper targets because they had not been removed after the zeroing. After the first miss, I thought it was not so bad, then after the second, I realized that I was shooting on the paper targets (not the metal). I then hit the last two.”

Chevalier-Bouchet, “Shoot good, but not fast on skis”

French Star and six-time IBU WCH medalist Anais Chevalier-Bouchet was initially not so sure about cross-country let alone biathlon, but found out quickly that she could hit the targets. “I actually first tried skiing at school; cross-country and did not like it at first because it was for old people! But finally, I won some races and then I liked it!” After heading to sports school in Villard de Lans, she took up biathlon and, “In my first race, I shot clean but was not very fast on the skis. That was usually what happened in my early days; shoot good but not fast on the skis. I think that may still be the case sometimes. I have always been a good shooter.”

Doll’s First Clean Shooting Day

Good on skis but not as good on the shooting range would describe the early career of 2017 IBU Sprint World Champion Benedikt Doll.  He recalled, “I started biathlon as soon I think, at the age of 7…I don’t remember my first biathlon competition, but I do remember the moment when I hit all targets for the first time, at the age of 17.” However, Doll found out early on that he could be a good biathlete, “when I realized that I was one of the fastest on the tracks in my youth.” 

Five-year old Simon Eder

Then there is Simon Eder, year-in and year-out 90%+ on the shooting range. His success might be due to some very early races in his back yard.  “I was 11 when my father (Four-time Olympian Alfred Eder) competed in his last Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer. He was 10th there and I was so disappointed that he was not on the podium. Of course, now I know how hard it is to be up there… At the age of five, I had a cross-country loop in the garden, which I did on my own. I shot with an umbrella. My friends and I ran around the garden with the umbrellas playing and thought we were big athletes!”

Vanessa Voigt “Really good running time”

2021 IBU Cup Total Score Winner Vanessa Voigt who shot clean five times last season was not quite that good in her first biathlon. Thinking about her beginnings, Voigt laughed, remembering her first biathlon. “It was a little bit frustrating. I had ten mistakes in an individual. But at the finish, I was very happy because my running time was really good, only two minutes back.”

 

Jakov Fak’s First-ever Biathlon: IBU YJWCH

Two-time IBU World Champion and two-time Olympic medalist Jakov Fak maybe had the toughest start of any current star in his biathlon debut. Fak’s first-ever biathlon was the sprint at the 2002 IBU YJWCH in Antholz! “I started training for biathlon in 2001 when biathlon came to Croatia. . . My first biathlon race was at the Junior World championships in Ridnaun. I remember that I went from a ski race that all of the Croatian skiers go to in Italy directly to Ridnaun, my first biathlon race on skis was the Junior World Championships…I was nervous. When you come there and see the other athletes shooting so well; I was terrified about how I would do. I did not run so bad, but I did a lot of penalty loops.” Last season, Fak closed 90% of his targets.

 

Forgetful Skardino, Yurlova-Percht, and Bailey

Inexperience seems to have played a big part in the early careers of 2014 Olympic 15 km Individual Silver and 2018 Olympic Relay Gold medalist Nadezhda Skardino, 2015 IBU 15 km Individual World Champion Ekaterina Yurlova-Percht and 2017 IBU 20 km Individual World Champion Lowell Bailey. All three forgot something crucial to biathlon success one day early in their career.

Skardino recalled her first BMW IBU World Cup start, “In my first World Cup, I was very worried and forgot to take my rifle to the start. Luckily, the referee at the start reminded me about my rifle and I got it, and started with my rifle for sure!”

Likewise, for Yurlova-Percht, “I forgot to take my rifle and then I was 15 seconds late for the start.” As for Bailey, he got to the starting line, and skied the first loop, but, “I forgot to load my magazines; I came to prone with no bullets!”

Khalili’s First medal

Six-time IBU YJWCH medalist and rising Russian stat Said Karimulla Khalili won a medal in his first-ever international competition at the Lillehammer Youth Olympic Games, although his biathlon skills and experience were minimal. “Before that, I was not a very good biathlete. That summer, I decided that I needed to spend a lot of time shooting… The YOG were my goal; only two athletes from each country are selected, so I knew this was going to be very hard… When I took my first medal there, I thought it was only the beginning of my career… because after that, I won a lot of medals in the Youth/Junior World Championships.”

Domracheva and the Penalty Loop

Darya Domracheva’s road to four Olympic Gold medals and the IBU World Cup Total Score was not just filled with penalty loops, but other challenges. She persisted as a cross-country skier until taking up biathlon as a teenager. Laughing, she recalled her first youth competitions in Khanty Mansiysk as a 13-year-old. “My shooting was very, very bad! That first competition was a sprint; I did seven penalty laps. In some sprints after that, I think I had nine or even ten.” There was a good reason that the novice Domracheva was an erratic shot. “My city had just started a biathlon school and we did not shoot very often, maybe one day and then not again for a month; there were always problems with rifles and ammunition in those first days.”

And that, biathlon fans is the rest of the story… less-than-auspicious beginnings are just the first step on the road to winning medals.

Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Rene Miko, Evgeny Tumashov, IBU Archive

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