Fond Farewell to Anastasiya Kuzmina
As the old saying goes, “All good things must come to an end.” Thus, on a sunny afternoon just over a month ago, in the shadow of the legendary Holmenkollen Ski Jump, the storied biathlon career of Anastasiya Kuzmina ended with a champagne toast, tears and a silvery crown on her head. It was a fitting ending in a fitting place for the gracious multi-Olympic Champion who topped the Oslo podium six times including a sprint/pursuit double this year.
Route to Success
Although Kuzmina and her brother Anton Shipulin were the children of former biathletes turned coaches, she was never the “wunderkind” like Magdalena Neuner or Darya Domracheva or the late-blooming talent like Magdalena Forsberg. The Tyumen-born Kuzmina took a circuitous route filled with a lot of hard work to become a champion. “We come from a sporty family; our parents were biathletes. It started with cross-country skiing at about age 7 or 8 and became serious quickly. I started biathlon first. Anton always came to me and said ‘I want the rifle; I want to try.’ I told him jealously you are too small; it is my rifle,” she recalled. Kuzmina matured into a seven-time IBU YJWCH medalist for Russia, but never won an individual title in those championships. After a brief time on the Russian World Cup and IBU Cup teams, she married Daniel Kuzmin, had a son, and moved to Slovakia, where her talent blossomed and she became a national heroine.
Noted Slovak sports journalist and IBU Executive Board Member Ivor Lehotan, who has followed her career from the beginning, sees this talented and caring lady as a shining example of what is possible in life. “She shows how much can be achieved and set a strong example for others, gaining status as a sports celebrity after restarting her career in a new country. Yet it is not only in terms of her sporting success, but also how well she relates to and talks about her new homeland, biathlon, sports, children, their parents and the whole community.”
Stunning Olympic Gold Medal
Kuzmina’s route to biathlon stardom came in a surprising fashion. With just seven World Cup starts for her new country, she burst onto the international scene with a surprise IBU WCH Mass Start Silver medal at Pyeongchang in 2009. That was the first of many medals to come. The next year, in her first Olympic Winter Games start, with just that Silver medal and one other World Cup podium (3rd Pokljuka 15K individual) on her resume, she stunned the sports world by knocking off the favorite Neuner to win the Vancouver Olympic Sprint Gold medal. Both women had a single penalty but Kuzmina outskied the very fast Neuner.
Lehotan called this “one of the most important races of her career.” That day, holding her Olympic Gold medal was probably the first time that the public saw Kuzmina’s soft, sincere smile that comes from the heart, filled with pure joy and gratitude. The shocked first-ever Slovak OWG Gold medalist, sporting that smile commented on her unexpected victory. “It (winning) was actually a big surprise to me. After I missed the prone shot, I never expected to win at all. However, I was in good shape and had fast skis so here I am.”
“It Worked Out”
Yet there was a back-story. In late December 2009, the newly minted Olympic Gold medalist broke two bones in her hand, putting the OWG in doubt. Miraculously recovered, she explained, “We got the operation done immediately; it took six weeks to recuperate and as the race today shows, it worked out!”
"Great Story of Slovak Sport"
That Olympic win plus her Olympic Pursuit Silver medal two days later was a turning point not only for Kuzmina but Slovak biathlon. Lehotan explained, “Biathlon was a successful sport in Slovakia also before the Kuzminová time… Since then interest among fans, sports authorities, and in the mass media has increased. Kuzmina's story became the great story of Slovak sport. Her medals have attracted more and more attention to Slovak biathlon every year.”
Friendly and Humble Approach
That “great story” was about more than sports. It was about a devoted mother and wife, the quiet underdog who won on the biggest stage in sports, the Olympic Winter Games. The fans simply loved Nastya from that point on. Her Slovak Olympic teammate Dusan Simocko (18th, men’s sprint) explained, “Thousands of people love her because of her friendly and humble approach. As an athlete you can feel the support of fans. I think that being a mother made every success even more valuable and inspirational for all mothers and female athletes.”
Lehotan added, “Motherhood only strengthened the good in her…She had to sacrifice a lot of her hobbies, from her free time, to be a good mother in the family combined with being an excellent sportswoman.”
Hard Work; Track Prowess
The glory of 2010 put Kuzmina in the spotlight; each season was a mix of long training days, camps in faraway places and an intense competition season plus squeezing in as much quality family time as possible. Hard work was the name of the game; speed and strength came from summers of intense, hard, big volume training. She was never, in those earlier days, exactly the best shooter; between Vancouver and her clean-shooting Sochi Olympic Sprint Gold medal, she only had two other clean-shooting days, both World Cup sprint victories. However she was always fast and powerful on the tracks. That track prowess became her hallmark.
“I Feel the Home Atmosphere”
When it came down to defending her 2010 Olympic sprint title in her birth country of Russia, the pressure was on. As in Vancouver, Kuzmina came through again, with a clean-shooting gem to become the first women to defend an Olympic title. That day, she admitted, “I felt the support of the fans here…I feel the home atmosphere.” Then she added, “I don't know how I managed to get myself together and perform like this today.”
Ability to Focus
Simocko said there is a reason why Kuzmina won in Sochi and in other major competitions. “Her biggest advantage was her ability to focus for the peak of each season. Timing of the best skiing performance and best shooting precision is what she has mastered in several seasons, mostly in OWG seasons.”
First-ever Olympic Gold in Three Consecutive Games
Time out for a second child was just a pause in the Slovak star’s shining career; it set the stage for a glorious ending to her career. Back in Pyeongchang, the site of her first big medal, she was unable to defend her Olympic sprint title, finishing 13th, but flew through the pursuit to take a Silver medal, later adding a second Silver in the 15K individual. Then in a moment as unlikely as her 2010 Olympic Sprint Gold medal, she won the Olympic Mass Start. That victory made Anastasiya Kuzmina the first woman ever to win OWG Gold medals in three consecutive Games.
In her typically modest manner, she recalled the first big success of her career, also in Pyeongchang, “During the 2009 IBU World Champs here, I won the first medal for Slovakia, a mass start Silver. I wanted to repeat this success nine years later.” She added a dedication, as she did after her Silver medal in the15K individual. “The first medal (pursuit) was for me, the second (15K individual) for my brother. The third medal I dedicate to Slovakia, for my team and to the many people who have been supporting me in hard times.”
The successes were many for Kuzmina: 36 career individual podiums, including 18 victories, medals in three successive OWG including 3 Olympic Gold medals and 3 Olympic Silver medals, 3 IBU WCH medals including the 2019 Sprint Gold medal and 3 IBU small Crystal Globes.
Beautiful Closing Pursuit
She ended her career in style, with a sprint/pursuit double and her first-ever 20-for-20 shooting day in Oslo where she had five victories and ten podiums over the course of her career. Her final pursuit competition was a thing of beauty. Kuzmina started fast, shot clean stage after stage, gaining confidence and literally burying her rivals by 1 minute and 42 seconds. “It was perfect from the first meters of the competition until the end.” Struggling to find the right words after the penultimate competition of her career and her voice cracking with emotion, she said “It was just a good day and one that I waited so long for and I will remember.”
Biathlon Always in My Heart
On that final sunny afternoon at Holmenkollen, Anastasiya Kuzmina, a true champion in sport and life said good-bye to biathlon. “I have a great big family here in biathlon. Biathlon is a part of me. I am important here and in my family. It is great to be a part of a story and to understand that all the people around, accept you. They live the really great moments with you and they love you. Thanks for this part of my life, it is so great and emotional; it will always be in my heart.”