Gabriela Koukalová: Five Memorable Moments & a Bit More…
Just over a year after stepping away from biathlon after unsuccessfully battling injury problems and saying, “I cannot really imagine that I would ever come back… I do not want to close it all. You never know; maybe in one year or two, I will miss it,” Gabriela Koukalová closed that door this week, officially retiring from biathlon. Her retirement adds another name to a crowded list of recently retired female biathlon stars that includes Laura Dahlmeier, Anastasiya Kuzmina, Darya Domracheva and Marie Dorin Habert.
Wins, Medals, Globes
Koukalová’s star shined as brightly as any of her rivals in her short BMW IBU World Cup career. Although she had several World Cup “cups of coffee,” her successful period was just a few days less than 50 months from her first victory in the 2012 Pokljuka sprint to her final win, the IBU WCH Sprint Gold medal in Hochfilzen on February 10, 2017. She packed her time at the top with 38 individual podiums including 17 victories plus four relay wins, two mixed relay wins, five IBU WCH medals, two OWG medals, the big World Cup Total Score Crystal Globe and six discipline small Crystal Globes.
Along the way, the charismatic Koukalová charmed the public: at times shy and self-conscious, frequently laughing at herself, many times seemingly lacking confidence, yet consistently on the podium, and known to keep the fans, race officials and media waiting while she fixed her makeup. A talented artist and chanteuse away from biathlon, she helped fuel the Czech Republic biathlon phenomenon that regularly fills the Vysočina Arena to capacity.
2009 IBU YJWCH
Koukalová’s biathlon career took a big step forward well before the Pokljuka win; at the 2009 IBU YJWCH in Canmore she anchored the Czech Republic to the Junior Women’s Relay Gold medal. On that turning point, she said, “I did not train much before that Championships. I did it (biathlon) for fun because I did not want to be fat. My teammates said, ‘Gabi, you are the laziest person in the world, you do not train like us and have good results, so you should train like we do.’ I told them, okay, let’s try it and after maybe two seasons, the results got better.”
Months before her Pokljuka breakthrough, Koukalová was sidelined with EB virus unable to do anything. Resumed training, “I could not run 30 minutes; I had to stop several times. It took 2 months before I could run 45 minutes.” With little speed training, she skied faster than Kaisa Mäkäräinen and Tora Berger while shooting clean in that first win. She backed that up with a clean-shooting second place pursuit, just .7 seconds behind Miriam (Gössner) Neureuther, ending the weekend with third in the mass start. She called the sprint win, “It was the race of my dreams! I never thought that I would win a World Cup…It was absolutely a surprise!” Summing up the weekend, she added, “I really do not have the words to explain how happy I am.”
After the 2012-13 breakthrough season that culminated with an IBU WCH Mixed Relay Bronze medal at home in Nove Mesto na Moravě and winning the last two competitions that year in Khanty Mansiysk, Koukalová’s hopes for the Sochi OWG ran high. She went to Russia wearing Yellow. Three sprint penalties meant 29th place, then despite a stirring 19-for-20 pursuit, 4th place; two penalties added up to 4th in the 15K individual. The mixed relay brought her first Olympic medal, Silver. Her crowning glory came in the mass start; second from the first prone stage on, she matched Domracheva with just a single last-standing miss; Koukalová crossed the line in the Silver medal spot. Although a fan of the relays and a key player in the team’s success, she admitted an individual medal was “special.”
Crystal Globe Season
Koukalová spent much of the 2015-16 season in the Yellow Bib; all season long, she downplayed the honor. “I do not think I am going to be the winner at the end. I think the Yellow Bib is just like the other numbers; I do not think of it as special; it is just good.” Yet, despite a strong challenge from Dorin Habert, the lady who changed her hair color from blonde to red, “because I want to be as fast as Johannes Thingnes Boe,” claimed the World Cup Total Score title, as well as the sprint, pursuit and mass start Crystal Globes. She was Ms. Consistency all season. Although winning only three times, she finished lower than 8th place only once (11th IBU WCH Pursuit). Shooting was a crucial piece of this success; 92% overall, with 95% of her prone targets closing. When the dust settled and she was holding four chunks of crystal, she called the season “a fairy tale.”
NMNM Mass Start Win; Hochfilzen Gold
From the first press conference of the 2016-17 season onward the Czech star insisted the World Cup Total Score and Crystal Globes were not her focus; it was IBU WCH medals. Yet before her stunning IBU WCH Sprint Gold, there was what turned out to be one final appearance in front of her adoring fans in Nove Mesto na Moravě. Koukalová’s one-penalty, four second win over Dahlmeier topped the Sochi Silver medal. “I was so nervous before the race so it was amazing... I have so many emotions; it's even more emotional than at the Olympics.”
Tactics and Dreaming
The IBU WCH Sprint Gold medal was a brilliant combination of biathlon skill and tactics. Starting with bib number 96 in a field of 101, she took advantage of shadowy cooler spots on the tracks and dropping temperatures to claim a clean-shooting four-second win over Dahlmeier. "I think it was very clever tactics of our coaches; I could feel that every loop it is getting faster and faster." Her first and only individual WCH Gold medal left her almost speechless. “I thought I was dreaming when I won, I thought it was not real.”
Better Than Winning
Gabriela Koukalová’s Gold medal and career were no dream. Several years ago, she reflected about her legacy. “We are so happy that biathlon I so popular at home now… (Being a role model) may be the best thing about doing sport, when you see the small kids. Knowing I am their motivation is nice. These moments might be better than when I am in first place at the finish.”
The IBU and Biathlon Family wish Gabriela much success in her future endeavors.