Looking at the New Season: the Top Women’s Teams
Last season, Norway won the Women’s Nations Cup, putting them in the driver’s seat as the 2019-20 BMW IBU World Cup season starts. Still, if this question was posed, “Which women’s team is the best in biathlon?” 9 of 10 people would answer, “Germany,” the team that dominated World Cup, IBU WCH and Olympic Winter Games podiums for basically the whole 21st century.
Those two squads, along with France, Italy and Sweden are the women’s power teams, with depth and quality to take individual podiums, chase relay titles and the talent necessary for mixed relay success.
Norway: First Nations Cup since 2014
Last season, Norway’s talented trio of Marte Olsbu Røiseland, Tiril Eckhoff and Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold carried them to their first Nations Cup title since 2014. Norway with a strong Championship/podium pedigree is likely to squeeze past the Germans again. At the 2019 IBU WCH, Eckhoff and Olsbu Røiseland were on the Gold medal mixed relay team; Røiseland won single mixed relay Gold and then with Tandrevold and Synnøve Solemdal, Norway captured the Women’s Relay. When you throw in Tandrevold and Eckhoff’s WCH Silver medals, Norway’s women had a hand in five of nine medals.
Marte, Tiril and Ingrid
That should seal the deal again, as long as this trio performs up to their abilities. Olsbu Røiseland improved by winning three times last year, while developing a stinging last loop kick, but could be hindered this winter by a nagging hip injury. Tandrevold is the unassuming rising star who hits almost 90% of her prone targets. Eckhoff despite her bad days has blazing ski speed and rises to the big occasion; she owns five OWG medals and seven IBU WCH medals. Her 19-for-20 first-ever World Cup Individual in Canmore was a big step forward. Beyond the top four, look for Thekla Brun-Lie and Emilie Kalkenberg as back-ups for Norway.
Herrmann Leads German Team
The German ladies should again challenge for the top spot. They own a spectacular record: Nations Cup titles in 13 of the past 20 seasons and second in the other seven! They consistently sport depth and quality. Although Laura Dahlmeier missed nine World Cup competitions in 2018-19, Germany finished just 59 points behind Norway. Dahlmeier’s retirement makes Denise Herrmann the defacto team leader; despite her obvious track talent and improving biathlon skills, the almost 31-year-old is not a full replacement for Dahlmeier. Herrmann’s track prowess makes up for her 78% shooting but she had just two wins and two other podiums. Despite an excellent fall, dominating the German Summer Championships she needs to step up big time to fill Dahlmeier’s shoes.
Solid Performers: Preuss, Hinz and Hildebrand
Beyond Herrmann is a team of solid performers, led by Franziska Preuss, Vanessa Hinz and Franziska Hildebrand. Preuss had a career-equaling best season finishing ninth in the World Cup Total Score and claiming her first-ever BMW IBU World Cup win in the Ruhpolding mass start. Good shooting, like hitting 44 of her 50 shots in the season-ending Oslo World Cup with 2nd, 7th and 8th places show that Preuss can be a consistent top 10 performer. 32-year-old Hildebrand remains a reliable member of the German squad; always steady on the shooting range and a reliable second leg on the relay team. Hinz had a down 2018-19 but had a steady leadoff leg in Germany’s Mixed Relay Silver medal in Östersund. She showed good fitness in the German Champs in September, so should be back on solid ground once again.
Germany’s depth includes long-time IBU Cup standout Karolin Horchler set for her second full World Cup season and 90% shooter Anna Weidel now on the World Cup squad. Beyond these two, Maren Hammerschmidt (returning from injury) and promising 23-year-old Janina Hettich are available to step in.
France in the Mix with Bescond and Braisaz
The French women’s team is as reliable as Germany, never missing the top five this century while finishing second four times and third on seven occasions in the Nations Cup. Although missing Anais Chevalier who is on maternity leave after giving birth to a daughter last week, the French team looks solid. Anais Bescond is the veteran team leader, who despite recovering from injury much of the summer topped her teammates in the French Summer Champs pursuit in late October. Bescond is always a threat for the top 10 and an occasional podium. The French expectations lie on the shoulders of WCH 15K Silver medalist Justine Braisaz, who won two French Summer titles and was impressive in the Fourcade Nordic Festival. Her ability to shoot clean and ski well makes her a podium threat this season. Rising star Julia Simon, (23rd place Total Score) in her first full World Cup season is the one to watch, after winning the other two French Summer titles. Simon shot clean as the leadoff leg in the French relay win at Ruhpolding, their first win there since 1994. She could be the revelation of this winter. Ex-cross-country skier Celia Aymonier has the ski speed but still struggles at times on the shooting range. Yet, she closed the season with a 10-for-10 for 4th in the Oslo sprint, showing her potential.
This group of four provides a solid foundation for the relays, a favorite French event (a win and two third places last season). Good youngsters are waiting to move into the spotlight, namely four-time IBU YJWCH medalist Myrtille Begue and Chloe Chevalier who won two IBU OECH Gold medals in 2018.
Italian Hopes on Wierer, Vittozzi’s Shoulders
All eyes and the pressure will be on the Italians at their home IBU World Champs next February, with their hopes riding on the shoulders the top two ladies, Dorothea Wierer and Lisa Vittozzi. It has been many moons since any team started the season with such a strong 1-2 punch; both shoot well, ski fast, and are proven winners. They train side-by-side; neither had any significant setbacks this summer. A Crystal Globe repeat for Wierer or a win by Vittozzi is possible. Vittozzi was extremely impressive in summer competitions, especially with a dominating win at the Martin Fourcade Nordic Festival. Historically, Wierer is faster on the tracks, but Vittozzi is five years younger and getting faster. Vittozzi looked extremely confident and focused on the range this summer; Wierer less so. Yet Wierer is a fighter, if healthy and focused on the range, never count her out. Vittozzi did not hold up in the closing days of last season after wearing the Yellow Bib but comes better prepared this year.
Beyond these two, Nicole Gontier, Federica Sanfilippo and Alexia Runggaldier round out the Italian squad; all three have been on the podium individually and in relays. However, all three have been up and down on the shooting range; stability there is the key for the Italian women beyond the Wierer/Vittozzi duo. If one or two step up, the Italian women will not just be chasing a relay medal as well as individual medals.
Hanna Oeberg Ups Her Game
Sweden counts on their star Hanna Oeberg to set the table and lead her teammates to big things. Oeberg upped her game last season, claiming her first WCH title, World Cup win, adding 10 results to the top of her resume and closing the season with a dominating mass start win in Oslo. Her only blip was the three standing spare rounds that cost Sweden the WCH Relay Gold medal; otherwise she was consistently poised and strong. Oeberg could battle regularly for wins this season. Behind her, Mona Brorsson had two 5th places plus a 6th and 7th in her best season ever. Her three top 10s at the IBU WCH tell the tale of her confidence. Likewise Linn Persson had 5th, 7th and 8th places in her first top 30 season. The talented Anna Magnusson had injury issues this summer, but still is in the top group. Adding in Oeberg’s 20-year-old sister Elvira and the veteran Bettan Hoegberg gives Sweden good depth for the Nations Cup battle.
This group built on team spirit and solid shooting makes them relay contenders in every start.
Bottom line: Not much change in the top five this season. Norway and Germany will tussle for the top spot. Russia is the most likely team to get back in the top five, but they need more individual podiums to get there.