Moving On, Biathletes Hanging Up Their Rifles and Skis (Part 2)
Heading up the list in part 2 of this year’s retirements are the “King of Biathlon” Ole Einar Björndalen, his teammate Emil Hegle Svendsen. The other retirees this time include WCH medalists Tim Burke, Weronika Nowakowska, and Olga Podchufarova and IBU Cup veterans Florian Graf and Coline Varcin.
Ole and Emil
The two biggest names in Norwegian biathlon retied with a week of each other in early April, Björndalen and Svendsen. These two left big shoes to fill for the Norwegian men’s team to fill.
“King of Biathlon’s” Legacy
Björndalen, the “King of Biathlon” leaves the sport with his legacy secure as the best ever, a 25-year medal and trophy-filled career. The Norwegian star’s accomplishments, unprecedented in the sport include 580 World Cup starts, 13 Olympic Winter Games medals including eight Gold medals, 45 IBU World Championships medals of which 20 are Gold and one Cross-country World Championship Gold medal. His six victories in the World Cup Total Score that secured the big Crystal Globe was just this season topped by France’s Martin Fourcade.
Fourcade saluted his hero. “As a kid, I kept his poster in my room for years. As a young athlete, I realized how big the gap was between my level and the best man in the world when he passed me for the first time in the Hochfilzen World Cup in 2008. I can definitely say that he was and is my idol; I received a lot of inspiration from him. Today, each time I break a record, I am really proud of it because I know who the record belongs to.”
Svendsen’s Glittering Resume
Like Björndalen, the 32-year-old Svendsen left the sport with a glittering resume that includes 4 Olympic Gold medals and 12 IBU World Championships titles. Beyond his OWG and WCH titles, Svendsen leaves with 38 World Cup victories, 88 individual podiums, and five consecutive years, finishing 1st or 2nd in the World Cup Total Score. He also holds a unique record, IBU WCH Gold medals in every discipline: individual, sprint, pursuit, mass start, relay and mixed relay, matched only by Björndalen. NRK Biathlon Commentator Andreas Stabrun Smith said today, “He is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated athletes we have, because he has won so much.”
Twins and Olympic Winter Games for Weronika
Weronika Nowakowska stepped away from biathlon for a good reason: she was pregnant with twin boys. The always happy Polish biathlete could have just left and gone on to a nice life without biathlon. Her resume already included two IBU WCH medals from Kontiolahti in 2015, IBU Cup victories, IBU SBWCH medals, IBU OECH medals, World Cup relay podiums, and two Olympic Winter Games appearances.
Yet once the twins were born, a fire still lingered in her mind. “When I got pregnant I was not sure I would be back. But I planned my pregnancy to be back for the Olympics if I felt like I wanted to. The final decision to return was in my heart, I was thinking that I really have a good life at home… I never saw biathlon as my job and never thought that I had to go back to my job. But I also knew ‘now or never;’ four years would be too late (for the OWG). I felt my team needed me for the relay, our last chance with this same squad (Krystyna Guzik, Magdalena Gwizdon and Monika Hojnisz). But mostly it was about this childhood dream of an Olympic medal, the only one missing in my collection. I wanted to give myself a chance to try.” The plan was to go for one last season, which she did with gusto.
So as the 2017-18 season approached, there was Weronika, out rollerskiing in the morning, back for lunch and play with the kids; hauling them off with all of their gear to Obertilliach for a training camp. She was back in business… with two toddlers in tow. “This has been my biggest challenge. There were some really heavy days: hard training and then I came home and not getting the rest like the other athletes. I am running around, playing with my kids. It would have been easier to leave them with father or grandparents who I have around me. But I did not want to do this. It put more work on my shoulders, but I did not lose time with my boys. Now I am quite proud and happy that I saw my baby boys start walking, say their first momma and papa. I did not miss those moments, but it was not easy.”
Nowakowska came to the new season in great shape, scored a lot of World Cup points, and had on spectacular weekend at World Cup 4 in Oberhof. One sprint penalty gave her 6th place, followed by a clean-shooting pursuit and 4th place. The next week in Ruhpolding, the relay team, she shot 10-for-10 in the relay, coming home 5th, missing the podium by 7.3 seconds.
Best Shot in Pyeongchang
The third OWG in Pyeongchang did not go as hoped for. The relay team had a chance, with Nowakowska leaving for the anchor leg in first position. She was still in a medal spot after prone. However, three spare rounds in standing on a windy evening spoiled the day, seventh place, missing 6th by a mere .1 seconds. Disappointment, but still plenty of reasons to smile, in retrospect; she came back strong and gave it her best shot.
Since the end of the season, Nowakowska has been enjoying the retirement life, spending her time with family, for walks and ice cream cones, simply reconnecting. Now a new life is on the horizon, including a café with her sister. “Everything changed with the kids…They give me the feeling that it does not make any difference what happens in the competitions, they are still there when I get back. They are the most important things in my life. I truly love biathlon; I am a big fan, but they are much bigger; more important.”
Tim Burke: 19 Years and a Yellow Bib
Tim Burke trained for much of his career with his good friend Lowell Bailey. Fittingly, Burke also retired this season, leaving a big hole in the US Biathlon Team roster. Like Bailey, Burke made biathlon history for the USA. He is the first and only US Biathlete to wear the coveted Yellow Bib.
Oberhof and Yellow
On Sunday January 10, 2010, he finished second in the Oberhof mass start behind no one other than Björndalen. That second place gave him enough World Cup points to take the Yellow Bib and wear it the next week in the Ruhpolding sprint. Unfortunately, a 31st place pushed him down the points as Simon Fourcade took the Yellow. Still it was a hallmark in Burke’s career.
IBU WCH Medal
That Yellow Bib was later topped by another record-setting day, his second place in the 2013 IBU WCH, earning the Silver medal. He became only the second US biathlete to win a WCH medal. Over the course of his career, Burke had half dozen World Cup podiums. After a series of illnesses in recent years, he came back with a solid final season. The highlight, beyond making his 4th OWG appearance was 4th in the Oberhof sprint, behind Martin, Emil and Johannes, very elite company. Burke closed his Olympic career helping the US men to 6th place in the relay. After 345 World Cup stars, Burke can now focus on his favorite hobby, fly fishing in the Adirondack mountains and spending more time with wife Andrea (Henkel) in their newly built Lake Placid home. Staying in the sport that has been such a big part of his life, Burke will be working as the Athlete Development manager for US Biathlon.
Olga’s Reluctant Departure
Olga Podchufarova just announced her retirement on April 30, with a great amount of reluctance. The 25-year-old Russian missed all of last season, with what can be described as “fatigue syndrome” that simply never went away. In announcing her departure from biathlon on Instagram, Podchufarova said (paraphrasing), “… with a smile! It was very cool! By taking this decision which has been there for some time, I feel relieved. I kept postponing, trying ways to solve, alone and with others but always returning to these thoughts, with relentless regularity…I haven’t had a lot of fun lately…I have not been able to justify my own expectations…Thanks to everyone; you are wonderful!”
With that the 2013 IBU YJWCH Pursuit gold medalist, multi-IBU Cup winner and 2016 Antholz Sprint winner walked away. The young Russian was well known as superb with her rifle, hitting a boggling 97% of her prone shots in the 2015-16 season and 93% in her last year, 2016-17. Although she never won an individual IBU WCH medal, in her final hurrah at the 2017 IBU WCH, she led off the Bronze medal mixed relay team.
The sprint win over roommate Ekaterina Yurlova-Percht in the 2016 Antholz Sprint will always be a great memory. She beamed on the podium, calling her first World Cup win, “the day I have waited for all season…much better than being in the Olympics (with just one start) where I felt like a tourist!”
Florian Graf had his share of biathlon success on both the BMW IBU World Cup and IBU Cup circuits, with relay podiums on the senior circuit and victories on the junior circuit.
Although Graf had just 87 World Cup starts, he did have some success. His best was a podium near-miss in the 2012 Östersund sprint, fourth place, just 5.1 seconds out of third place. He did make it onto the World Cup podium, three times in the relay. He also won one IBU OECH title, taking the mass start at Tyumen in 2016, over fellow 2018 retiree Soukup.
IBU Cup Total Score Title
Graf’s best season was undoubtedly 2014-15 on the IBU Cup. That year, he had three sprint victories: in the season opener at Beitostølen, mid-season at Duszniki Zdrój and at season’s end in Canmore. He shot clean in two of the three wins. Those wins plus three more podiums and four more top ten finishes, gave him the big prize at the end of the season, the IBU Cup Total Score Crystal Globe and the Sprint Globe. He also finished second in the Total Score on two other occasions.
New Career Ahead
Graf ended his career on the podium, third in the IBU Cup pursuit at Khanty Mansiysk. He called that, “some conciliation after not making the Pyeongchang OWG. But after 15 years in professional sport, I realized the need for a change. The decision was not easy…But I am looking forward to my new job in the customs service. “
Coline Varcin is another lady leaving the sport at an early age. At 25 years old, Varcin did have her share of success in both the IBU and World Cup circuits. She was the 2015 IBU OECH Sprint Champion at Otepää. That was part of the best run of her career, with IBU Cup podiums in the pursuit and mixed relay the week before, then a Bronze relay medal after the sprint Gold. A couple of weeks later, a 10-for-10 shooting day helped the French team to third in the Oslo World Cup relay. She closed that season with an IBU WCH berth and two starts in Kontiolahti.
Since that time, she spent most of her time on the IBU Cup. In a Facebook post, she commented on her retirement. “Biathlon has been an enriching experience for me. I met some really beautiful people, I traveled, I went through moments of sport and unforgettable life, I experienced emotions out of common, I grew up...But it's time for me to give shape to all the projects that have piled up impatiently in a corner of my head during these 9 years on the French team where I have given a lot to devote myself fully to my sport, my dreams, my ambitions, my passion!”
Best wishes to all of these athletes in their future endeavors!