Preparing for the New Season in a Summer Like No Other
November is finally here with the new BMW IBU World Cup season on the doorstep. It has been a long strange trip. When the competitions in Oslo were cancelled and the World Cup circus decamped from Finland on March 14, no one had any idea this early ending would be the prelude to a strange summer and fall filled with previously unimagined changes, leading up to the 2020/21 BMW IBU World Cup season.
“Thinking what to do”
April and early May, usually rest time with beach holidays, family time and sponsor obligations turned into quiet time at home. Tarjei Boe summed up his spring. “This year, nothing happened! It was really strange; you could not go on vacation, do anything, work with sponsors or see family…It was all gone. We were sitting at home, thinking what to do…” He added, concerning the upside of ‘Coronavirus spring,’ “It was less partying, less vacation, so I think everyone is in much better shape now than normally in May and June!”
Coaching via Zoom
While athletes hung out at home, coaches were scrambling to put together training plans while trying to stay in contact with their teams in the everchanging pandemic-affected world. Coaches like Norway’s Siegfried Mazet, Sweden’s Johannes Lukas, Czech Republic’s Egil Gjelland, and the USA’s Armin Auchentaller were separated from their teams for months. Hours were spent on Zoom meetings or daily WhatsApp calls with their athletes. Auchentaller, stuck at home in Antholz admitted, “I am used to this long-distance coaching, but this is different because in the past I could go to a camp and now I cannot…Creativity and improvisation are two things that you need to have in these times.” It was August before he had his first in-person contact when one athlete Clare Egan made it to Italy. The team’s first in-person camp with the coaches in now underway in Ramsau, just three weeks before the season kicks off.
New Coaching Routine
Mazet, who finally caught up with Johannes, Tarjei and Co in mid-June, had to revamp his well-honed up-close and personal style. “At times you need to be quite close to see what is happening; especially for me with the rifle, watching trigger squeeze and sighting. It was hard to break with the usual way of working. Once we all got the routine it was okay.”
The Czech women’s team sorely missed Gjelland’s daily input and support at their early camps. Like Mazet who could not get out of France and into Norway, Gjelland was unable to leave Norway to go to Czech Republic. In late July Gjelland was warmly greeted when he made it to a camp in Letohrad. Lucie Charvátová admitted to biathlon.cz, “It is good that he is back. It was good to have his feedback; he really motivates and supports us.”
Stranded Far from Home
Individual athletes suffered through forced, unplanned separations just like the coaches. Amanda Lightfoot’s planned two weeks with her brother and family turned into 13 weeks as the UK went into lockdown. With no training gear on hand, she improvised; rollerblading with ski poles through mid-England, “getting the weirdest looks from people.”
Anais Bescond was luckier, stranded (unable to go back to France, but with her Canadian boyfriend) for 3 months in Canmore where “It is so easy to train…My training was different. I started in the middle of April, with skiing and did some road biking and running; nice because last year I could not run because of my knee injury.”
Egan meanwhile was at home In Lake Placid, able to train fairly normally with just a B team and a development teammate for support and lots of self-coaching. Although she struggled at times, Egan adapted, staying positive. “I can say I am training here with teammates and we are doing fine. Or I can fret that no one is helping me; I have not seen my coach in person since World Championships, except on the computer screen…It is not that I do not have coaching; it is just different. I have to look at it in that positive way.”
As spring morphed into summer, full-time training and camps kicked in, but it was not like past years with social distancing on the range and at meals, masks and endless hand washing dominating. Bescond fretted about going to camps in this strange new world, “We do not know what is next. I think it will not be fun at all to be in training camp and not be allowed to be close. It will be so strange. I will not like it. I like people and kiss them. I do not like to stay away from people.” Like everyone else, the French veteran adapted, admitting, “Things are looking good; I told myself that I have done well; deciding to continue this year.”
Bescond, by the way, won her 12th French Championship in one of the few rollerski competitions this summer. Most of those halfway-to-winter competitions including the IBU SBWCH scheduled for Ruhpolding just disappeared. Those like Blink, the French and German Champs and Wiesbaden did happen were spectatorless, conducted under strict Covid-19 regulations, awash with mat sanitizers and masks.
Czech Republic Team, “We are very careful”
The full reality of this biathlon summer like no other came into focus when Czech Republic’s Head Coach Ondřej Rybář explained, on the Federation website, their protocols which are stricter than the government imposes, “We are very careful.”
Leaving nothing to chance, extra caution prevails. If anyone in the team tests positive, they leave and cannot return until they test negative and pass an “exit test. Whether it's stress tests or checking to see if the virus has left any traces on the heart or lungs.”
He said much of the caution comes from athletes accepting “personal responsibility. Where they go shopping, how they protect themselves, if they use sanitizer and wash their hands. They should not go to places with more people and should use a shield or mask; even at home, it's about increased caution.”
Limiting Possible Infection
At one point, several teams trained together to make it more interesting for the athletes, but as the season approaches, they went their separate ways, to limit the chance of infection. Even so, before an October camp, a junior tested positive resulting in a team quarantine for five days before the necessary negative tests were received.
Precautions are just as tough when the team is on the road, like in a recent camp at Pokljuka. Rybář added, “Abroad, teams are isolated at hotels. We are looking for accommodation with our own chef or with as few people around as possible. For example, the boys were at Pokljuka only with the Slovenian team. No other guests are allowed there. The hotel ensured that there are as few people as possible and that staff did not change, one chef, one cleaning lady.”
“Do our utmost to protect the competitors”
The veteran coach summed up with thoughts that will ring true with most teams as the new season comes ever closer. “Now it is the personal responsibility of the athletes to approach it as honestly as in the spring. They definitely want to prepare well for the season and avoid any downtime… We must do our utmost to protect the competitors. I’m not saying that sport is the most important thing these days. On the other hand, everyone tries their best to do their job…No one wants to risk the hard work being wasted. That is why everyone must be as responsible as possible.”
The world has changed on this long winding road to the new season; a new caution sign is posted around every corner, but everyone continues to move towards the 2020/21 BMW IBU World Cup season one day and one protocol at a time.
Photos: IBU/Petr Slavik, Bjoern Reichert, Harald Deubert, Clare Egan, Egil Krisatiansen