The Crystal Quest: Johannes' Domination and Doro’s Battle
Before the first athlete breaks out of the starting gate or fires the first shot every season; anyone can theoretically win the coveted big Crystal Globe for the World Cup Total Score or the small discipline Globes. Once the first competitions end, the pecking order starts to fall into place.
This season, the die was cast after the Pokljuka individual and sprint. Johannes Thingnes Boe was atop the men’s standings while Dorothea Wierer led the women’s standings. 106 days later, these two raised their respective first-ever Crystal Globes in triumph at the Holmenkollen Ski Stadium, ending the Crystal Quest.
The Crystal Quest: Johannes and Doro
Johannes’ Dominating Season
After finishing seventh behind defending Total Score Champion Martin Fourcade in the season-opening 20K individual at Pokljuka, Johannes started his march to dominance the next day, winning the men’s sprint. In looking back at the season, Johannes commented on his Pokljuka wins that set the stage. “After the season opener in Norway and the two wins at Pokljuka, I still did not feel so good on my skis; then I knew there were some possibilities here. I tried to ski a little faster the next week and shoot the same and hunt for the next win.” On the other hand, Fourcade was not at the same level as in previous seasons. After the Pokljuka mixed relay win, he admitted that he felt heavy on his skis. He won the 20K individual, but relied on his 20-for-20 shooting for the win. The next week after his final win of the season in the Hochfilzen pursuit, he admitted that Johannes was on another level above him on the tracks. The die was cast for Johannes to hold the Yellow Bib all season and win the big Crystal Globe.
Second-Best Points Total Ever
From Pokljuka on, the Norwegian was unchallenged, ending with a season record of sixteen victories, topping Fourcade’s previous mark of fourteen in the 2016-17 season. In winning his first-ever World Cup total Score title, Johannes amassed 1262 points to Alexander Loginov’s 854 points and Quentin Fillon Maillet’s 843 points. The winning margin was the second highest ever, with one less competition behind Fourcade’s 1248 points to Emil Hegle Svendsen’s 827 in 2012-13.
Mazet, “Improved Approach”
The 25-year-old’s success this season can be attributed to several factors. Norwegian Shooting Coach Siegfried Mazet thinks that his star pupil improved in his approach. “His biggest improvement was in how he behaves and faces situations. He has more self-control and better analyzes what he needs to do (in different situations).”
Less Pressure; More Confidence
At the same time, Eurosport biathlon analyst and former French World Cup competitor Lois Habert feels the lack of direct competition with Fourcade relaxed and took some of the pressure off Johannes. “I am sure that last year the high level of Martin bothered Johannes. He always had to do a perfect race to win. This year it was not the case, even with one or two mistakes he could win or even with three he won the Silver medal in the WCH pursuit. It was really less tiring, and that helped him to be strong all along the season... Physically, he had nobody at his level, so he could be relaxed and miss one or two targets. He only did 10-for-10 in the sprint once, but won all except two, it's a bit easier to stay confident in these conditions.”
Doro’s Title Battle
Dorothea Wierer’s first-ever World Cup Total Score win was typical of the annual battle for the women’s title, frequently never decided until the season’s final moments. Wierer secured the Crystal Globe in the season’s last competition with 904 points to Vittozzi’s 882 points and Anastasiya Kuzmina’s 870 points. The previous season, Kaisa Mäkäräinen won by 3 points over Kuzmina; the Finn also won by 4 points over Tora Berger in 2014. Other than Berger’s 310-point blowout over Darya Domracheva in 2013, many of the women’s wins have been very close calls.
Solid Summer; Good Health
Part of Wierer’s success was due to her good health. She came to the season with a solid summer of training, with no significant missed time due to illness or injury. During the season, she managed to mostly stay illness-free, not missing a single individual competition. Although none of her closest rivals missed time for illness, most of them had bad stretches where they were not competing for the podium. This threw the season advantage to the steady Italian.
Elite Team: Difference Maker
As with Johannes, a changing situation had a huge bearing on Wierer’s season as Italian Journalist Alessandro Genuzio explained, “A key moment for Dorothea was after the Olympic season when the Italian Federation created the Elite Team with just the four top athletes. Dorothea, Lisa, Dominik and Lukas were more closely monitored by Head Coach Andreas Zingerle, to help them increase their fundamental biathlon skills. Additionally, Dorothea and Lisa were continuously together, pushing each other to train better and better.”
Johannes and Wierer’s seasons were filled with highlights and lowlights. However, each had three defining moments that characterized or spurred them to success. December was a crucial month for both.
Johannes’ Sparkling December
Johannes came to the season with some doubts about his preparation; a sluggish spring, his wedding, an extended honeymoon, and missed training time were considerations. Yet after the sprint/pursuit double at Pokljuka, “After I got my two wins at Pokljuka, I thought there were some possibilities here (for the season).” His wire-to-wire Hochfilzen sprint win followed his soon to-be-typical style: start fast, get the lead, outrun any penalties and fly in the last loop. He called that win a “very close to a perfect race to perfect race…” Yet the December defining moment was his sixth victory in the final competition of the month, the Nove Mesto mass start. He served notice that day that any challenger would need to step up big time or be left in his dust. The Norwegian shot clean, owned the tracks and won by 46.5 seconds. “Today I both shot and skied my way to success. It was my best race ever.”
Mazet called the Nove Mesto mass start his “best of the season, along with Oslo.” Habert added, “With his dangerous way of shooting, doing 20-for-20 is a significant feat…I really like to see him with this perfect shooting like in the Nove Mesto Mass start, or in very hard conditions like the Canmore individual. Johannes was in perfect shape all season. Physically there was not really one best race, but it's really on the shooting range that you see the difference.”
Wierer’s best-ever December set the stage for the season. Italian Journalist and Antholz Stadium commentator Luis Mahlknecht commented on Wierer’s fast start to the season. “The good start with top-ten-results in every competition in December was the first turning point for Dorothea. This gave her confidence from the first day on.”
Defining Moment: Hochfilzen Sprint
She claimed the Yellow Bib with two clean-shooting second places in the Pokljuka sprint and pursuit, both well behind Kaisa Mäkäräinen. The next week Hochfilzen delivered one of the Italian’s defining moments, a career-first World Cup sprint win. The nail-biting victory over Mäkäräinen was a turnaround from the Pokljuka pursuit where she matched the Finnish star shot-for-shot, but admitted, “It was impossible to catch her.” To top the Finn, Wierer started fast “because I normally lose a lot in the first round” and never let up; the key to the win was 9 perfect shots and a single penalty, 21 seconds faster than her rival. Wierer’s aggressive skiing and the amazingly fast shooting cadence served notice that she was the woman to beat.
January started with Vittozzi winning twice in Oberhof, while Wierer placed 5th and 24th. However later month, according to Mahlknecht, Wierer delivered her “second key to her successful season: the win at home, in Antholz. This was a special moment; an "answer" to Lisa after her wins in Oberhof.”
The speedy, chatty Italian grew up just down the road from the Südtirol Arena. Like every athlete who ever competes at home, she dearly wanted to win there, but had never achieved it. That all changed with a confidence-building pursuit win. She went into the pursuit 15 seconds back. After a first prone penalty, Wierer found her cadence, cleaning the next two stages rapidly. Despite one missed target in the last standing, victory was assured with a barn-burning last loop assured victory.
The first-time Antholz winner realized the importance of this win. “I am really happy because (winning) at home is even more difficult. Last year, I was close, second and third and I was never in first. Today was the first time (at home)…and it was the first victory in the pursuit. It was just a special moment!”
The North American tour was a key time for both Johannes and Wierer.
The Norwegian ended January with two Antholz wins; bringing his season total to eleven. Then after the clean-shooting Canmore short individual win in harsh conditions, shooting issues at Soldier Hollow stopped the win total at 12. Four standing penalties meant Johannes finished fifth in the Soldier hollow sprint; the fifth place still secured the World Cup Sprint Score Globe. Five more pursuit misses, despite brilliant skiing and a shot not fired put him fourth in the pursuit.
Confidence, Bouncing Back
Finland’s Head Coach Jonne Kähkönen admitted that how Johannes handled his shooting struggles was an important part of his success all season. “The key, to me was the confidence that he showed; even on the tough stages of the season like at Soldier Hollow, Johannes was able to stick with his routines and bounce back. The whole season was not a huge roller coaster of performance; just consistently repeating at his own, high level. Additionally, the confidence in his skiing performance also helped him.”
After the big Antholz win, Wierer struggled in North America, passing the Yellow Bib to Vittozzi after the Soldier Hollow pursuit. The final turn towards Crystal for the eventual winner came in the last weeks of the season. The IBU WCH was a see-saw battle between the teammates. Wierer 10th in the sprint regained the Yellow Bib. Vittozzi was 10th in the pursuit and Wierer 20th: advantage back to Vittozzi, who then won Silver in the 15K individual while Wierer was eighth. The youthful Vittozzi stayed in Yellow.
Mass Start Turning Point
The season turned in Wierer’s favor on March 17 when she became the 2019 IBU Mass Start World Champion, her first major individual title. Genuzio commented, “The turning point of this season was World Championship mass start when Dorothea got an incredible Gold medal and Lisa has started to have problems with her prone shooting. After that Lisa was very nervous and arrived in Oslo with a lot of pressure. If Doro didn't win that mass start there would probably be a different Crystal Globe winner.”
Luck and Skill
After that mass start, the teammates were tied for the Yellow Bib, each with 852 points. However Wierer reclaimed Yellow on the tiebreaker rule. Mahlknecht added, “Doro was lucky (not happy, only lucky) that Lisa had bad results in Östersund and in Oslo too.” The Finnish Coach Kähkönen thinks Wierer’s skills at this point were crucial. “Both skiing and shooting were consistently good and (that way) she was able to stay within close proximity even on the mediocre days.”
From that point on, it was advantage Wierer, until she ended the season with the big Crystal Globe and the small Pursuit Globe in her hands. Mahlknecht, who has followed both Wierer and Vittozzi since they were in their early teens, thinks Wierer had an advantage as the season ended. “Doro is much more mature than a few years ago, cool in mind, as we have seen in the last competitions, where Lisa was too nervous.”
The final key piece to Johannes season came in Oslo after he had tied up the World Cup Total Score, Individual, Sprint, and Pursuit Globes.
The man who had been the best since the beginning was spectacular on the last afternoon of the season, completing an Oslo Hat Trick. Kähkönen, after watching Johannes all season thought the mass start was the Yellow Bib’s best day of the season. “I see that last win on the home soil as the biggest one (of the season) it was a very dominating performance especially with the clean shooting.”
Johannes Thingnes Boe crushed the season. Even with his shooting blips, he was in control from Pokljuka on. At his best, Johannes was focused, determined and fast. Mazet said, “He is a better biathlete because of all the things he worked on (self-control and situational analysis).”Tarjei, the last man not named Fourcade to win the big Crystal Globe summed up his brother’s season. “He has been on another level.”
New Fans; Right Person
Wierer’s first-ever win for the Italians will have long-term impact on biathlon in Italy. Mahlknecht called her win, “a historic moment for Italian Biathlon; suddenly this sport was "important" for lots of people. New biathlon "fans" popped up like mushrooms after a wet day!” He added, It is a unbelievable success, probably a once in a lifetime event…the results push the perception of biathlon in Italy.” Yet Genuzio admitted, “Finally the mass media started to pay attention to the Biathlon World Cup. When Doro won the Crystal Globe, all the main newspapers and newscast started to celebrate this great success… Dorothea has great potential to become an (Italian sports) idol because she is very competitive in her sport and good looking. She could be the right person to increase the popularity of biathlon in Italy.”
Heroines for the Next Generation
Wierer’s notoriety and success are a huge boost for the next generation of Italian biathletes. Genuzio said, “This success increases awareness of the Italian biathlon system. Behind Dorothea and Lisa who is still very young, the Italian team had great results at the IBU YJWCH, so there are some new athletes could bring great satisfaction to the Italian (biathlon) movement.” Mahlknecht added, “In some regions all the young athletes will start biathlon, although some… will bring the children to cross- country. But in Antholz, Ridnaun and Sappada all children are excited by biathlon, especially by their heroines Doro and Lisa.”