The great transformation
On a gloriously sunny winter day in the Hochfilzen pursuit, 29-year-old Tiril Eckhoff shot 20/20 for the first time ever at the BMW IBU World Cup level. In just a few moments she went through the whole spectrum of emotions. Something awoke inside this highly unpredictable Norwegian, as if her talent had forced her to take herself seriously, to finally embrace her potential. She then went on a tear.
It all started oh-so-predictably wrong
"Just keep digging into my wounds," Eckhoff said, when asked whether an excellent performance in the women’s relay at the opening of the 2019/2020 season in Oestersund lifted her spirits after disappointments in the sprint, where she missed four targets and finished 40th, and in the individual, where she missed five targets, finishing 29th. She later said the lack of daylight and the winds affected her form and mood and she couldn’t wait to fly to Austria. "I shouldn’t have said that as a Scandinavian, but it is how I feel," she said, honest as always.
She shot 8/10 in the Hochfilzen sprint, brought the women’s relay back on track for another win in the third leg and then won her first pursuit with 20/20.
"I actually wasn’t feeling particularly good on the skis today," said Tiril, “so I concentrated more on the shooting. I feel very emotional and I will be happy for the rest of the week."
The caravan then moved to Annecy-Le Grand Bornand, where warm and wet weather did nothing to spoil the festive mood of the French fans and elevated Eckhoff’s form further.
Hat-trick in France
Eckhoff’s form hit a new high in Annecy-Le Grand Bornand, where she started with a convincing win in the sprint. It was all down to the course that suited her style, she said, and to the magic touch of the Norwegian waxers. Then she won the pursuit and extended her standing shooting accuracy of 100% over four competitions. It was all down to luck, she said.
"I want to thank my coach Patrick for all the hard and boring work we did in the summer," expressing her gratitude to the Norwegian women’s Italian coach, Patrick Oberegger.
In the summer Tiril was actually curious about the things Oberegger had to say and teach her.
"Numbers and statistics can't tell you everything, especially not about the person and about the character, feelings, fears…! I learned first how she has experienced biathlon through working with coaches before me," commented Oberegger. "We took time, really a lot of time, to discuss, argue and analyse but always with one goal in mind: to train the best we possibly could. Then we started to optimise the process by keeping the good things, fine-tuning others, making things easier. Of course we worked on some technical aspects of her biathlon, shooting in particular, and that showed, but it was herself-confidence we needed to work on the most."
"I will try to eat, sleep and repeat everything tomorrow in the mass start," she replied, when asked how she intended to keep her winning state of mind.
Then came the mass start under very unpleasant conditions where waxmen had to do their magic once more...and they delivered, yet again. Watching JT Boe out-ski and tire out the field with a lightning-fast start and then back it up with great shooting (19/20), Tiril decided to do the same on the women’s field. Just like in the pursuit, she shot 18/20, but she was skiing on another planet, 1:24 minutes faster than Dorothea Wierer in second place. Translated into meters, Tiril was celebrating her win while Wierer still had almost 900 meters (or 7% of the 12.5km course) to go.
"I watched Johannes and saw what he did to the rest of the field and decided to try the same."
And her boring summer routine?
"I injured my toe and got a big bump on my hip in the summer, so Patrick and I had a lot of time to do boring things and work on my shooting technique. I certainly hope to keep my current shooting form as long as possible," said Eckhoff, who suddenly, although she never intended to do so, had to think about her chances for the IBU World Cup Total Score title.
Her ski speed in Annecy-Le Grand Bornand was at -6% (or higher) and her shooting accuracy at 90%, compared to 76% a season ago. It was such a vast improvement that it was difficult to process. Christmas break gave her time to do so.
Psyched about training
Joined by her teammate and very good friend Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold and their respective boyfriends, Eckhoff headed to Antholz to relax ahead of Trimester 2 but also to keep her winning formula of ‘eat, sleep, repeat' going. At 9 o’clock in the morning on the first day of 2020, Oberegger, who comes from the South Tirol region, knocked on her door to go train some more.
"I might not look like it, but I really am psyched about my training," Tiril explained in Ruhpolding, where after winning the sprint, she also conquered the yellow bib for the first time ever. She doubled down with a win in the pursuit, her shooting still above 90%, and even more telling, in the weeks 2, 3, 4 and 5, Eckhoff won 54 points per competition, thus reaching a level of excellence that matched JT Boe and Martin Fourcade.
"It is all about flow in biathlon," she said in Ruhpolding, when asked about changes in her shooting technique and whether she might always be able to rely on it. "When the flow is good, everything goes great; when the flow is not good, things don’t go so well."
Then the flow stopped
A peak in form three weeks before the IBU World Championships in Antholz-Anterselva was a dangerous thing for at least two reasons:
- A peak in form means that the body, mind and soul are drawing on the finest reserves and that the immune system is weakening because of that;
- Two weeks between the BMW IBU World Cup 6 and the IBU World Championships are a long period of time in a season, and anything can happen.
Both points proved correct in Eckhoff’s case:
- She fell (mildly) sick at the BMW IBU World Cup 6 at Pokljuka and skipped the mass start.
- As a consequence of 1, she lost the flow she was talking about in Ruhpolding and had a disastrous individual part of the IBU World Championships by her standards, for her shooting accuracy dropped to 78% from above 90% and she finished 59th in the sprint, 20th in the pursuit, 15th in the individual and 7th in the mass start. In addition, she lost the yellow bib to Wierer.
"Tiril lost her flow ahead of Antholz. Sure, her posture on the shooting range is much improved compared to the previous seasons, but she is a very emotional person. When her mood is not aligned with her form, she struggles," reflected Oberegger during the BMW IBU World Cup 7 at NMNM, when the possibility of a shortened season due to the coronavirus pandemic grew by the hour. Eckhoff won the mass start at NMNM with 19/20. With Wierer’s form in free fall due to physical and emotional exhaustion, it all came down to the last standing stage in the Kontiolahti pursuit. Tiril led before that stage and cleared the first target, but while Wierer cruised on autopilot, waiting for a miracle, Eckhoff started to waver. In Kontiolahti's gusty winds, she started to take more and more time for each shot. She missed three, enough for Wierer to seize the window of opportunity yet again and clinch her second consecutive IBU Women's World Cup Total Score title.
Tiril now knows what it is like to be on top of the biathlon world. Will she be able to be there at the end of the 2020/2021 season?