The Battle for Yellow: Five Men to Watch

The top five men as the new season opens is simply déjà vu, especially with Johannes Thingnes Boe showing no signs of retreat and Sturla Holm Laegreid striving to top him. Beyond these two is a line-up of usual suspects, any of whom could jump into the top spot.

Crystal Globe Quest Number Five

JT Boe’s quest for his fifth big Crystal Globe is motivation enough for the unquestioned number one man in biathlon. He returned from his shortened sub-par Olympic season like Indiana Jones running to escape the rolling boulder, never looking back, showing his will and determination by vanquishing virtually every opponent. Laegreid summed up JT’s dominating skill set, “His body is just made for skiing fast…incredible on the tracks…He has worked out his shooting; that makes him basically unbeatable.”19 World Cup wins, a medal in every discipline at Oberhof, the World Cup Total Score and two discipline globes, might be hard to top. Still, JT can do it again. He literally has a target on his back, with his rivals ready to pounce. Watching JT win week-after-week might get boring, but seeing how he skillfully and seemingly effortlessly puts does it is biathlon at its best. Coach Siegfried Mazet questioned about the most talented biathlete he ever coached, replied, “In terms of natural skills, no question it is for sure Johannes Thingnes Boe.” And…the beat goes on.

Is Sturla ready to move up?

Three consecutive seasons as second-best frustrates and motivates Laegreid. “I am incredibly proud. I am really stable, not the best on skis, but really good shooting keeps me one step ahead. I have to continue improving my strengths and working on my weaknesses.” Improvement is the key for Laegreid who lacks JT’s innate track talent. Mazet admitted that “Sturla worked hard to get to a super level.” Laegreid worked on standing shooting this past summer with the goal of taking it from his 85% last season to 90%+ while shooting faster. “It was okay to shoot clean in 25 seconds but it needs to be 20.” He did just that while winning in Wiesbaden. At the same time, Laegreid has to take a few more seconds from his rivals on the tracks. The 26-year-old’s straight-forward approach and upbeat attitude might just take him up one spot this season.

Sebbe’s year to shine?

Sebastian Samuelsson’s season before Oberhof 2023 was basically a disaster: zero podiums, with double-digit finishes in eight of the fourteen competitions. Thirteenth in the World Cup total Score was a far cry from his third place the previous season. Four medals in Oberhof including his first individual WCH Gold changed the season’s trajectory. Samuelsson who uses his own personal rollerski band as frequently as JT is a known hard worker, with ski speed closer to JT than Laegreid. The Swedish star’s key to battling for wins and the Total Score is on the shooting range. His 2020/21career-best season at 87% has to go up to at least 90% to get in the mix. Samuelsson focused on shooting this year, “I want to be the best and have to improve my shooting. I am focusing on shooting faster but also hitting more targets.” The WCH results showcased Samuelsson’s talent as a “big game player,” I like those (pressure) situations a lot. I think I always shoot better in those situations.” Improved shooting, the confidence gained in Oberhof and a burning desire to be the best might be the recipe to end Norwegian dominance.

Quentin back in the Mix?

Quentin Fillon Maillet had a spectacular Olympic season (two Gold and three Silver medals) wresting the big Crystal Globe from JT when the Norwegian bowed out after Beijing. Last season was a different story, the French star fell to 8th in the Total Score with just two podiums. Fillon Maillet admitted, “I did not give myself enough time to recover before I started training for the new season.” Accordingly, he struggled in the 2022/23 season until Oslo where he hit 49 of 50 shots, garnering second and fourth places. Coming into this summer, Coach Simon Fourcade called Fillon Maillet, “ a real leader who is really motivated.” After a more calculated longer recovery this year, Fillon Maillet had solid results in the two-part French Summer Champs, including a pursuit win. Laser-focused once again, he is eager to prove his mettle against the Norwegians. Should the “king of the four-stage competitions” bring his shooting from 86% back to the 90% range again, he should figure in the battle royale for victories and his second big Crystal Globe.

Vetle, “maybe, this is the year!”

Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen is the ultimate optimist about his chances after third in the Total Score, seven podiums and two small discipline globes last season. Improvements have come slowly after taking the IBU Cup Total Score back in 2018, but last season Christiansen was in the mix to topple his teammate. “I get closer (to JT) every year.” Christiansen set several personal records in summer training, had another win at Blink, and buried the elite field at the Martin Fourcade Nordic Festival as a prelude to the new season. On his best days, he shoots lights out (20-for-20 in Oestersund and Oslo mass starts) and is strong enough on the tracks to get close to JT many days. Confirming his optimism, “I’ve said it before and will say it again, maybe this is the year.”

The Wild Card: Emilien

Emilien Jacquelin has the skills to be number 1: deadly ski speed, fast, accurate shooting and that killer instinct when it counts. He just has to put everything together for an extended period and the promise of his talent will come true. Jacquelin won consecutive IBU WCH Pursuit Gold medals and shot clean in the two best competitions of his career, both times topping JT. Taking an extended break after Oberhof and solid summer training, he came back reenergized with a positive outlook. The 28-year-old proved this with an emphatic sprint/pursuit double at the final French Summer Tour in mid-October. Still, some Jacquelin has never completed a full season without several big downturns. He needs consistency throughout the whole season to surprise everyone and take it all!

Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Igor Stancik, Vianney Thibaut, Nordic Focus

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