One big consideration for the men as well as the ladies is Beijing 2022, the quadrennial highlight overshadows everything else. Everyone is laser-focused on those two weeks in February. Accordingly, there will be some skipped World Cup competitions, maybe not the peak early shape, and the old health/injury bugaboo that is always in the mix. The final factor is someone who will have a career season, the surprise that fulfills the old biathlon adage, “it’s biathlon and anything can happen.”
The stars seem to be aligned for another tussle between teammates JT Boe and Laegreid and Fillon Maillet for supremacy. JT has history and experience on his side versus Laegreid’s unquestioned talent versus Fillon Maillet’s determination.
Boe in the 2020/21 season was not the dominant force; Laegreid repeatedly challenged and topped the podium seven times to JT’s four. When the dust settled, the big Crystal Globe went to the redhead for the third consecutive season. Defending that title will not be at the forefront, but whether mentioned or not, it will be part of the plan. He remains the fastest and deadliest on the tracks. Although his shooting dipped from the “Gold Level” 89% to 84%, even with a mid-season rifle change, range talent remains. Returning to his old rifle set-up during the summer, led Coach Siegfried Mazet to tell NRK, “He is much calmer behind his gun.” That should solve the shooting problem and will likely serve notice early he remains the man to beat, while not revealing all his “cards.” Look for him to control the sprints, adding to 26 career sprint wins and reversing his honestly miserable Olympic sprint record (54th Sochi, 31st Pyeongchang).
The bump in the road for JT remains the man who almost got him last season, Sturla Holm Laegreid. Is a “sophomore slump” possible? Of course, but doubtful. Laegreid is humbly confident and knows himself very well. Last season’s mantra remains, “If I just do what I am good at, that is enough to achieve my goals.’ It is not about overachieving: do what you are good at, do it well and you will succeed.” His shooting is peerless (92%) and should continue. After missing multiple seasons, his weakness is ski speed. Laegreid thinks he can improve across the board. “I am not 100% in shooting and I know I have the potential to go faster on the skis. My goal this is to improve; try to be better than last season.” Any improvements will make his rivals shake their head in disbelief. Beyond improvement, Laegreid’s goal is simple. “I really, really want to go to the Olympics.”
Quentin Fillon Maillet wants to upset the Norwegian apple cart. Third in the World Cup Total Score the last two seasons, the top spot remains a goal, recently telling the Republican East newspaper, “It would be a lie to say I do not want to the number one place. I could say I was aiming for second as an improvement, but it would be a shame to only settle for that place.” Still, he qualified that, admitting Beijing takes precedence. Last season, Fillon Maillet won twice, but only had five podiums compared the previous season’s ten including missed an Oberhof sprint disaster and no pursuit. Just a couple of hiccups and some internal pressure cost Fillon Maillet. To move past the Norwegians and win an individual Olympic medal, he needs to up his good shooting game a couple of notches closer to 90%, relax, and ski up to his ability.
Tarjei, Johannes Dale and Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen give the Norwegians the deepest squad in the BMW IBU World Cup circuit. Tarjei, 4th in the World Cup Total Score, upped his career wins to an even dozen in one of his most consistent seasons. He shoots well, but sometimes has those horrible 5 or 6 penalty days. Tarjei is a smart competitor who still skis very well. No doubt his big goal is Beijing; having never an OWG individual medal. Although he missed some time with a concussion this fall, look for him to be in the mix. Last season, he said, “If you are on the Norwegian team that gets to compete in the World Champs or Olympics, you are most of the time a great skier, then it comes down to your shooting…”
Johannes Dale has steadily improved in each of his three World Cup seasons, breaking through last season with a win and five additional podiums. Dale is consistently one of the fastest men on the tracks. Standing shooting is his weak link; improvement there will add to his career win total very quickly.
Christiansen won every rollerski competition he contested this fall in Norway. Besides skiing well, his shooting was spot-on. The winner of the IBU Cup Total Score in the 2017/18 season, Christiansen has the talent to challenge the top three, but has never been in the Olympic Winter Games and last season, only competed in the mass start and relay at Pokljuka. He will be pushing his teammates all winter.
2020/21 was a career season to date for Sebastian Samuelsson: sixth in the Total Score, first career victory, and four IBU WCH medals. His goal was simple, “Starting training, I was really motivated to show that I am better athlete than I was last season.”
Goal fulfilled. Samuelsson stepped up his shooting to 87%. His confidence went sky high with that first win and carried through the season. Teammate Martin Ponsiluoma recently said, “Sebastian is a really good shooter; he never misses in training.” Samuelsson is the talent to watch.
Emilien Jacquelin is a rare talent and “wild card” among the challengers. He can shoot like a tornado and hit every target, fly past and bury almost any opponent but sometimes his eagerness to succeed trips him up: think IBU WCH mass start, five second stage prone penalties and then…
Still, he convincingly defended his IBU WCH pursuit title and had three other pursuit podiums. A broken wrist slowed him in the fall, but has recovered well. Jacquelin knows what it will take to have a super season. “If I am in shape and confident on the skis, I will probably try this: to stay calmer and be more consistent. In the coming years I want to fight for the Overall Globe.,. I am not that bad a shooter, around 87% even with some big bad shooting at the World Championships! I want to be better… If you want to be at the top, you have to be at 90-92%.”
This looks like an all Norway story. JT is obviously one of the best sprinters of all-time; Laegreid is lights out on the range, but is not as fast as his teammate. Third spot goes to Tarjei; 21 career podiums, excellent prone shot.
Jacquelin is the choice; hard to vote against a two-time World Champion. JT frequently follows a sprint win with a pursuit win. Laegreid won three times last season leading to the World Cup Pursuit Score.
Laegreid won twice and was second once; fired 60 shots, missed twice. JT is the defending Olympic Champion, can shoot well and follow a plan to win. Number three is a good question…
Tarjei was the most consistent last season, but Laegreid was IBU World Champion; the nod goes to youth. Fillon Maillet grabs the second spot: he is so good in four-stage competitions plus two IBU WCH medals the last two seasons. Third spot to Tarjei for consistency.
Beyond this elite group, there is plenty of talent: Lukas Hofer, Alexander Loginov, Martin Ponsiluoma, veterans like Dmytro Pidruchnyi, Jakov Fak, Benedikt Doll, Michal Krcmar and young guns like Emilien Claude and Said Karimulla Khalili. All questions will be answered when the snow flies!
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni