Beyond Olsbu Roeiseland, the challengers are closely matched: Franziska Preuss, Hanna Oeberg, Dorothea Wierer, and Lisa Theresa Hauser, all talented enough to battle for supremacy if Eckhoff stumbles. However, that is yet to be seen.
Eckhoff set the bar extremely high last winter, racking up an impeccable record of thirteen victories (7 sprint, 6 pursuit), winning IBU WCH Gold in both, plus two more Gold, and one each Silver and Bronze medals at Pokljuka, not to mention a career high 83% on the shooting range. Eckhoff’s only “failures” were less than spectacular performances in the 15 km individual (67th, 18th, and 23rd). The victories highlight her biggest talent: aggressive fast skiing, very similar to teammate Johannes Thingnes Boe. In the past two seasons, her shooting has gone from shaky to confident. In ten of her thirteen wins, she shot clean or had a single penalty. After the Oberhof sprint, Eckhoff commented, “My trainer always says to me you to have much better confidence, because you can win with one mistake. That is something not everybody can do.” Now after the World Cup Total Score title and 26 career wins, she recently told Norway’s VG about her next goal. “To be completely honest, my goal is to beat Tora (Berger) to become the best Norwegian biathlete in the history books (28 wins).” If Tiril version 2020/21 shows up in the new season, she will likely dominate again.
Olsbu Roeiseland after her spectacular showing at the 2020 IBU World Championships in Antholz “only” won relay and mixed relay Gold medals in Pokljuka. However, last year was still a career year with second in the World Cup Total Score and three wins, the same number as the past three seasons. After second in the Oberhof pursuit, she had multiple Top Tens but could not catch the podium until third in the Nove Mesto pursuit, mostly due to one or two missed shots. Olsbu Roeiseland was well aware of her downfall, commenting in Nove Mesto, “My shape has been good this year, but the shooting has not been good enough to fight for the podium, especially in the World Championships…I had a lot of almost races, a lot of 4-7 places…” Always fast on the tracks, especially in the last loop, consistent shooting will be the key for her to overtake Eckhoff and stay ahead of her talented rivals.
Franziska Preuss went from ninth place in the World Cup Total Score in 2018/19 to sixth in 2019/20 to third in 2020/21. Continuing the same pace this season, the next stop is at number one. Consistency was her calling card last season. Despite zero victories, she was in the top ten on nineteen occasions. That consistency mixed with a few wins may do the trick to catapult her to number one. Preuss has always been solid on the range, but last year struggled in standing. A new rifle stock has instilled renewed confidence in her standing shooting. The 27-year-old German learned one big lesson last season that may be the path to the top this year. “I learned to trust myself, to remember that I am a good athlete. After struggling for many years, you wonder if you are good or not. But last season, I thought about this a lot and visualized (doing well), then I got in a good flow, stayed healthy and got my self-confidence back.” Thinking about her goals this season, she admitted that winning the World Cup Total Score is her preference, because “you see the whole performance from November to March.”
At the end of last season, eight points separated Hanna Oeberg, Dorothea Wierer and Lisa Theresa Hauser, with two, one, and two wins respectively. The season was Oeberg’s second consecutive year in fourth, a drop from first to fifth for the Italian and a huge step from eighteenth to sixth for Hauser. All could move up this year, but the focus on Beijing 2022 will come into play for this trio as well as Eckhoff, Olsbu Roeiseland and Preuss.
Hanna Oeberg is the defending OWG 15 km Gold medalist and would obviously like to repeat. Two sprints last season increased her chance to become the next Swedish World Cup Total Score winner. Oeberg’s improved ski speed plus her normal 85%+ shooting is a recipe for a great year. She recently said, “What drives me forward is to get better.” Fatigue slowed her in the latter stages of last season after wearing the Yellow Bib early on. Expect steady performances from the outset, some missed World Cups to focus on Beijing and a big finish to the season.
Dorothea Wierer was not the same woman last year as the one who took the big Crystal Globe home the two previous seasons. She admitted that fatigue limited her to a single victory, two second and two third places. However, Wierer shot better in 2020/21 than her two World Cup Total Score winning seasons and she tied with Hauser for the World Cup Individual Score. The Italian has never won an individual Olympic medal and would love a third mixed relay medal, so February is in focus. Wierer is a battler; no one will be surprised to see some fire in her eyes, hoping to prove that last year was an anomaly.
Lisa Theresa Hauser’s 2020/21 season was magical; the one she dreamed of for years. Coming into the season, she had had no individual BMW IBU World Cup podiums. By mid-March, seven podiums, two victories and an IBU World Championship Gold medal topped her resume. “I am glad to say that I had no race I can say was really bad. It was really cool that I had a good feeling in every race.” Hauser was stronger on the tracks than ever before and shot at her best when it counted; 20-for-20 made her the IBU Mass Start World Champion. She knows what it will take to take another step. “I thought about last season nearly every day in training this summer…I tried to make my shooting more stable, because I had a bad-shooting December, was good for two months and the last trimester under my level…You have to shoot zero or one mistake, not more…My main goal is to be consistent over the whole season, at the shooting range and on the tracks.” Those tools could put Hauser in the thick of the battle for the Yellow Bib and the big Crystal Globe.
Talent abounds in the women’s ranks. There is the rising Belarusian star Dzinara Alimbekava, Eckhoff’s bestie Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold who closed last season with a stunning Oestersund mass start win and IBU 15 km Individual World Champion Marketa Davidova, whose quiet improvements on the range and her well-known ski speed could make her the big mover this year. Denise Herrmann is not to be forgotten; a return of her devastating ski speed could see her vie for multiple victories. Anais Chevalier Bouchet marked her return from maternity leave with two IBU WCH medals last season while her teammate Julia Simon highlighted her potential with two sterling mass start wins last season plus a very impressive win at the season opener in Sjusjoen. The wild card could be young Elvira Oeberg who opened the season with impressive skiing and 28-of-30 shooting in the Swedish opener in Idre. All could be in the podium mix on any given day.
Rather obvious here: Tiril is tops with ski speed and confident shooting. Olsbu Roeiseland is easily second while Hermann has the tools to match up with the two Norwegians.
Eckhoff again; sprint wins usually turn into pursuit wins for her. Olsbu Roeiseland’s devastating last loops are perfect for the pursuit. Preuss’ confidence and cool-headed standing shooting will make her a player.
Oeberg should reassert her position at the top. Wierer with five career victories will battle the Swedish star, while Hauser has the perfect demeanor for this shooting contest with skiing.
Preuss loves this competition and is due to win crystal. The enigmatic Simon can be unstoppable in the closing kilometers. IBU World Champion Hauser has the clean-shooting credentials to chase her good friend Preuss for the wins.
Answers about who will rule the women’s competitions coming in eight days!
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni