Two months before teammate Arnd Peiffer’s surprise retirement, Simon Schempp stepped away after just a few competitions in the 2020/21 season, citing in a statement on social media, “For some time now, I have felt that my body is no longer fully resilient…I couldn't be the biathlete I was for a long time… I can't ignore this signal any longer.’’ Still, he managed one last hurrah before hanging up his rifle; stepping onto the podium with his long-time partner Franziska Preuss in the World Team Challenge in Ruhpolding.
Schempp’s retirement came after struggling with injuries and fatigue in the last three seasons. Ever optimistic, he continued trying to regain the form and fitness that brought him the 2017 IBU Mass Start World Championship title and the 2018 Olympic Mass Start Silver medal.
He considers the IBU WCH Mass Start Gold medal the highlight of his career, ranking it alongside a few other special moments. “I think Hochfilzen 2017 Mass Start Gold medal was my personal highlight. The first individual victory in the World Cup was really special and maybe the mass start in the Olympics I would rank 1, 2, 3. Hochfilzen was very special because for maybe the third or fourth time I was one of the favorites in the World Championships and I had never gotten a single medal before. The pressure was very high; it was my last chance. I was really happy to win with four clean shootings.”
Chiemgau Arena: “That stadium was like my living room”
After naming the big three, a fourth huge highlight popped up, his 2015 photo-finish mass start win over Michal Slesingr and Quentin Fillon Maillet at home in Ruhpolding’s Chiemgau Arena. “My hometown for the last 13 years; the place I hope to live for the rest of my life. That stadium was like my living room; I was there almost every day of my whole career. To win there was a special moment. It was such a tight race; there were five athletes in the last 500 meters. It was a thriller for every spectator. I was totally happy with the victory…maybe it’s one of the top three!”
If the Chiemgau Arena was like his living room, then Antholz was his playroom, the place where Schempp won three sprints and two pursuits between 2013 and 2016. “I think the track there is really good for me and it is at altitude. Those two things and the shooting range make it special. When I came to Antholz, I felt really confident and calm at the range, not just in the races but also in the training (shooting clean in all three sprints). That’s my explanation!”
Schempp was successful beginning with his first international start, an IBU Cup Junior Sprint win at Obertilliach in December 2006, topping the likes of teammate Erik Lesser, Dominik Landertinger and Lukas Hofer. “I remember it well, there was not much snow; I shot 2-0 and beat Christoph Stephan by 13.6 seconds!”
Mentors: Andi Birnbacher and Michael Greis
Yet Schempp gives a lot of credit in shaping his career to teammates who were also mentors in his early days. “I learned a lot from Andi Birnbacher and Michael Greis. I came to Ruhpolding as a junior. I wanted to go there because of these two guys. I wanted to know how they trained. After a short time, I had the feeling that they respected me a lot and showed me how the biathlon world worked. I learned the most about the sport from them and I appreciate that a lot.”
“The most important advice that I ever got was work, work, work; train, train, train. Your opponents also want to win and they will not just give it to you.” That advice held up well over the years. Schempp blossomed after that IBU Cup win building a career that included seven IBU YJWCH medals, three Olympic Winter Games medals, twelve individual BMW IBU World Cup wins plus twenty-nine relay/mixed relay podiums, and eight IBU World Championships medals including that stunning 2017 Mass Start Gold medal.
The hard work mantra gave Schempp hope that he still could be competitive in the 2020/21 BMW IBU World Cup season. “I was optimistic at the beginning of the preparation. After the previous season, I thought about retirement, but I thought I was not done, so I was optimistic. I had the feeling that I could be back on the level that I wanted to be. But after some months of training, I did not get my good feeling, the good sporting feeling. Then I was not so optimistic that I could get back and I got the feeling that it could be my last season.”
“My last highlight” with Franzi
Despite not competing in the first trimester, Schempp trained on, hoping it would come together…and it did, just not when or where he expected. On a cold December evening in the empty Chiemgau Arena, he and Preuss teamed up for the televised World Team Challenge and made some indelible memories, with Schempp cleaning the last standing stage to bring them into second place. “That was my last good race in biathlon. It was good to get second place with Franzi; my last highlight over many years. Before that, I thought that would be my last race in biathlon, but I was lucky and qualified for Oberhof.”
“I saw it was time to go”
The writing was on the wall in those last two World Cup appearances at Oberhof: one penalty in both the sprint and pursuit, but disappointing 58th and 45th places. Yet this was no sad ending to his career. “I was lucky to get this chance because then I saw it was time to go… I drove up to Oberhof with no pressure on me. I knew my training was not good enough; my body feeling that had not changed over two years was not good. When I got there, I thought, ‘If it is good, I am really lucky and if it is not good, I am really lucky to know that my choice to retire was the right decision.”
After that, I had no second thoughts; nothing was in my brain that it was the wrong decision or that I could do biathlon one more year. I was lucky to have that chance and not quit after the World Team Challenge.”
“Nice, Calm, Honest, and Happy”
Schempp described himself with those four words back in 2017; they fit the now-retired German perfectly. Several months into retirement, Schempp has no regrets. “I am happy. I do not miss anything. I am happy as I look back over my career. Not everything was like a dream but as they say, “If someone told me when I started biathlon at 12 or 13 years old that I would achieve many medals at the World Championships and Olympics I would not have believed them. I achieved a lot and I got a lot of experience for the next steps in my life. I have new goals. That is important; to have new goals and am focused on them.”
The new goals that will lead him into the business world sent the affable German back to school. “I started studying industrial engineering. That is my new life for the coming months. It is really interesting but also demanding. I have been out of school for 13 years, so I needed to do something for my brain. My main goal is to start business administration in the autumn in a dual study where you study and work. My long-term goal is to have a business and combine that with sport. I definitely do not want to become a trainer.”
Advice: “A career like Martin!”
As for advice to the next generation, Schempp laughed, “If you want to have a biathlon career, you might want it to be like (his long-time friend) Martin (Fourcade) or Ole (Einar Bjoerndalen). Still, it was a good career. I am very happy with what I achieved, but if I had my choice again, I want a career like Martin!”
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Evgeny Tumashov, Harald Deubert, Rene Miko, Ernst Wukits