From discovering the sport on tv to becoming one of the biathlon stars in her country, Olena Bilosiuk (nee Pidhrushna) is heading towards her fourth Olympic Games feeling like experience is giving her a second youth, even if life outside of biathlon is starting to demand more space. To discover more about her journey in which sport, national events, and personal feelings coexist, collide, and merge, we sat down with the Olympic and World Champion in Nove Mesto na Morave, during the IBU Summer Biathlon World Championships.
How it all started
The encounter between Bilosiuk and biathlon was as casual as it can be, as she was home alone and the tv started showing the sport.
“I don’t remember which competition it was, but I remember Olena Zubrilova was on the podium. My thought was that if Ukraine had good international results, we must have had good coaches. Only a few months later our physical education teacher was recruiting athletes for biathlon, and I joined. However, conditions were not that good, I was not even skiing, but during the summer camps, I was managing to hold the rifle quite well. A few years later a more qualified teacher brought me to a training base, where I received all the necessary equipment, including skis and rifles and from 2000 I started training”.
But even if the first impression of biathlon came from a sports star, Bilosiuk was not dreaming of becoming a champion. She was fascinated by the combination of skiing and shooting, and she started funneling her energy towards biathlon in a very simple way.
“I was never thinking about professional sport, I was just enjoying what I was doing. I had a lot of energy and I had to do something, so I put it into biathlon, but never thought I would get great achievements”.
After winning the sprint title at the IBU World Championships 2013, the Ukrainian knew she had her chances to excel at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. Just before the big event, something started to feel wrong, but she saved the best for a stellar performance in the anchor leg of the women relay bringing home a marvellous victory.
“After the win in Sochi 2014, we were mostly relieved. As athletes, we were on a mission, we did all we could and, for sure, I did not want to let my team down. The fact that I did it is why I felt so relieved”.
Having given everything on that final day, Bilosiuk had to call it a season and return home to deal with her health issues, something that took away part of the joy for that immense success.
“Probably, I realised only after a year the importance of what we did in Sochi. Right after the Olympics, the other girls went on with the season, while I returned to Kiev as I was sick and I saw with my eyes how difficult was the situation at home because of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.So, it was difficult to be happy with sport. But then, all the people and so many fans started thanking and congratulating us for this medal and we realised that what we did was great and I started to understand that I am an Olympic champion”.
Trusting what her body is saying her
The following Olympics were not to be successful ones for the Ukrainian, who reached Pyeongchang still dealing with some health issues and did not take part in any competitions. However, she was chosen as the flag bearer for her country, a moment she would never forget.
“It was a great honour. That very moment, I was a small person representing a big country. I remember that entering the stadium there was so much light and I could not see any person in the stands. The emotions were many, but I felt proud of what I was doing”.
Next winter, in Beijing she will head for her fourth edition of the Games. With the hope to get to China in good health, Bilosiuk is confident about her abilities. She knows she can trust her capabilities because of her great experience.
“I would say that now I train more consciously, smarter even. When you are a young athlete, you do what you are told. Now I can talk to the coaches when I feel that something doesn’t suit me. I can tell them why and they know that if I am saying that it doesn’t work for me it’s because it is like that and not just because I do not want to do it.”
“I feel better right now than I did 5/10 years ago. Now I have more experience and some of my health issues are solved. I know my body more and I want to help my team to be at their best for the Games”.
Life after biathlon
Having got married this summer, her perspective on the future has inevitably changed a little. Life outside the arenas is becoming more and more important, but for the moment, the focus is only on sport and the responsibilities she feels towards her team.
“I am often thinking about what is going to happen after my sports life. I never thought of it in Olympic cycles, it was never my ultimate goal to win Olympic gold. I also know that if I lose my focus on the road to Beijing 2022 with only 6 months left, it is a mistake I cannot afford. There will be enough time to think about the future after the Olympic Games. My family status has changed and both I and my husband will have to think about what is going to be. We are both involved in sport, so we know that the best time for t will be in spring, now it is just about biathlon.”
If it will be a swan song the one she will sing in Beijing is to be seen. Bilosiuk has however achieved so much for herself and her country, that whatever the future will hold, her name will stay in the memory of fans. Maybe, somewhere in Ukraine, a young girl will watch her compete this winter and start training biathlon, just like young Olena did that day she saw Zubrilova on TV.
Photo: C. Manzoni/IBU & IBU Archives