RUHPOLDING, Germany – Gabriela Soukalova had a breakout season last year. But even after snatching up four wins, she wasn’t prepared for how much things would change.
Earlier this season, she won the opening 15 k individual in Östersund, Sweden. That announced to the field that the young Czech was back even stronger than she had been before – and it surprised the racer herself.
“After the first race in Ostersund, I thought this would be the one chance of my life to race with the yellow bib,” she said today.
Not exactly: she has held the yellow bib, which signals the overall World Cup points leader, for most of the races since. And with another victory in another 15 k individual today, she solidified her hold on it. She still can’t quite believe how things are going. As Real Biathlon pointed out, this was her sixth win in only 49 starts, giving the 24-year-old the highest winning percentage of any active athlete.
“It’s always a big surprise for me,” she said. “I didn’t think I could race in this color this time again. It’s really nice, but I’m sure that the other girls are very strong, and also that we are going to see so much change in the positions this season.”
Wearing the leader’s bib is only one of the things that has changed for Soukalova this year. After Ondrej Moravec also won his first World Cup last season, and veteran Michal Slesingr hit the podium, Soukalova has had to deal with a lot more attention than she was prepared for – which will only intensity with her recent success.
“You know what, after the last season, it started to be in the Czech Republic something like biathlon mania,” she said. “Me, Michal Slesingr, we started to be in advertisements on the TV, and in Prague we were on a billboard with pictures of us. I think the big reason was that we had the World Championships in Nove Mesto… This was the reason I was so afraid of this season. We have been anonymous, and from now, it’s another cup of tea.”
The trio has been featured on television ads, and they appear on large billboards in Prague. The media attention has been so much that Soukalova sometimes had a hard time recovering in time for her training sessions.
“Sometimes it was really hard,” she laughed. “I couldn’t wake up from my bed a few times, if we had a training in Pokljuka as well. But I could speak about all the things with Ondrej [Rybar, her coach] and I think that he is absolutely professional and the perfect coach for our team. I believe in him for everything that I have to do.”
And being a little tired when practice time rolled around was even more of a challenge for Soukalova this year: she left the women’s team and began training with Rybar’s men’s team.
“The training was much harder than ever before, but I wanted to do the maximum to get great results,” she explained. “It was really hard for me to change the team, but for my future I am sure it will be better to have done this. [The men] are much faster on the shooting range and on the track. It’s good for you, if you want to be the best.”
The move seems to be paying off: she had the third-fastest course time over 15 kilometers today, and was thus able to pull off a 34-second win over Darya Domracheva of Belarus, who skied the fastest but had two one-minute penalties for missed shots compared to Soukalova’s one. Domracheva, always one of the fastest skiers, trails Soukalova by just 28 points in the World Cup standings.
But Domracheva was even farther behind until the start of 2014, when she won the first two races in Oberhof and placed third in the last. With a second-place finish again today, she seems to be on track for the rest of the season, and the Olympics.
“For sure, to stay healthy is the most important thing for all the athletes now,” Domracheva said of her plans going into Sochi. “We can do a little bit more speed training, like at the competitions in Antholz, as well.”
Domracheva nearly executed a perfect race, shooting clean until the final round. There, she missed two shots. If she had hit just one more, she would have come away with the win.
“I was just a little oo fast in the last standing,” she said.
Third place went to Soukalova’s teammate Veronika Vitkova, who shot clean. She had a 21-second lead on Domracheva after the last shooting, but couldn’t hold onto it.
“Today was a very hard race for me,” she said in the press conference. “Dasha was faster on the track. I was tired on the last loop, but I’m very happy.”
It was Vitkova’s second podium of the season, and she now sits seventh in the World Cup score. Along with Soukalova in the yellow bib, it’s probably the best season the Czech women’s team has ever had.
Vitkova is just 11 months older than Soukalova, and the two women have known each other for a long time in the biathlon community.
“I always thought that she is going to be very successful in the future,” Soukalova said. “She is very talented and absolutely professional.”
It’s perhaps even more impressive that both are having their best seasons ever, since they don’t actually train together. Soukalova’s departure from the women’s training squad left Vitkova the top dog, which Soukalova thought was actually beneficial.
“I think my leaving the girls team was better for her, and for me also, and for the atmosphere of the girls,” Soukalova explained. “And for the atmosphere of the guys team I hope, you’d have to ask our guys!”
The individual race format is only held three times a season, and this year one of them is at the Olympics. Since the Olympic Games do not count as part of the World Cup score, that has given Soukalova the win in the discipline score even though the season is only half over. It’s quite a feat to have a title to fall back on – much less to have swept both competitions – before the Olympics even roll around.
“I didn’t like individual races until now, but from now on it is my favorite race,” Soukalova said.
She faces a difficult road ahead: she said that she thinks it is “impossible” to win both the total score and the Olympics, since the big event requires such perfect peaking. Asked which she would rather end up with, she said, “a medal could be nice.”