Both cross-country skiing and biathlon have welcomed their shares of stars over the past few years, but few, if any, have exploded onto the scene as quickly as Tarjei Bø.
Last season, the 22-year-old Norwegian won an Olympic gold medal as part of the Norwegian relay team, but his best finish on the World Cup circuit was fourth.
This year, though, he has come on like a freight train. After collecting his first World Cup win in December, he has been on the podium 10 more times, and is the current owner of the World Cup overall leader bib. With just four competitions left and a 92-point lead, he’s not likely to be giving it up.
FasterSkier had a chance to speak with Bø back in February, during the World Cup races in northern Maine. With the Norwegian a major player in the biathlon World Championships going on right now in Siberia—through four events, he has two golds and two bronzes—now is a perfect time to read about his training, his relationship with his superstar teammates Svendsen and Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, and his thoughts about that other sport that’s big in Norway, cross-country skiing.
FasterSkier: So, this year has been very good for you. But a couple of years ago, you had to take some time off because you had tonsillitis?
Tarjei Bø: Yeah, I had some problems with my throat, and I removed my tonsils and had two seasons where I had a lot of problems with sickness. I couldn’t train as I wanted to, so last season was okay, and this season, I had no problems.
FS: Last year wasn’t bad for you, but this season has been a lot better. What has been the difference?
TB: Everything has to work together. So when you’re not sick as much, you also can train as you want, and as hard as you want. The problem when you’re sick a lot is that you can’t make your level higher—after sickness, you always have to just come back to the level you were.
This year, I haven’t been sick, so I can only get better and better all the time, and stronger. I’ve trained hard, and I have had some good results.
FS: Have you been surprised with how well you’ve done this season? Obviously, you had done well at the World Junior Championships in the past, so you must have known you were among the top.
TB: It’s been over my expectations, of course. I knew I could win a race or two, and my goal was to win my first World Cup. But it has gone very fast—especially that I’m so stable up there, it shows that it’s not luck or anything. It’s just my level is that high, and I’m very satisfied with that.
FS: So, quickly, do you train mostly with your home club? Or do you train with the national team? Who are you doing most of your training with?
TB: I never train with my home club. I moved from home, and I live by myself in Lillehammer, where I do my training.
I train with my friends, and some other athletes—Emil Hegle Svendsen also lives in Lillehammer. So, between the training camps with the national team, I train by myself and with my teammates.
FS: Do you train with Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, as well? Have you taken a lot from working with those guys?
TB: Yeah, of course—they are the best athletes in the world. Ole lives in Italy, so I never train with him, except for at training camps, but of course, then we help each other and push each other to get stronger, and better, and faster.
FS: What is his attitude like when you’re training and traveling and competing with him? Is he kind of like a fatherly figure, or more like a brother, or…?
TB: He’s not a father figure, but he’s always been an idol for me, especially when I was younger. Still, he’s an idol for every athlete in the world, I think. He has reached all his goals, and it’s fantastic to see how he trains and prepares himself, and competes. It’s extraordinary for other athletes—he’s done everything perfect in his career, so, a lot to learn from him.
FS: Do you think it has been hard for him this year, having to compete a little more with you and with Emil?
TB: Yeah…Not hard—I think he was prepared. He’s getting older, and biathlon is harder now than five years ago. Now, there are many more athletes, and especially young athletes, are also coming up. Earlier, there were only older guys, who had this routine and everything, and [were] getting the results. But now, a lot of younger people are also fighting very hard, and I think that’s the main difference. Because, the younger athletes have another way of solving things—in the range and in the tracks—maybe, more offensive. Not so tactical, but when it works, it’s hard to beat the young guys (chuckles).
FS: We also cover cross-country skiing. Do you feel like with you, and Emil, and Ole on the men’s side, and Tora Berger on the women’s side, that biathlon is fairly strong in Norway, in comparison?
TB: It’s always been a big star in Norway, because of TV coverage, and the interest is very big. The main thing in Norway is that people who aren’t that interested in sports still love biathlon, because it’s something special for everyone to watch, and it’s exciting. More exciting than cross-country.
But cross-country is very big in Norway—especially this year, when it’s the World Championships in Oslo. Interest is very high for cross-country—I think it’s equal interest, I guess.
FS: Do you feel like you have to compete with the cross-country skiers at all, for attention?
TB: No, I don’t think so. They have some stars who are really good, and I guess they have as many stars as us. We have three to four of the top athletes in the world, and they are the same. It’s not like they win everything, but they have Northug and Bjoergen, and some sprinters, also. It’s the good results that give them and us attention.
FS: Do you ever do any training with those guys?
TB: No, not too much. At the headquarters of sports in Norway, the Olympiatoppen, we had a training camp in the spring together, for four days. Also, with some of the other winter sports athletes.
But not so much—we have to train with our rifle, and at training camps, it’s maybe not so easy to cooperate. We were in Val Senales [Italy], in October, in the same place, and we trained together for some sessions, and we’re also always on the glacier together.
FS: Is that something you’d be interested in doing more?
TB: Yeah, of course. They have a lot of qualities that we need to get better in, especially in the power in sprints. Cross-country has developed to be a very explosive sport, sort of—everything extends to the finish line now. Biathlon is also more like this—it’s closer, and more athletes at the top. You see more races that are duels in the last round. I think we have a lot to learn from them, on this side.
FS: Do you know a lot of those guys? Are you friendly with them?
TB: Yeah, I know most of them. Of course, I know all the young guys around my age very well, and I’m getting to know the team better. They’re good guys.
FS: With Emil being named for the cross-country team for Oslo, it seemed like there was a bit of controversy…
TB: It’s always like that—cross-country skiers say that they don’t need any biathlon athletes to do their third leg, and I think it’s possible that they don’t. The last few years, [biathlete] Lars [Berger] has done the relay, and done very well, and I think they feel like it’s safe to use one of us. But, of course, they also have other athletes who can do the same job—maybe now, they’re secure.
FS: Do you have any interest in crossing over?
TB: Yeah, when I was a junior, I did a lot. I was national champion twice in cross-country, and I want to do it again. I haven’t been so much slower than Emil this year, so I guess in a few years, I hope it will be me.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.