As we wrote in part one of our World Cup biathlon preview, the big players – Norway, Russia, Germany, and France – will have teams that are just as good, if not better, than ever. But biathlon is a particularly developed and democratic sport, and the big dogs are definitely not going to be able to hog the podium. Athletes from 12 different countries won World Cup races last year, and the list gets a lot longer when you start counting top-three finishes.
Whether it’s stars like Kaisa Makarainen and Anastasiya Kuzmina who do not have deep teams behind them; the Austrian or Swedish men or Ukrainian or Polish women who don’t have strong counterparts of the opposite sex; or small but scrappy teams like the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Italy, and the United States, there is medal potential scattered throughout Europe and North America. It’s going to be an exciting season as there is not room for all of the worthy athletes atop the podium.
Presented in order of combined men’s and women’s Nations Cup scores, here are the contenders.
The Ukraine women’s team has been a force to be reckoned with for years, be it in individual races or relays. Recently they have been led by twin sisters Valj and Vita Semerenko, who did their part in 2013, too: Valj earned bronze in the World Championships individual, while Vita earned bronze in the sprint. Valj is off to a good start this year, hitting the podium at test races in Sjusjøen, Norway.
But the twins were joined last season by a new star who broke out at age 25: Olena Pidhrushna, who suddenly notched ten top-ten appearances and became World Champion in the sprint (she was also bronze in the pursuit). This gave Ukraine three different individual medal-winners at the Championships, which could not be beaten by any other men’s or women’s team on the circuit. The trio was joined by Juliya Dzhyma to take silver in the relay, too.
The men’s team is no slouch, although they are obviously overshadowed by the women. Andriy Deryzemlya hit the podium in Oslo and Serhiy Semenov in Sochi last season, and the men narrowly missed a relay podium at the Oberhof World Cup.
Tim Burke became the first American since Josh Thompson to stand on the World Championships podium; he finished in third place in both the sprint and individual discipline scores. Lowell Bailey and Susan Dunklee also made the top 30 of the Total Score. For a preview of how the team is looking, check out our story from after trials selection was completed.
The Czechs have been gathering momentum, but this year the biggest stories came from unexpected places. Most impressive of all was Gabriela Soukalova, who had a breakout year, to say the least. She won four races and had two additional podiums, landing at sixth overall in the Total Score. Teammate Veronika Vitkova also had her best year ever, earning seven top-ten finishes including her first podium.
On the men’s side, the big news was Ondrej Moravec, who was in shock after winning his first World Cup in Oslo. He had two more podiums and a total of seven top-ten finishes. Veteran Michal Slesingr earned a podium of his own, while Jaroslav Soukup, the previous year’s unexpected success, returned after a horrendous accident to snag one top-ten appearance; he didn’t compete the entire season, so look for better results from him this year. The team is clearly on the upswing and is a particular threat in the mixed relay, where they took bronze at their home World Championships.
The Italians used to be a powerhouse of a men’s team. They’ve slipped a bit, but Lukas Hofer managed a podium in Khanty-Mansiysk last season. The Italians are most dangerous in team events, actually – the previous season, they won a World Cup relay, and they managed a surprising fourth place in the World Championships mixed relay.
That’s largely because of a surprisingly improved young women’s team, which took the sport by surprise when they earned bronze in the World Championships relay. It was thanks to their impeccable shooting – just four spare rounds – but there’s plenty of room for the women’s ski speed to improve. The only real veterans are Michela Ponza and Karin Oberhofer, who had the first top-tens of her career in 2013. They are joined by World Junior Champion Dorothea Wierer, Nicole Gontier, and Alexia Runggaldier. If their individual results can catch up to their relay chops, then the women’s field is in trouble.
Sweden’s men’s team remains its biggest strength going into this season: Björn Ferry, Fredrick Lindström, and Carl Johan Bergman, in particular. Ferry and Bergman did not have their best seasons in 2013 – Bergman had trouble replicating his stellar 2012, and Ferry was not in the form that earned him an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver, though he did place fifth in the individual at World Championships. It was Lindström who led the way, taking the bronze medal in the same race. As always, their difficulty is finding a strong fourth racer for the relay.
One name: Darya Domracheva. The star was not as strong as she had been in 2012, when she fought Magdalena Neuner tooth and nail before ultimately losing the World Cup Total Score. In 2013 she was second behind Tora Berger, but quite a long way back. However, she won the mass start at World Championships and took several other victories along the way. As always, she’ll be dangerous, and looking to add to her Olympic bronze medal from Vancouver, preferably by winning a gold one.
Nadezhda Skardino backed up her high-wattage teammate with a World Cup podium of her own in 2013, her very first. The Belorussian men’s team is scant.
Again, one name: Anastasiya Kuzmina, the Olympic gold medalist in the sprint from Vancouver. Kuzmina is not one of the most consistent performers on the circuit, but she can definitely win again – she had one victory and four more podiums in 2013. She is backed up by Jana Gerekova, who landed 23rd in the Total Score. Again, the men’s team has few results to speak of.
The Austrian men’s team was, quite recently, at the top of the sport: in 2009 they were second in the Nations Cup, and in 2010 they were third. The squad went through some hard times, but seems to be emerging from them: all four of members of the silver-medal relay from the 2010 Olympics are back on form. Dominik Landertinger put on a late surge to land third in the Total Score on the back of two World Cup podiums, while Simon Eder was 11th. Christoph Sumann won a World Cup of his own, out of nowhere, and Daniel Mesotitsch also had a podium.
Notably, though, the Austrians aren’t just relying on old talent. Only Eder and Landertinger were guaranteed start rights to the first World Cups of the season; the rest of the team had to fight it out in Sjusjøen. Fritz Pinter along with the brothers Julian (who had his first top-10 last season) and Tobias Eberhard proved their worth and will join Sumann in earning starts.
The Polish women’s team was a revelation last year. The women were knocking on the door all season, then Krystyna Palka (who is working on a PhD!) broke through to earn silver in the World Championships pursuit. Even more surprisingly, Monica Hojnisz – just one year out of the junior ranks, and without a top-ten to her name – won bronze in the mass start. Not long after, Magdalena Gwizdon won the second World Cup of her career, in the Sochi sprint. Weronika Nowakowska-Ziemniak was also in the top ten once this season. As the ramp-up to the Olympics continues, this team is likely to continue making strides.
It was also a great year for Jakov Fak, the genial Croatian-turned-Slovenian who won two World Cups early in the season and landed in fourth in the Total Score, only barely passed by Landertinger in the last races of the season. The team has great potential – Peter Dokl is likely just getting started – but also relies on veterans. Klemen Bauer slightly underperformed last season, while Janez Maric is getting close to the end of a career.
The Slovenians’ best hope besides Fak and Bauer is probably in the mixed relay, where they earned a medal at 2012 World Championships. Teja Gregorin had fourth- and fifth-place finishes this season; Andreja Mali could not return to the top ten, but may have some extra motivation in a season that is sure to be the last Olympics of in a long career that started before Salt Lake City in 2002.
In the 2012 season, it looked like Benjamin Weger would be the next coming of Swiss biathlon, an attempt to become his sport’s Dario Cologna. Last year, it didn’t happen – Weger made the top ten just twice. The rest of his team performed about as well.
Selina Gasparin had a strong season, ranking 19th in the Total Score and skiing for the Swiss in cross country World Championships. She had a number of this-close races, including fourth place in the individual in Ostersund, the best result of her career. Switzerland’s current claim to fame is that it has three sisters representing the country: Gasparin’s much-younger siblings Elisa and Aita are also on the circuit. Elisa had her first two top-20’s last season.
Bulgaria has few standout athletes – Krasimir Anev and Vladimir Iliev each had a single top-ten in 2013 – but manages to do decently in team events.
Kaisa Makarainen struggled on the shooting range in 2013, but when she found her sights, she was deadly. The 2011 overall World Cup winner is just as fast as ever, and was twice second and twice third in 2013. Her breakout season came just after the Vancouver Olympics, so look for her to try to get on the podium there for the first time.
Her teammate Mari Laukkanen had her first top-ten. On the men’s side, Jarkko Kauppinen also hit the top ten.
Canada was hampered by the absence of Brendan Green and a slight dip in the trajectories of Megan Imrie and Zina Kocher, but Jean-Philippe Le Guellec finally did it: he won Canada’s first World Cup since the Myriam Bedard era, and the first ever by a Canadian man. That will surely be a motivating memory as he heads to the Olympics. The rest of the gang is back and ready for racing, along with Rosanna Crawford, who had her best season ever and her first top-20’s. See our preview here.
There are more teams and more athletes, but these are the ones who are most likely to make the podium. But please, biathlon, surprise us – it would be great to see more new faces!
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.