RUHPOLDING, Germany – Emil Hegle Svendsen didn’t have the most auspicious start to today’s 20 k individual race. He missed a shot in prone: bam, a minute of added time as a penalty. With many athletes cleaning that first stage, he was left down in 51st place after four kilometers.
But the veteran Norwegian has an added tool in his arsenal this year: mental resilience. He came back to hit every one of his next 15 shots, which combined with the fifth-fastest ski time of the day earned him his 34th World Cup victory.
“I found a way to focus on the right way,” Svendsen said of this season. “What is different now is that I really focus on doing it the same every time and not letting myself slack when I do a good race. I focus on doing the same thing race after race, and I think this is the recipe for good and stable racing – to do the same thing every time.”
By the second clean stage, Svendsen was up to 13th place. After the third, he was in sixth. When he cleaned his final five targets, he moved into the lead, at the time by 27 seconds over Evgeniy Ustyugov of Russia.
Later in the start order, Alexei Volkov, also of Russia, hit all 20 of his targets. He left the final stage only four seconds down to Svendsen. But he was unable to ski anything near the Norwegian’s pace, and Svendsen ended up winning by 14 seconds. Volkov barely managed to hold on to second place over Ustyugov.
Among the things that Svendsen has changed this year is to work hard on his mental game. Once dominant in the sport – he won three medals at the 2010 Olympics as well as that year’s overall World Cup title – Svendsen has been pushed hard in recent seasons. Martin Fourcade of France has come on strong, taking the overall title both of the last two seasons.
Where Svendsen’s incredible ski speed used to be plenty to win him races, even if he made mistakes on the range, coming into this year’s Olympics he knew he needed to be more than just fast. He needed to be accurate, if he was to beat Fourcade on the sport’s biggest stage.
The press hasn’t always been easy on him when he loses races, either. “I’m a big fat man,” he joked today of how hard the last loop was, alluding to the way that Norwegian broadcaster NRK dedicated an entire story to the fact that he gained six kilograms over the summer.
It doesn’t seem to have cost him anything. Svendsen is still fast, and now he’s better on the range, too. This weekend, Fourcade isn’t here – he’s off training. But last weekend in Oberhof, Svendsen beat his French rival in back-to-back races for the first time this season.
“I think the biggest difference is that I’m stronger on the shooting range,” Svendsen said. “I have been working a lot of course with the shooting in the summer and the fall, and also in the winter.”
The mental work isn’t just about staying focused in a single race, but also over the course of a season. Svendsen had a tough opening, failing to make the top ten in either of the opening individual races in Östersund, Sweden, while watching Fourcade take a more than two-minute win in the kickoff competition. But this year, Svendsen cares about the big picture. That’s the Olympics.
“This is one of my advantages now, I’m strong mentally,” he said. “I have been doing a lot of good mental work and it is starting to pay off… Hopefully I can keep it that way even in the Olympics when it’s even more pressure. It is going to be fun to see if I can keep it together.”
Fourcade will likely take the Total Score again, but can he beat Svendsen at the Olympics? The Norwegian has shown that he can be at his best when it counts, including last year when he won gold in both the sprint and pursuit, as well as the relay, which Foucade had hoped France would win. It was a slap in the face considering how dominant Fourcade was for the entire rest of the season.
Svendsen believes that he’s setting up for another chance to win the gold.
“This victory is very important to me today, especially considering the shooting,” Svendsen told NRK. “The 20 k is a shooting competition, and today it turned out that I’m on a good track for the Olympics.
To be at his best in Sochi, Svendsen is taking the next weekend of World Cup racing off in order to relax and focus.
“I race tomorrow and after that I go home for some days, and after that we are going to Switzerland, to Lenzerheide, for preparation for the Olympics,” he said. “For me now, it’s important to get some rest and get my head straight before the Olympics. I think it’s going to be very big and very tough, and it’s important to be in top shape.”
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.