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SOCHI, Russia – Winning an Olympic medal is generally the result of years of dedication, often from childhood.
Then, there’s Germany’s Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle, who came a single second away from a bronze in Monday’s biathlon race here, despite taking up the sport just a year-and-a-half ago.
After hitting 20 consecutive shots in the women’s mass start competition, Sachenbacher-Stehle, 33, left the shooting range for her last of five 2.5-kilometer laps in third place, and only narrowly missed out on bronze in a sprint finish with Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff—a performance that the German women’s coach called “huge.”
“What she did today was remarkable,” said Bernd Eisenbichler, another German who’s the high-performance director for the American biathlon team. “This performance should have deserved a medal.”
Okay, there’s a caveat: when Sachenbacher-Stehle, 33, made the switch to biathlon, she was already an internationally successful cross-country skier, having won five Olympic medals in the sport between 2002 and 2010.
But skiing is only half of biathlon—and shooting, the other half, can be so difficult to master that athletes who have been competing in the sport for more than a decade can still struggle to drop their targets.
That’s what makes Sachenbacher-Stehle’s performance Monday so impressive: She didn’t miss a single target over her four shooting stages, which was a feat that only five out of the 30 women in the race accomplished.
It was the first time in Sachenbacher-Stehle’s short career that she had ever finished a four-stage race without a trip to the penalty loop.
“That feels really good,” Sachenbacher-Stehle said in an interview afterwards. “I’m doing biathlon one-and-a-half years now—it’s not so long, and I should be very happy to shoot clean in a race.”
While impressive, Sachenbacher-Stehle’s quick adaptation to biathlon is not entirely without precedent.
Another German, Kati Wilhelm, switched to biathlon from cross-country skiing during the winter of 2000, then won a world championship in the sport just one year later.
Sweden’s Anna Carin Zidek gave up cross-country after the 2002 Olympic Games, and in her second season in biathlon finished in the top 30 on the World Cup circuit. She went on to win two Olympic medals.
Sachenbacher-Stehle said she switched after participating in a training camp with the German biathletes.
“I was shooting just for fun,” she said. “They asked me: ‘Come try to do biathlon.’ And I said: ‘Why not? I can’t lose anything.’”
Sachenbacher-Stehle, whose international career in cross-country skiing began in 1998, said she had been getting “a little bit tired” of that sport, and she began with biathlon after the winter of 2012, for a new challenge.
“I tried, and it was successful, I think,” she said.
Sachenbacher-Stehle had a bit of a rocky initiation to the international circuit last winter: In her first four World Cup races, she racked up 20 penalty laps, which was far from an auspicious start.
Some were skeptical she would be able to achieve competitive results, given that she had entered the sport relatively late in her career; both Wilhelm and Zidek had been under 30 years old when they made their transitions.
“We were all a little bit surprised, because she was in her older age as an athlete,” said Eisenbichler, the Americans’ high-performance director. “When Kati changed, or (Zidek), they were not in the age that Evi was—like, after the peak.”
Sachenbacher-Stehle started to show some promising signs at the end of last season, when she placed sixth at one of the World Cup races in Sochi that was serving as a test event for this year’s Olympics.
She hit all 10 of her targets in the competition, and said at the time: “I hope I can make one more step next year.”
Her performances in Sochi this month should be enough to silence most of the skeptics: In addition to her fourth place finish in Monday’s race, she was also 11th in the Olympic sprint on Feb. 9, with just one miss in 10 shots.
Sachenbacher-Stehle plans to keep competing through next year.
“And then, we will see,” she said.
The tight sprint with Eckhoff was tantalizingly close to a podium, but Sachenbacher-Stehle seemed to brush it off, telling the German press immediately afterwards that “alles gut.”
“I’m very happy with my race,” she said later, in English. “Even if it’s no medal. That’s life. One has to be fourth, and now I’m the fourth.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.