When the IBU World Cup kicks off in Östersund, Sweden, on November 30, the women’s biathlon field will look considerably different than it has for the past few years. While several veterans have retired, rising younger stars are also taking the season off for a variety of reasons – from pregnancies to injuries. Here’s a summary of what’s going on with last year’s top competitors:
Last year’s overall World Cup champion Kaisa Makarainen of Finland is gearing up for a home World Championships in Kontiolahti. When the U.S. women’s team visited her for a training camp there this summer, she did an interview with FasterSkier, where she said that the most important thing to be able to excel this winter would be to stay healthy, something she has struggled with in the past.
- Norway’s Tora Berger, last year’s runner-up and the previous season’s overall champion, has retired. Races will be much less exciting without her on the start line – or more importantly, charging into the finish.
- Darya Domracheva of Belarus has spent the summer making the most of her three Olympic gold medals from Sochi, and is doing a lot of outreach and media work. She also has been working with a new coach. She had previously worked with Klaus Siebert, who recently returned to his native Germany. The new coach of the Belorussian team is Austrian Alfred Eder (whose son Simon is an Olympic medalist himself). “Training plans are strikingly different since last season,” Domracheva said at a press conference earlier this month.
Gabriela Soukalova was the biggest breakout star of the last two years, and in 2014 was youngest member of the World Cup top five. The Czech spent last year training with the men’s team, and after winning mass start silver in Sochi seems poised to go head to head with Makarainen and Domracheva for the World Cup title this season.
- Olga Vilukhina of Russia was a continued strong performer last season, albeit an inconsistent one. She won silver in the sprint in Sochi, the only Russian woman to take an individual medal. But it was recently reported in the Russian media that the star will sit out this season. There’s speculation that it’s due to a baby, but Vilukhina has denied this and said that the goal is to recover from several old injuries.
Anastasiya Kuzmina became the first woman to defend an Olympic gold medal when she won the sprint in Sochi. She also finished off the year strong with pursuit and mass start victories at the culminating Oslo World Cup. Kuzmina trains notoriously seriously, and she’ll be back. Last year she traveled to Canmore, Alberta, for Frozen Thunder, and is rumored to be returning for a fall training camp again this season.
- Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff had a breakout season last year, rising to the level of her more famous teammates Tora Berger and Ann Kristin Flatland. With both those older mentors retiring, Eckhoff is clearly Norway’s best hope next season. She has stayed active and fast during the summer, winning the Odlo City Biathlon in Puttlingen.
- Speaking of Puttlingen, Valj Semerenko won the qualification round there, and was also on the podium at the Tyumen summer biathlon competition. Her sister Vita Semerenko (the bronze medalist in the Sochi sprint) had surgery, but is now back in training. The biggest thing holding the twins and their Olympic champion relay teammates back this season may be money: the Ukrainian federation is strapped for cash given the civil problems in the country. The federation has been spending its own money for several months, but it is unclear whether it will be paid by the government, and funds may soon run out. The twins also publicly commented that they did not receive the apartments in Kiev promised by the former president to any medal winners in Sochi.
- Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic joined Soukalova as a podium presence last season. She won the sprint at Czech national championships this summer. In the off-season, she has proved to be more focused than Soukalova; will that continue when racing really begins?
The biathlon world will also feel the absence of German veteran Andrea Henkel, who retired at the end of last season after over a decade at the top of the sport.
- Selina Gasparin became the first Swiss biathlete to ever win a World Cup when she took top honors in the Hochfilzen sprint last season. Then she earned silver in the individual in Sochi – another Swiss first. Gasparin just announced that she’ll sit out the season because she is pregnant: she married Russian skier Ilia Chernousov this summer.
- Russian veteran Olga Zaitseva has been fending off implications that she should retire. Most recently, a sports club announced that she had joined their coaching staff – but Zaitseva herself denied it, saying that she is still an active athlete and couldn’t possibly also coach.
Miriam Gossner of Germany sat out most of last season after being unable to recover from a bad accident in time for the Olympics. A top competitor the previous season, she’s back now – but just suffered a concussion in a rollerski crash, which offered a further setback to her training. Nevertheless, she will likely be a presence on the World Cup again this season – but will the dramatic shooting improvements that allowed her to capture her first podiums remain, or has she regressed to her formerly erratic shooting?
Marie Dorin Habert of France missed part of last season with a foot injury, but came back strong with a podium in the final World Cup weekend in Oslo. This year will also be a bit unusual for her: she just gave birth to a daughter, Adele. However, Dorin Habert has trained through her pregnancy and made waves when photos of her rollerskiing with a very large belly surfaced from a French team training camp. She may return to competition at the end of the season.
Ann Kristin Flatland of Norway retired, as did Marie Laure Brunet of France.