“I was getting old, and the subject came up again – but I defied the experts and ran on ahead.”
When Ole Einar Bjørndalen decided to push forward with his biathlon career after two tough seasons in 2012 and 2013, it was with a big prizes in his sights: the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia,
There, he won a gold medal in the 10 k sprint to become the oldest Olympic gold medalist, at 40 years old.
But a new and perhaps sweeter prize beckoned: the 2016 World Championships at home in Oslo, Norway. Again, Bjørndalen ignored those calling for him to retire and give younger Norwegian teammates a chance on the World Cup circuit.
Many assumed that after the Oslo races, Bjørndalen – now 42 years old – would finally call it quits. And though he didn’t say that he would for sure retire, he gave hints, for instance telling the IOC that he couldn’t fully fulfill his role on their Athlete Committee until after Oslo because he was busy training to be in his top form. The implication was that after 2016, his duties as an athlete would be lighter.
But in a press conference after winning bronze in the 15 k mass start Oslo, his fourth medal of the Championships, Bjørndalen said that he hadn’t yet decided about retirement and would make an announcement during the spring.
That announcement came on Tuesday, when the star – the winningest biathlete of all time – said that he would continue two more years, to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“I still think that I can perform at the top in a few years,” he said in the press conference. “When I can perform so well with a tough introduction to the season, and the body is responding well, it shows that the difference is small from 25 years ago.”
Bjørndalen has 94 World Cup biathlon victories to his name, plus one in cross-country skiing, and is searching for more. He has won a total of 57 World Championship and Olympic medals, including 28 golds – the last of which was in the men’s relay at 2016 World Championships in Oslo.
“I look forward to embark on a new season,” he continued. “The reason I continue is that I have a huge motivation. I feel as motivated as when I was 20 years old.”
Some changes are on the horizon, however. He has agreed to step down from his position with the International Olympic Committee, for example.
“I must apologize that I have not been done as much as I should have done,” he admitted. “I like to keep on with what I do. I think I can accomplish more in sports than with the IOC right now.”
And the biggest change? Bjørndalen will become a father. He has been in a relationship with Belorussian biathlete Darya Domracheva, although the two have rarely explicitly addressed it in the media; fans instead have gathered the details through media photos.
Domracheva, the 2015 World Cup Total Score winner and a three-time Olympic gold medalist herself, took the 2015-2016 season off due to exhaustion.
Bjørndalen announced that the two are expecting a child in October.
“The decision was taken together with Darya,” he said. “It takes a bit of organizing, but there are some who have done it before us… It is very exciting to be a father. I have great family home and am used to kids… I look forward to it. It is a new value in life. I really appreciate that I get to experience it.”
Bjørndalen has been married once before, to Italian biathlete Nathalie Santer, but the two divorced in 2012 and never had children.
Domracheva also announced her pregnancy on her website on Tuesday.
“Being 30 is the perfect age and the perfect timing to give birth – this fall I will become a mother!” she wrote. “It’s a very welcome and awaited event in my life; needless to say that it’s the most important what is happening with me right now! For that matter I would like to share with my fans the fact that I continue trainings although in a moderate mode of course and under doctor’s supervision; and will try very hard to get back on track next January. I certainly realize that it will not be that easy, but I’m ready to work hard step by step to get myself in great condition and shape as I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed biathlon and competition spirit!”
She has plenty of models to follow: one of her main competitors, Marie Dorin Habert of France, took time off for a baby but returned during the 2014-2015 season and has been extremely successful ever since, including winning multiple World Championship gold medals.
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.