Having started her international sporting career as a cross-country skier, Kati Wilhelm made a hugely successful switch to biathlon, becoming the sport’s most decorated female Olympian of all time.
Wilhelm earned the nickname of Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood) thanks to her distinctive red hair and the trademark red cap she wore when racing. Allied to her impressive record as the most successful female biathlete in Olympic history, her character and ready smile made her a familiar presence on magazine covers and TV programmes across Germany, and one of the country’s most popular sporting figures. She brought an end to her 12-year career at the top in 2010 and devoted her energies to studying international business and working as a consultant for the public broadcaster ARD.
Born in Schmalkalden, Thuringia, Wilhelm took up cross-country skiing as a young girl. At the age of 21 she made the Germany team for the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, finishing 26th in the 15km classic event, 32nd in the pursuit, 16th in the 30km freestyle and fifth in the 4x5km relay. The following year she took the advice of her older sister, who told her: “You should try biathlon. You’d be unbeatable at that.” With her powerful skiing allied to the shooting ability she had acquired as a sergeant in the German armed forces, Wilhelm seemed to be tailor-made for the sport. She scored her first international podium finish at the European Championships at Zakopane on 27 January 2000, coming third in the sprint, and won the first of her five world titles in the same event at Pokljuka the following year. “I’ve always wanted to be the best,” she once said. “The first time I climbed onto the podium I realised I could do it and I wanted more. I always wanted more, all the time.”
Wilhelm collected more medals than any other female biathlete at Salt Lake City 2002, winning gold in the 7.5km sprint and silver in the 10km pursuit, while helping Germany to victory in the 4x5km relay. She added to her Olympic medal haul four years later in Turin, where she was Germany’s flag bearer, coming home more than a minute ahead of the field to win the 10km pursuit, and finishing second in the 12.5km mass start and the 4x5km relay to become the most successful female biathlete in Olympic history. After taking her medal tally to seven with a bronze in the relay at Vancouver 2010, she decided to take her bow.
In addition to her three Olympic gold medals and seven overall, she also won 13 world championship medals (five golds, four silvers and four bronzes), notched up 69 World Cup podium finishes (including 21 wins) and picked up a crystal globe in 2005/06, a season that ended with her being named Athlete of the Year by the International Biathlon Union, as well as German Sportswoman of the Year. After walking away with three medals from Turin 2006, she said: “This is perhaps the first time that I’ve realised I made the right decision in switching from cross-country to the biathlon.”
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