Biathlon is a combination of cross-country skiing and shooting that brings strength and precision together. But how does it feel to approach your shooting targets as your heart pounds in your chest and you sense the crowd watching your every move?
To answer these and many other questions, we talked to a true biathlon legend: Anastasiya Kuzmina, the first biathlete to win gold at three consecutive Olympic Games (Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014 and Pyeongchang 2018).
In an interview with Olympics.com, the Slovak revealed the secrets of the sport and identified the favorites to watch in the competition at Beijing 2022. Below is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
OC (Olympics.com): How did you fall in love with biathlon? What made you want to become a professional athlete?
Anastasiya Kuzmina (AK): It’s no secret that biathlon, at first, was not the number one sport in my life; I started with cross-country skiing and then switched to biathlon. My parents were athletes and they played a big role in me following in their footsteps. When the shooting component of the sport was added to my training regimen, everyone expected that once I learned how to shoot, I would become a champion. But the truth is, shooting did not come easy to me. Even though I had my first success in biathlon when I was 15, people who watched me throughout my career might have noticed that I struggled with my shooting right up until the end of my career.
OC: Are you still involved with biathlon after your retirement? Do you still ski and shoot? How is your schedule different from when you were active?
AK: I always thought it would be a waste to retire and leave sports without passing down my knowledge; I wanted to transition from an active athlete to a player-coach position. Now I only practice biathlon when I am a coaching consultant for other athletes. There is a Kuzmina team of 10 athletes who expressed their interest to train under my guidance with the help of my husband.
Sometimes I am invited as an expert to talk about women in sports on Slovakian TV. I am also collaborating with the Slovakian Olympic Committee on projects that promote youth sport participation. I give talks at schools, bring my medals and chat with students about my sports career.
OC: If you had to explain biathlon to someone in a few words, what would you say?
AK: If I were to avoid the textbook definition of biathlon being a combination of cross-country skiing and shooting, I’d say that biathlon is a sport that brings together skiing with a bunch of kilograms on your back and shooting at a very high pulse at the shooting range under constantly changing [weather] conditions.
Biathlon in one minute
- The basics: Biathlon is a sport that combines the endurance of free-technique cross-country skiing with precision small-bore rifle marksmanship. The combination of two very contradictory disciplines – skiing and shooting – in the same competition poses a very demanding challenge for any athlete. When athletes arrive at the shooting range, they have to shoot at very small targets, with a racing heartbeat and heaving chest because the clock is running even while they are shooting, and a missed target results in a penalty. There are two shooting positions, prone and standing, which are done either alternately or consecutively, depending on the competition. Penalties are imposed for missed targets (Source: IBU Biathlon Guide).
- Olympic history: Biathlon has been a regular feature at the Olympics since 1960 with its debut in the men’s 20km individual competition at Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, USA. The first women’s competitions took place at Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France in 1992.
- Olympic medal leaders (nations): Germany with 52 medals (doesn’t come as a surprise that this country is where biathlon is most popular), followed by 41 medals by Norway and 23 medals by Russia (if we do not count USSR medals).
- Athlete Olympic medal leaders: Biathlon legend Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen’s eight gold medals make him the most successful male athlete in Winter Olympic history. The most decorated female Olympic athlete is Germany's Uschi Disl, who won nine medals (two of them gold).
OC: What do you love most about biathlon and what is the most challenging part of it?
AK: Biathlon is one of the most dynamic winter sports. Emotions are sometimes so high that you can’t help but hold your breath. The drama remains throughout an entire race from the beginning till the last meters. When you support an athlete, you understand the euphoria when your favourite one closes all five targets - you can’t compare it to anything else.
OC: What are the three most memorable moments of your career?
AK: The first moment was when I finished my career in Russia. You realise that you are 22 years old and you still have the energy to continue your career. But at the same time, you don’t want to leave your baby to go off and compete. The Russian national team already had its big names, and nobody thought I could achieve something with my husband and child. Then an offer came from Slovakia. My husband Daniel Kuzmin quit his professional career as at that time he was still an active cross-country skier representing Israel. He said that one of us had to quit to support the other partner. It was a step towards the unknown.
The second moment was my comeback after giving birth to my daughter Olivia. I had to find the motivation to come back to sports despite already being an Olympic champion.
The third important moment came when I decided to say goodbye to my athletic career. At that point, I had a feeling I already proved everything to everyone three times with my third Olympic gold medal. During the 2018 Olympic season, for the first time in my life, I had the feeling not of skiing, but of flying on the track.
OC: Which Olympic Games are the most meaningful to you?
AK: Participating at the Olympics is the dream for any athlete. First experiences in our lives are exciting, they are the ones we remember the most. First kiss, first love. Out of my three Olympic Games, Vancouver was the most important. I arrived in Vancouver just six weeks after my wrist surgery [OC: Kuzmina fell in a World Cup event in Austria during a World Cup event resulting in a wrist injury]. We were lucky enough to find a doctor in Austria who understood the gravity of the situation and agreed to perform surgery. He was a big fan of biathlon. The doctor told me that in six weeks I can slowly start training. And six weeks later, I won Olympic gold!
At the start line of the sprint event, I told myself, “Nastya, you are always struggling with your shooting. But try to shoot clean today,” and I still finished with a penalty loop! I thought I didn’t succeed but I knew I gave everything I had on the track. I didn't look at the scoreboard when my time came up; while everyone was expecting Magdalena Neuner’s result, I went to a locker room to cool down. Then suddenly everybody came in shouting at the top of their lungs. I couldn’t understand what was happening; whether it was a loss or a win. But when I realized I had won, I was overwhelmed with happiness. When I called my parents from a mini-bus on the way to the hotel, they began shouting with joy so loudly that the bus driver could hear their voices on the phone all the way from the back of the bus!
OC: What can we expect from biathlon at Beijing 2022? Is there a young athlete in biathlon that you think people should keep an eye on?
AK: The Olympics in Beijing will be a very exciting Games to watch, especially women’s biathlon as we will witness a generational change. I am excited to watch Ukraine’s Semerenko sisters compete, as Beijing will most likely be the last Olympics for them. There are some women who have been showing excellent results and were coined as “biathlon queens”, but they still do not have an Olympic medal. One of them is Italy’s Dorothea Wierer. There will be a few Olympic debuts, for example for a young athlete like Hanna Sola from Belarus.
For Sweden’s Hanna Oeberg, Beijing will be a chance to win another medal in an individual event.
And finally, we will probably witness the Boe brothers take their competitiveness and success at the World Cup level to the Olympics. As much as the whole biathlon world and in particular French fans were devastated with Martin Fourcade retiring from biathlon in 2020, another leader emerged right away on the French national team: Emilien Jacquelin.