If you've ever watched an Olympic biathlon competition, you'd know that the culmination of any race takes place at the shooting range. As an athlete prepares to fire, cameras often zoom in on the coaches, their nervous ticks portraying biathlon drama like nothing else. Some clench their fists after a victorious five-out-of-five result, some perform a dramatic face palm if things go badly. A popular person for that camera zoom is Ricco Gross, the legendary athlete-turned-coach.
The former biathlete from Germany – who now wears an Austrian uniform – is today's focus of The Team Behind the Team, which unveils the behind-the-scenes preparations for Beijing 2022 and the role of backroom staff in Olympic success.
The last piece showcased Canadian short track technician Laurent Daignault’s love affair with blades. This week moves to biathlon and its challenge to win the hearts of the alpine-skiing-obsessed Austrian nation.
How it all started
Gross has been in biathlon for more than 40 years. Born in what was then East Germany, he first started with cross-country skiing. One day, biathlon coach Jorg-Peter Deckert visited the team and asked if anybody wanted to try shooting. Gross switched to the new sport and never looked back, describing taking up the shooting aspect as, “a beautiful experience, it was really exciting”.
Gross admits that his early athletic career was just a series of “only bad competitions” with his sole medal chances in the relay. The first success for him came at the age of 18, when he won a medal at his first Junior World Championships. Gross worked with renowned coach Klaus Siebert who had a profound impact on him as a young athlete.
“He was more than a coach. When you are young, you want to have a life outside of sport, go to a disco, for example. If someone reported to him [Klaus Siebert] that an athlete was coming late to the base, he was sure it was Ricco. He was like a father, always helping me in these stupid situations.”
Both coaches, Deckert and Siebert, made Gross an exceptional athlete who would go on to make history as the only biathlete to win four Olympic relay titles, even when up against such legends as Norway’s Ole Einar Björndalen or France’s Raphaël Poirée.
Upon retiring from his athletic career, Gross put his rifle and skis aside and went back to school. He understood the importance of theoretical knowledge in coaching and joined an academic coaching programme in Cologne.
It is this theoretical knowledge plus his experience as an athlete that makes coach Gross stand out from the crowd.
“I know what the athlete feels during the last five shots in important competitions. I know how the athlete feels at the beginning of the race if he hears on the first split time that he is 15 seconds behind the leader.”
Before PyeongChang 2018, Gross decided to take his successful formula abroad: he first worked as the Head Coach for the ROC team, then as a coach for the men’s national team in Austria. The four-time Olympic champion approached his international coaching work as a learning experience.
“Never think too much about the new situation. Just do it. If you have the chance to work for another country, learn. Not the language, but how it works.”
Gross says of his mission as a coach: “My goal is to help an athlete improve, step by step. Just look at the shooting times of Simon Eder. He was really fast before. He is a little slower now, but much safer.”
The key to his coaching success? Gross focuses on trust in the athlete-coach relationship. “The most important (thing) is that your athletes trust you. You are responsible for a training plan for a year, from month to month to month, from week to week. You have to consider how athletes are feeling, if they are tired or not. Sometimes there are difficult situations in training. If I say that a certain hard training is important to the result, they follow my word.”
Mental preparation key in Beijing
Aside from the daily coaching routine, Gross spends a lot of time on his athletes’ mental preparation.
“We go through different scenarios with athletes and come up with the best solutions: shooting fast or being a bit safer, start a strong finish not in the last 200m, but 2km before.”
This process seems more important than ever, with a lot of uncertain and unfamiliar details about the Beijing track.
“There was no World Cup in Beijing last year, so it’s a completely new situation for everybody. Nobody knows the tracks or the shooting range. We saw a few videos, but it’s not the same.”
Why a biathlon medal is important for Austria
It does not come as a surprise that the Olympic pressure on Team Austria, a nation obsessed with winter sports, is high. Ever since Gross joined the team in 2018, Austrian athletes have added a new World Championships medal to their collection each season. Julian Eberhard won a bronze in the mass start in the 15km in 2019, Dominik Landertinger also came third in the men's individual 20km in 2020, and the team came second in the mixed relay in 2021.
The latter, a relatively recent discipline on the Olympic biathlon programme, is the event Austrians are pinning their hopes of an Olympic medal on.
“In biathlon we have an interesting competition format – a mixed relay where men and women fight together," says Gross. "Last season it was our big success, with a medal in Pokljuka (in Slovenia) in this discipline. Everybody sees there is a big chance for us here, and we want this medal.”
Gross also talked about Austria's individual medal chances.
“We have Julian Eberhard, one of the fastest skiers in the World Cup circuit. If he hits the targets, there is a big chance for him. There is a younger biathlete Felix Leitner, who had his first podium last season. For our 'oldie' Simon Eder a podium is possible in all competitions if he shoots clean. We found our fourth athlete for the relay last season, David Komatz. He is a very focused athlete with a lot of potential.”
When asked how it feels to be going to Olympics with the word “coach” on his accreditation, watching others compete instead of taking part himself, Gross gives an honest reply.
“When I competed, it was just me winning or losing. Now, if we win, we win together. If we lose, we do it together too.”
For a country so focused and invested in alpine skiing, winning a medal (or more) in biathlon is an important way to bring attention to the sport. And if in Beijing Team Austria comes close to the level of performance their mentor used to thrill everyone with back in the day, biathlon has a real shot at winning over the nation’s hearts.