Otepää 2021-2022 Weekend Recap

This week the IBU World Cup made its debut performance in Estonia! Before we even touch on the racing I just want to say that the crowd was excellent. They were excited and loud the entire weekend. There was support for so many different nations and they clearly loved being able to cheer for their Estonian athletes. I know that Otepää is currently listed as a host in 2026 and I hope it can become a semi regular stop on the World Cup schedule. The athletes seemed to enjoy the easier shooting conditions as well as! Thanks to all of the men and women from Otepää who made this such an enjoyable weekend of racing! Okay, now let’s get to it!

Best Overall Men’s Performance: Vetle Sjästad Christiansen – While he might be lost a bit in the admiration for Quinton Fillon Maillet’s phenomenal season it’s important to recognize how great of a season Vetle Sjästad Christiansen is having. He came into this season with just 1 career win and a prior best end of season overall ranking of 10th. Well this season he’s added 2 more wins including a terrific Mass Start victory this weekend in Otepää. He’s currently ranked 4th in the overall rankings just 2 points back of Samuelsson for the 3rd position. He even has an outside shot to overtake Jacquelin depending on what he can do in his home venue of Oslo next weekend.

This weekend though would be a perfect capstone to his efforts this season. He started out with a 4th place finish in the Sprint race. He had perfect shooting, as did almost the entire field even if he did look a touch slower than the rest of the top competitors. No worries though as he came out in the Mass Start and was just plain tougher than everybody else. Through both prone shootings there were still 11 men a perfect 10/10. After pulling away just a touch after several other top competitors had misses in the 3rd shooting QFM, Jacquelin, and Bakken all were within 15 seconds of Christiansen entering the range for the last time. Christiansen showed off what is becoming my favorite part about him, his utter fearlessness. Pressure doesn’t seem to affect him at all. In recent weeks he’s had perfect shootings in the final shoot to seal 2 Norwegian relays and now his own Mass Start.

When you put that together with another Norwegian mixed relay victory, paired with Bakken, Eckhoff, and Tandrevold Christiansen had an all around great weekend. Team Norway lead from the start in this race giving Christiansen a fairly stress free 2nd leg but he still only had 1 extra shot and handed off to Eckhoff with a solid 22 second advantage. That as much as anything is Vetle Sjästad Christiansen. He’s not as flashy as JT Boe, or even Lægreid when he’s at his best, but he just goes out there and does the job. And this season he’s better than almost anybody else at doing that job.

Best Overall Women’s Performance: Elvira Öberg and Denise Herrmann – I don’t think there is any way to say one of these women was better than the other but I give the edge to Elvira Öberg based on the strength of her terrific Mass Start when. I didn’t want to ignore Herrmann’s incredible consistency though, adding a 4th and a 2nd to what is turning into one of the best stretches of her career.

Elvira Öberg had a very good return to Otepä. It’s been much talked about but it’s worth reiterating because its such a good story: Otepää is the venue where she made her Juniors debut back in 2018. It’s only been 4 years but her rocket ship of a career has taken her straight to the top. Not of Juniors, or the IBU Cup, or even of the Under 25 competition, but to the top of World Cup biathlon racing. Sure she’s not number 1 overall but when you make your short list of best active women in biathlon she’s on it.

Otepää was a terrific example of all of the growth Elvira Öberg has had over the last few years. She started out 8th in the Sprint with 2 misses and finishing 33 seconds back of Julia Simon. Then came her beautiful win in the Mass Start. We all have given ample love to Elvira Öberg for her phenomenal speed, but we may have ignored her mental strength. One of the reasons she’s as good as any woman in biathlon is that she works and works and works. You can even see that in a race. If she has 2 misses in a Sprint she doesn’t let that get her down, she just goes all out. If she has a miss or two in a Pursuit race, she attacks the next lap even harder.

As she gets older this is going to make her even more dangerous in Mass Starts. We can boil this particular race down to just one particular moment. In the final shooting, which used to be her big problem by the way, she came onto the range within 10 seconds of the lead and in a large group including Marte Røiseland, Vanessa Voigt, Linn Persson and Denise Herrmann. Elvira not only went clean but got off the range just a few seconds ahead of the chase group of Herrmann, Røiseland, Persson, and Preuss. Those are some very strong women, and Elvira Öberg had just 4 seconds advantage starting the last lap. She never looked back, she kept her head down and pulled away for the win. Just a phenomenal moment.

I also want to take a moment and give some credit to Denise Herrmann for continuing her terrific finish to the season. She added another two top 5’s this weekend finishing 4th in the Spring and 2nd in the Mass Start. This is now two wins and five top 5’s since the start of the Olympic Games for the 33 year old German. She’s always been fast, being in the top 10 for ski rank for most of the season but over that stretch has been consistently top 5 or even top 3. She’s also had some incredible shooting with four instances of 90% or better shooting in that span. Even with that stretch she’s still shooting just 82% for the season which tells you how rough it was previously. She’s also climbed all the way to 11th in the overall standings with a good shot at finishing in the top 10 after next weekend!

Best Young Men’s Performance: Sivert Bakken – The Norwegian World Cup team is so good and so deep. If I were to rank the men on the team right now Bakken would probably be #5. He is currently in the top 10 of the overall rankings and spoiler alert, he’ll be in my Power Rankings coming out later this week.

So how did he get this particular prestigious award of Best Young Men’s Performance for the 2nd week in a row? Primarily it was his 3rd place finish in the Mass Start. This was a big boy race and the 23 year old was ready for it. I’ve already recounted how the race developed while discussing Christiansen so I won’t do that again. But it is worth noting that he stood right next to the best biathlete in the world this season and went 5/5 in crunch time to give himself a chance at a podium. Lukas Hofer and Emilien Jacquelin were there and ready to pounce but it was those two experienced men who missed and not Bakken. He followed up his first of what I’m positive will be many podiums with an opening leg in the Mixed Relay that gave Norway a lead they never gave up. Now he gets the chance to race on home snow. Hopefully he goes out and has fun!

Best Young Women’s Performance: Vanessa Voigt – To be honest I would have listened to anybody that argued that Voigt should win the performance of the week. There was a brief moment when it looked like she might win her first career race in the Sprint on Thursday. She of course ended up 2nd to once again set a career best finish. At this point it is just a matter of time before she gets that win.

She had a perfect shooting weekend going 30/30 which is almost not surprising at this point. The trick for her is going to be holding on to that shooting touch as she works to gain more speed. So far she’s been able to do that. Over the last several weeks her ski ranks have slowly been climbing. This weekend she was 9th and 12th in course time for the two solo races. One of the best indicators of her speed potential is looking at her last lap speed which always seems to be one of her best laps of any race. Part of that is fresher legs but part of it is her strength. Just look at the Olympic Individual race, the hardest race of the season and she had the 5th best course time.

This is not to take anything away from Elvira Öberg but when I make my most improved list in a few weeks it’s going to be hard to keep Vanessa Voigt out of the #1 spot. She’s going to be a real powerhouse on the World Cup for years to come. Biathlon is in a great spot right now!

Best Men’s Race: Mass Start – I’ve already discussed the Men’s Mass Start in pretty deep detail so to keep from boring you I will try not to do that again. But take a look at that picture. That was a shot from the last shooting of the race. Isn’t that exactly what you want a Mass Start to look like? You have six men on the range potentially with a chance to take the win or fight for the podium. In that mix you have Quinton Fillon Maillet who is the undisputed best in the world this season. Emilien Jacquelin who is the mercurial talent with potential to win any race or finish in 68th. Vetle Sjästad Christiansen, the veteran having a career year and showing his mettle. Lukas Hofer who is climbing back into the upper echelons of biathlon after a rough start to the season. You have the young talent Sivert Bakken coming into his own. And the veteran Frenchman Guigonnat who at least 1-2 times per year gets himself into the mix. It was truly a race that never felt like it was over or safe for anybody!

Best Women’s Race: Mass Start: Look at what I just wrote about the Men’s Mass Start and that’s basically the same thing we have in the Women’s Mass start except it was even closer on the last lap. There was a bit of separation on lap 4 as Franziska Preuss, who was perfect on the day to that point, pulled away a touch. She was in position so that a clean shooting, or maybe even 1 miss, would have put her in position for an exclamation point to end her season. Unfortunately she had the same problem that affected her the first 3 weeks of the season, the late miss taking her off the podium. As it was though she finished 5th which continues to show her progress back to the top ranks.

The race came down to Elvira Öberg shooting clean just a touch faster than Herrmann, Røiseland, and Persson. She got off the range a couple of seconds ahead of them. You can see what I thought was the key moment of the race below.

Here Røiseland, Persson, and Herrmann have a chance to catch Elvira. They are on a slight climb and she is just steps ahead of them. But Elvira put her head down and powered away. She opened the lead slightly on the climb and then ran away from the chasers. It was such a strong and impressive performance. It’s not just Elvira’s speed that is scary it’s that mental and strength and the ability to dig deep when she needs to. And this is not to take anything away from Røiseland who has been the best woman start to finish this season. She is an absolutely deserving champion. This was just a terrific race she came out on the wrong end of.

Collision Saturday

The Women’s Mass Start was also an absolute train wreck and I mean this almost literally. At varying times we had reports of what seemed like 4 crashes on the course. It turns out there were only two. Tandrevold and Jislova went down while they were on a downhill turn but both got up just fine. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Julia Simon. Simon said after the race that Deedra Irwin accidentally stepped on her ski. The result for Simon was a twisted knee and a “pop.” Later this was clarified to be a sprained knee (for anybody that cares any ligament tear is classified as a “sprain”) but it appears to be mild in nature as she is listed as a starter for next week in Oslo. Thank goodness!

Vytautus Strolia:

If you were looking for more reasons to cheer for Vytautus Strolia you got them this weekend. The Lithuanian man, who has been having a career year having had 6 of his 7 best ever races this year, thus far has been most well known for picking up Anton Smolski’s ski and handing it back to him after Smolski stepped out of it during the Mass Start in Antholz. During the finish of what was a disappointing Mass Start for Strolia, he finished 30th of 30, he collected a set of three flags to wave as he came down the finishing stretch. There was a Lithuanian flag, his home being one of the close neighbors of Estonia, an Estonian flag for the home crowd, and a Ukranian flag. As he came down the finishing stretch he waved at the crowd, thanked them with a bow, and then continued to thank the crowd in the finishing zone. He just seems like a very good guy. Oh, and his 6th place finish in the Sprint was his 3rd best finish ever.

Return of Ukraine:

This week we saw the return of Ukraine to the IBU World Cup, although maybe not how we would like to see it. Olena and Yuliia Horodna are two young sisters from Ukraine who compete in biathlon. Yuliia is 20 with just 4 career IBU Cup races and Olena is 17 with no prior competition history. They were outside of Ukraine when the war started and have been supported by the Czech Biathlon team during this time. They were entered into the Sprint race this weekend and received enormous cheers from the Estonian crowd. This is a case of the finishes don’t matter. Just being out there and competing was all that mattered. I’m glad they did it.

Magdelena Gwizdon:

I apologize to Ms. Gwizdon for the terrible picture but I really wanted to celebrated her in a small way. She is 42 years young and just competed once again on the World Cup. After her race she was given a bouquet of flowers to celebrate this accomplishment. I joked on Twitter that she laughs at Simon Eder for retiring while he is still young at age 39. This was just really neat to see. In case you’re wondering she had 3 misses and finished 66th, one place behind Lisa Vittozzi.

Personal High Finishes: This is already getting pretty lengthy so this is just a sampling of some of the really good personal finishes we saw this weekend:

Vanessa Voigt – I already mentioned Vanessa Voigt but its worth mentioning again. 2nd place is really really good. Just a matter of time until we see her take the final step to the top of the podium!

Elisa Gasparin – She ended up 15th in the Sprint which isn’t close to her career best of 8th place. However prior to that 15th her best this season was 40th so this was definitely a race worth mentioning. It was also her best finish in the last 3 years. So way to go!

Karoline Knotten – Competing as a Norwegian can sometimes be a double edged sword. The competition is so deep that sometimes when you might be a top 2 athlete in another country you’re just the 5th best in Norway. On the other hand you also get the support that comes with racing for Norway. That’s a bit where Knotten falls. This weekend though she was the best for one day when she finished 3rd in the Sprint. This tied her career best she first set at the beginning of last season. I’ll be cheering for her to do even better next season!

Sivert Bakken – Of course, like with Voigt we’ve already mentioned Bakken. Also like with Voigt when you’re 23 and just got onto the podium you should be mentioned again. And again as with Voigt it feels like just a matter of time before he wins. Norway is so deep and young!

Deedra Irwin – Okay this one is cheating a little bit. Irwin did have a World Cup career best. She finished 7th in the Olympics in the Individual but her 14th in the Sprint was her World Cup best ever finish this weekend. She also got into her first Mass Start! While she is 29 she’s a recent convert to the sport. I think we may see even better from her next season!

Slovakia – No picture for this one unfortunately but Team Slovakia finished 6th in the Mixed Relay. This was their best finish since finishing 6th in the Women’s Relay at the 2019 World Championships. They also finished 6th in the Ruhpolding Women’s Relay and 5th in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics Women’s Relay.

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