Stories that Defined the Season Part 2

Okay the first piece Dominance New and Old was originally supposed to be the part of this piece. Then it got longer, and longer, and longer until suddenly it was an entirely different piece altogether. We are not doing that again! We’ll hit the rest of these Stories that Defined the Season pretty quickly. Well as quickly as I ever do I guess. Let’s get to it!

2.Elvira Öberg’s Emergence

Throughout her career Elvira Öberg has raced in her older sister’s shadow. Last season she started to show some early signs of how good she can be. In the first few weeks of the 2020-2021 season she showed off some impressive speed before fading backward. As this season started there were stories of her finding even more speed. But still when the season previews were written (don’t look here I didn’t write a single one!) Hanna Öberg was still the favored sister in every one. Well after this season it’s pretty clear that’s not the case anymore. (@Titunia1016 already did several Twitter threads on Elvira Öberg’s progress during her career so if you want a quick career overview I encourage you to look there!)

Elvira Öberg’s season started off immediately showing that those rumors of improved speed were 100% true. In the season opening Individual race she was the fastest on the course…by 39.6 seconds. From the very first race of the season it was like she had rockets attached to her skis. In that race the time gap from her to Eckhoff (2nd fastest) was the same as from Eckhoff to the winner of the race Marketa Davidova (8th fastest).

She held the top spot in the speed standings for each of the first three consecutive races before being knocked from her perch. The only woman who beat her that day, Justine Braisaz-Bouchet, would go on to be the only woman who could challenge Elvira Öberg all season long. It would take until the 11th race of the season, when she was beginning her Olympics buildup, for Elvira to fall out of the top 5 for course time in a single race. In all Öberg would go on to finish as the fastest woman on the day five times this past season. Counting the Olympics she was top 5 in course time 17 times in 26 races. At the end of the season by nearly any speed ranking she was 2nd to only the aforementioned Braisaz-Bouchet who at times had simply astounding ski form.

It wasn’t just her speed though. Elvira proved that she is more than fast, she is good. Her shooting absolutely started out slowly. It took until the 6th race of the season for her to shoot over 80%, an early season stretch that saw her shoot below 80% twice. However after that point of the season things turned around. Over the final 19 races of the season, again including the Olympics, she shot above 85% 12 times. She only hit less than 80% of the targets one time over that final length of the season.

When you look at her season’s shooting statistics they are revealing. She finished the season ranked 57th in total hit percentage of all women who competed in at least one World Cup race. For context, others within five places of her above or below include Anais Chevalier-Bouchet and Deedra Irwin. She ended up seven spots above Davidova and eight above Wierer. But what I find the most fascinating is her standing shooting. She ended the year at 87.89% standing vs. 82.63% prone. In the end, from the standing position she finished within 1% of Marte Røiseland, and finished ahead of Lisa Hauser. That’s some impressive company.

Why I focused on the standing shooting was because it appeared, at least as the season went on, that Elvira Öberg became more and more confident in her shooting. When a race was on the line she became one of the better shooters at the end. This is subjective, and I will readily admit my memory may be completely biased by looking at the numbers, but didn’t it feel that if Elvira shot herself out of a race it was early? If she had a lead late I don’t remember her losing it. Please correct me if I’m wrong! But this felt especially true with her Mass Start wins. The Swedish team was so confident they put her as the anchor leg!

Elvira Öberg ended the season with three wins, 10 podiums, three Olympic medals and was 2nd place in the Women’s Overall standings. But that doesn’t begin to explain why she was such a major story this season. We watched her grow up and come into her own as a star of the sport. Not a future star, but a current star. I’ve just said all that and you know what I haven’t mentioned one time? She started the season at just 22 years old. I can’t wait to see what the next seasons bring for her!

3. Olympic Season Planning

From the very first week of the season the varying master plans undertaken by the major nations has defined the season almost as much as anything else. We talked about this at length on the Penalty Loop podcast particularly in the episodes during and immediately after the Olympics. The reason being was that the Olympics themselves were the cause for these varying plans. The plans broke down as follows:

Norway aka The Olympics is All That Matters: Heavy off season training leading to less than expected performances in the first trimester. Use the second trimester for buildup including a weekend of break. Smash the Olympics and scoop up medals. See what comes up at the end. Sacrifice the Crystal Globe races (unless your name is Marte Olsbu Røiseland).

Sweden aka The Double Peak: Team Sweden came into the season with the audacious plan for a double peak. They came into the season ready to dominate right away. The plan then was for a dip following the holiday break. The second trimester would even include a weekend off just like the Norwegians plan. Prepare again for an Olympic peak even higher than the early season peak. Then hang on for the rest of the season.

France aka Every Race Matters Equally but the Olympics More: Team France came into the season with a plan to race every single weekend from Ostersund through Oslo. The idea being if you’re good enough you should be able to compete all season long. If you are able to peak in the Olympics all the better but you shouldn’t need to because you’re already the best. Then you compete as well as you can for the globes as well.

From the beginning of the season it was immediately visible how the different plans were working out. You can also check out the evidence as noted by RJ Weise of @biathlonanalyt1 where he breaks down who performed best per trimester. So let’s take a trimester by trimester view.

Trimester 1 Rankings:
1. France/Sweden
3. Norway

Right away the Norwegians all almost to a person were slower than they had been the previous season. There were some individuals who performed well including Marte Røiseland who steadily rose to the yellow jersey. Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen also briefly wore the yellow jersey as well. The rest of the squad looked likely almost entirely different athletes.

In extreme contrast the Swedish team came into the season looking exceptionally strong. We’ve already discussed Elvira Öberg at length and of course she came into the season faster than any other woman in biathlon. Meanwhile Hanna Öberg and Sebastian Samuelsson were on top form, achieving their only wins of the season during the opening weeks. Samuelsson even wore the yellow jersey briefly. By the end of the first trimester the Swedes were overall looking very strong.

The French were slow and steady. Emilien Jacquelin was having some of his best races of his career. He had a steady rise to the top and after winning the Mass Start race in Annecy he grabbed the lead in the Overall race heading into the holiday break. Who did he take the yellow jersey from? From Quinton Fillon Maillet who was also steadily rising through the early season, winning the first of his many many victories. We also saw Anais Chevalier-Bouchet showing some early decent form and Julia Simon having a terrific weekend in Annecy.

Trimester 2 Rankings:
1. France
2. Norway
3. Sweden

In the 2nd trimester the Norwegian team had some mixed results. With Sturla Laegreid, Tarjei Bø, and of course Marte Røiseland the Norwegians were of course starting to look better. Tarjei Bø and Sturla Laegreid showed the best ski speed of the season by far. Marte Røiseland hit her stride and built up a series of victories that would put her in the lead of the Overall Crystal Globe race for the rest of the season. On the other side JT Bø in Oberhof looked completely lost before showing tantalizing signs in Antholz. Tiril Eckhoff still didn’t look right. And we weren’t seeing any great strides from Tandrevold or Lien.

The Swedes meanwhile all looked decidedly slower and less sharp than they had been in the first trimester. This was of course no cause for worry, it was part of the plan. They had all undergone heavy training late in the holiday break and were using second trimester for continued training and building towards the Olympics. It was the intention to put less emphasis on these races and that was exactly the outcome. Samuelsson, Elvira and Hanna Öberg, and the rest all just looked a little fatigued.

The French though had a very good trimester. Quinton Fillon Maillet continued his march toward the overall title with several more victories. He took over the yellow jersey in Ruhpolding and would never give it up. Julia Simon had one of the most consistent stretches of her career which saw her march right up the world rankings. And Justine Braisaz-Bouchet, the same including a win in the Individual in Antholz. The only rough spot for the French team was Emilien Jaquelin who was openly struggling with mental health which affected his performance on the course.

The Olympics Rankings:
1. Norway
2. France
3. Sweden

At the Olympics its hard to say that Norway’s plan didn’t work. JT Bø and Marte Røiseland each individually won 5 medals. Tarjei Bø and Tiril Eckhoff each won 3 medals. The Norwegian teams won the Mixed Relay and the Men’s Relay. In total the Norwegians won 14 medals, by far the most of any nation at the Olympics.

The Swedes had a mixed result. Elvira Öberg was the obvious shining light, winning 3 total medals. The Swedish women won the Women’s Relay in very strong fashion. And Martin Ponsiluoma was quite strong winning a bronze in the Mass Start.

The French also had a very solid Olympics. Quinton Fillon Maillet carried the flag proudly winning 5 total medals. The French also won the silver medal in the Men’s Relay and the Mixed Relay. For the women Justine Braisaz-Bouchet had a tremendous victory in the Women’s Mass Start while Anais Chevalier-Bouchet won a silver medal in the Individual.

So who planned best? Well that all depends on what you desire most. Clearly Norway had an incredible peak for the Olympics. They were by far the fastest team there. France also competed well at the Olympics. Both Norway and France captured a crystal globe in the Overall Rankings as well. Meanwhile Sweden had a less than anticipated performance at the Olympics but Elvira Öberg still finished 2nd in the Overall while they had terrific growth from Linn Persson and have strong potential for the future. Regardless, the debate about the best plan for the season dominated nearly the entire season.

4. Big Names Missing

Every season there will be some turn over in the top 10 of the overall standings. This can happen or many many reasons. Some athletes have injuries or illness, some had career years they weren’t able to repeat, and some are just in the latter parts of their careers. This season there were more members of those top 10 lists taking a step backward than any season I can remember recently.

Coming into the season you would have expected any of the following to be major players in the season: JT Bø, Sturla Laegreid, Johannes Dale, and Lukas Hofer on the men’s side and Tiril Eckhoff, Ingrid Tandrevold, Franziska Preuss, and Dorothea Wierer on the women’s side. That’s four members of the top 8 for both the men and the women.

Each of those men and women were involved throughout the season last year. Of course Bø and Laegreid had their epic battle for the Overall Crystal Globe. Of course Tiril Eckhoff was a dominant force last year. The rest were all very good throughout the season, frequently contesting for podiums and wins. This season though they just weren’t as much a part of the story.

Now of course you look at those names and say “You’re crazy! JT Bø won a ton of medals and Laegreid was 2nd in the overall standings! Eckhoff had 3 late season wins and Dorothea Wierer had a great few weeks in the middle of the season!”

Think back on the season though. For great stretches of the season, except for very brief periods of time, the story about these men and women was “why aren’t they doing better?” Why is JT Bø so slow? What happened to Laegreid’s shooting? Is this really the same Eckhoff? Dale just disappeared altogether, relegated to the IBU Cup for most of the season. Preuss was cursed with terrible luck of injuries and illness. Hofer struggled to find his form all season.

Thankfully most of them did have their moments in the sun. Some were exceptionally bright like JT Bø’s tremendous Olympics. Unfortunately though, the story for most of this season was their absence from main stage.

5. Fans and Family

I’ve mentioned this a few dozen times this season but multiple times throughout the year we saw prime examples of #BiathlonFamily. There was Lesser letting Latypov use his apartment and exercise equipment while on COVID quarantine. Strolia handing Smolski his ski back mid race. The Czech physio getting Røiseland’s gun sight back to her at the Olympics. And countless times in which athletes from competing countries cheered for and congratulated each other with genuine and warm congratulations.

That extended to the fans as well. Maybe I was just more aware of it because of the lack of fans all of last season and for over half of this season. Whenever we saw fans though, they seemed to be even more excited and happy than ever to be there. Every single stop along the way, the fans were genuinely overjoyed about being there and cheering on the athletes. They cheered on athletes from every single team no matter if they were finishing on the podium or 35th. Of course they cheered extra hard for their home athletes but everybody received the warm embrace of the crowd.

Thank you to all of the fans who were able to get to the events this season and make the races even more spectacular. Thank you to all of the fans online who were involved in the discussion. I’ve loved it!

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