We talked about this a bit on our the Penalty Loop podcast on our Season Review episode but I wanted to break it out a little bit more here. I’ll be honest the plan was to post this immediately after the episode but life happens sometimes. Anyway, here are my thoughts!
A Most Improved biathlete can come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s the type that we normally think of, a decent biathlete making a leap up to the top 5-10 of the standings. More frequently though it’s a little bit different. Sometimes it’s an athlete coming from way off the radar to being a name that you start to recognize. Sometimes it’s a name that you’ve recognized becoming someone who isn’t a total shock to see in the top 10. And sometimes it’s a very good biathlete taking that last, but most difficult, step to the absolute top of the sport. We’ve been fortunate enough to see women at each phase of improvement this season and it’s been one of the most fun parts of this season! Let’s take a look back at a sampling of some of the most improved women.
|Career Best Rank||12|
|Total Career Races||88|
|Key Statistic||Ski Speed Rank: 2|
We’ve talked A LOT about Elvira Öberg this season and this off season, but we would be making a major mistake to not discuss her here. She made what I consider to be the most difficult leap of all this season. She went from being a very solid biathlete to being on of the absolutely top women in biathlon. There is a pretty big group of women who can win a race on any given day. Just this season alone we had 22 different women make a podium. That’s basically one new member of the podium every single week for the season. In order to be one of the best though you can’t just have a handful of podiums, you need to be in contention every single week. That’s the leap Elvira Öberg made this season. So how did she do it? Speed.
When the season started Elvira was on a different planet in terms of ski speed. It just wasn’t even fair. In the first few races she was just absolutely blowing away the competition on the course. In the very first race she was nearly 40 seconds faster than Tiril Eckhoff, the 2nd fastest on the day. That was actually the first time in her young career that she was the fastest woman in a particular race. And it wasn’t just a one off event. She was the fastest woman on the course for the first three straight races!
To be fair, Öberg had a great start to the season last year. In the first trimester of the 2020-2021 season she was one of the fastest women, turning heads as just a 21 year old. However she slowed down as the season went on going from blazing fast to decently fast after the holiday break. By the end of the season she was clearly struggling. However this year, in addition to adding outrageous speed, she also added consistency. For the season she was the fastest woman five different times over the course of the season. She was one of the top 5 fastest 17 times over the season. By any metric throughout the season she was either 1st or 2nd fastest throughout the year.
The combination of top level speed that brought her to the upper echelons of women in terms of speed as well as a new level of consistency, being able to maintain that high levelt for a full season, brought Elvira Öberg into the competition for the Overall Crystal Globe. She didn’t win it this season, but she’s just 23 years old and should have several more seasons of growth. Next season we could be writing this column and include her shooting skills! At this point if you make a list of the top women in biathlon it’s going to include Elvira Öberg.
2. Vanessa Voigt
|Career Best Rank||First career season|
|Total Career Races||36|
|Key Statistic||Overall Hit Rate: 91.75%|
Like Elvira Öberg, Vanessa Voigt is another young woman, who while not quite at the top of the overall standings shows potential to get there. At age 24 she raced her first full season on the World Cup. This season we watched her slowly improve throughout the season, going from a young woman getting her legs underneath her to a woman who was challenging for podiums and even wins.
Voigt got her first top 10 in just her 3rd race of the season. She got her first top 5 when she finished 4th in the Individual at the Olympics. She got her first podium in the Sprint at Otepaa, and without a perfect race from Julia Simon she was would have had her first victory. At this point it appears that her first win is just a matter of time.
So how did Vanessa Voigt find herself in this position? She relied on some incredible shooting. Of those with at least 20 races this season, Voigt had the best overall hit rate of anybody. Hitting a remarkable 91.75% of her targets certainly was a major boost for her this season. She had just 33 misses at 400 targets this season, and was equally good at prone and standing shooting. Shooting like that is a terrific skill to have. In general shooting is a more reliable skill to have than ski speed (nobody tell Lisa Vittozzi). When you look at her shooting the entire shooting she started the season at a high level and it never only got better, even if only a little bit. Shooting is more consistent race to race and that consistency helped her rise to the top 15 of the overall.
She finished the season ranked 13th overall which is very good in her first season on the World Cup. It’s also very similar to where Elvira Oeberg finished the 2020-2021 season. Might we see a leap for Voigt to the top 5 next season? There is evidence to show that her skiing was improving as the season progressed so the probablity of her rising further is high!
3. Jessica Jislova
|Career Best Rank||59|
|Total Career Races||131|
|Key Statistic||Hit Rate Rank: 10th|
Jessica Jislova started the season as a woman that I had only seen a couple of times and I will be honest I had hardly taken note of her. This season she took a big step forward. In terms of what type of dramatic improvement this was, it was the more typical form: she came from the very middle of the pack and moved herself into the top 20. Prior this her best season was finishing 59th which is actually just below the middle of the pack. But last season she was actually a little lower in 68th and scored points in just 5 races.
This season was entirely different. She score point in every race except the season opening Individual race. She marked the 6 best finishes of her career, 8 of her best 9, and an astounding 13 of her top 15 finishes ever in this one season alone. In her entire career she has raced 92 total races and this season accounted for 26 of those races (including the Olympics). This was by far her career year (so far!).
How did she do it? Well she was better in every way imaginable. However the best example of this was in her shooting. This season she ranked 2nd of all of the full time members of the World Cup ranking behind only Vanessa Voigt. Out of every woman who competed in the World Cup she was 10th. She shot 92.5% prone and 89% standing for a tremendous 91% overall. Her season average hit rate rank improved from 45th to 12th.
While shooting was her primary improvement she also showed improved ski speed. Just a basic way of looking at her ski speed is to look at her average course time ranking. It’s basic but it shows you roughly where she is vs. her competition on any given day.
It’s plain to see that this was not only her best shooting season but also her fastest season. She’s a little older than Vanessa Voigt, but the hope for her is exactly the same. She’s already one of the best shooters on the World Cup. If she can maintain that level of shooting (which is a big thing to hope for!) AND also improve her speed just a touch she could move up towards the top 10 of the overall. If she could go from an average course time rank of 35th and move it towards about 20th, which is quite an improvement, she would likely be able to be on the edge of the top 10.
4. Chloe Cheavlier
|Career Best Rank||40|
|Total Career Races||69|
|Key Statistic||Shooting Speed Average Rank: 45th|
26 year old French woman Chloe Chevalier flew quite a bit under the radar this season, likely for many reasons. However, she made one of the biggest jumps in overall ranking of any woman in the World Cup! She certainly wasn’t one of the top women in the world like Elvira Oeberg or Vanessa Voigt. She didn’t make a flashy improvement like Jessica Jislova, or represent an under represented nation like Belgium or the USA. On her own team she was overshadowed by the performances of Justine Braisaz-Bouchet and Julia Simon, who at their peak performances were some of the best biathletes in the world, while Anais Chevalier-Bouchet and the retiring Anais Bescond themselves had several high finishes. Regardless though she deserves to be mentioned!
This year was her 3rd full time season at the highest level of biathlon competition and was easily her best. In her first full season on the World Cup she finished ranked 53rd Overall. She followed up that campaign by landing in the 40th position at the end of last season. This season though she leapt all the way to the 22nd spot. While that still only placed her 5th on the French team it was still a tremendous leap up and a very good finish.
So what’s contributed to this improvement? Well to be fair she improved a little bit in a couple of different areas. Her average course time ranking improved from 26th to 20th. Not huge but certainly a step upward. Her shooting percentage at the end of the season was 81.8% which was improved from last season’s shooting percentage of 78.6% but overall down from her first full season when she shot 85.4%.
Where did she make the biggest leap though? It was actually in her shooting speed. She improved on average 1 second per prone shoot and 3 seconds per standing shoot. Now overall over the course of a race that’s not a lot of absolute time. However, this season she improved from an average shooting speed rank of 63rd up to 45th. That is a substantial improvement.
When you add together her improved time on the range, as well as her mildly improved shooting accuracy this actually improved her overall shooting efficiency fairly significantly. She was already one of the top skiers on the tour so this was really where she needed to make up the most ground. And it sure paid off! She matched her career high finish of 8th place in the 2nd Ostersund Sprint, a mark she has reached each of the last two seasons. In addition to that though she proceeded to record 8 of her 12 best finishes of her career!
She’s on the verge of really making significant improvements. This is why I was so surprised that she raised the prospect of retirement. Of course she should do whatever will bring her the most joy in life. However, if next season she improved her shooting percentage back to her 2019-2020 performance without having any deterioration elsewhere she would easily be a top 15 biathlete and would be a key piece of the French team with Bescond’s retirement. I’m really hoping she comes back and shows off!
5. Lotte Lie
|Career Best Rank||83|
|Total Career Races||54|
|Key Statistic||Ski Rank Average: 43.4|
Lotte Lie holds the distinction of having the most impressive and dramatic rise up the rankings from last season to this one. In the 2020-2021 season she finished 83 in the Overall Rankings. She scored points in just three races. For the then 25 year old it was the best year of her career. Then came this season when she rocketed all the way up to 28th in the Overall rankings, a 55 place improvement. She scored points in all but 15 of the 22 World Cup races and that’s even with taking off the Otepaa weekend.
Lie had a tremendous start to the season rising nearly up to the top 15 after a miraculous first trimester. She peaked with a weekend in Annecy le Grand Bornand which included two 13th place finishes, both tied together for her best finishes ever. After that she fell off quite a bit. However that shouldn’t diminish from the significant improvements she made this season!
Lotte Lie has always been a terrific shooter. In fact this season she had the worst total shooting percentage of her career at 89.1%. That still had her ranked 4th of those with more than 20 races this season behind Voigt, Jislova, and Marte Oslbu Roeiseland. Her shooting percentage was actually up a touch this season but her prone percentage dragged her down. Fingers crossed she gets that back to her normal self next year.
So what was the big improvement she made this season? It was 100% her ski speed. Let’s be honest, Lotte Lie is not a blazing fast skier. However this season she made a huge leap forward by nearly every way of measuring ski speed. Let’s first go back to our old standard: average course time rank which she improved from 72nd to 43rd. Looking at it a little bit differently, her average time behind the leader last season was 2:20. This season she improved that to 1:52 seconds. That may still sound like a long way back, and it is, but she made up nearly 30 seconds. That’s a huge amount of time!
What is the optimistic take away? Well this season she had her 14 (14!) best finishes of her career. Now she’s only 26 years old and is just entering the prime of her career. She’s maintained a level as one of the best shooters in the sport the last three seasons. Now she’s shown the ability to put in the work and improve as a skier. If she can keep working and gain speed the next 1-2 seasons we might see her break into the top 15 in the overall. She has a chance to go down as one of the best Belgian biathletes of all time!
6. Deedra Irwin
|Career Best Rank||Unranked|
|Total Career Races||49|
|Key Statistic||Total races: 18|
I mentioned above that Lotte Lie made the biggest rise up the rankings of anybody who had more than one season on the World Cup. Technically that’s true because Deedra Irwin actually score 0 points in her first full season on the World Cup. She easily out performed that when she score the first 3 points of her career in the 2nd Ostersund Sprint race. She went on to score points in five more races, finishing 58th in the Overall standings. And that doesn’t include her 7th place finish in the Olympic Individual race.
Deedra Irwin is a unique case. She is a late convert to biathlon, only coming to the sport in the last few years. At this point we are still seeing her improve in literally ever aspect of the sport.
|Average Course Time Rank||68.8||47.8|
|Average Shooting Percentage||75%||85.3%|
|Average Shooting Speed Rank||67.6||40.2|
Of that list the thing that stands out the most to me was her impressive shooting percentage increase of a little over 10%. That’s a lot less time spent on the penalty loop! However I chose a different statistic for her key to success this season, total races. This season she was up to 18 total races out of 26 possible including the Olympics. This included taking the entire weekend of Ruhpolding off for training purposes.
Why did I choose this? Because it really shows the improvement she made. This season she qualified for four Pursuit races and the first two Mass Starts of her career. The year prior she only raced two Pursuits. Obviously the most races you are in the more chances you have to score points. But more than that, the increased number of races just show her improved consistency throughout the season.
So what’s next for Deedra Irwin? Truthfully who knows? She’s such an unusual athlete coming to the sport so late. At age 29 she showed dramatic improvement across the board. At the Winter Olympics, her finish of 7th place was the best ever for Team USA. And it wasn’t a fluke as she 14th in the Otepaa Sprint race.The potential is awfully high. Let’s hope she keeps on improving at this tremendous rate!
Others: I debated for a long time about whether or not to include the Russian and Belarusian athletes. Ultimately I decided not to. Below I have listed the athletes that would have made my list. I struggled with this decision. I ended up leaving them off because they simply didn’t race for the last 3 weekends of the season which was 7 of the races in a 22 race season (26 including the Olympics). That’s missing anywhere from about 1/4 to 1/3 of the season. To me that seemed to be fair. You may disagree and that’s fine. But I still wanted to acknowledge the improvements they did make!
1. Dzinara Alimbekava
2. Hanna Sola
3. Kristina Reztsova
4. Irina Kazakevich