National Pride

We’ve taken a look at a couple of men and women who have appear to be making breakthroughs this season. Maybe just a few more than a couple. Okay fine, we looked at 12 athletes having breakthrough seasons, 12 younger athletes who are showing good promise, and 6 more athletes who are just having good years. Yes, I admit it, I have a problem with cutting down. I talk way too much and I write way too much. The crazy thing is even though we covered 30 athletes I could make an argument for a dozen or more who should be added to that list!

Today we’re going to do a slightly different type of thing. We’re going to look at a handful of nations who are having really good years. In a few instances there are countries that are making some really impressive leaps forward. It doesn’t mean that they have anybody competing for the Overall Globe and it doesn’t mean that they will be making the podium in a relay this year. For a few teams out there though they are definitely doing something right and the results are showing. For example, if we had done this last season we would have led off with the Czech Republic and their women’s team. That’s the kind of thing we’re looking at here.

Switzerland – When thinking about countries that might qualify for this list the first nations that come to mind for most people are either Finland are Switzerland. This list isn’t in any particular order except which came first to my mind. However if you wanted to put Finland as most surprising I wouldn’t have any argument with you.

2021-2022 Season2022-2023 SeasonBest Ever
Women’s Nations Cup Rank8th6th7th (2019-2020)
Men’s Nations Cup Rank8th9th8th (2021-2022)
Top Ranked WomanLena Haecki-Gross 32nd23rd Aita GasparinSelina Gasparin 11th (2013-2014)
Top Ranked ManBenjamin Weger 27th13th Niklas HartwegBenjamin Weger 14th (2018-2019)
Best Relay Finish Women5th Kontiolahti5th Kontiolahti2 (2019-2020)
Best Relay Finish Men6th Kontiolahti7th Hochfilzen5 x3 (2012-2013)

Coming into the season Switzerland was in a bit of a wilderness period it seemed. Benjamin Weger and Selina Gasparin both retired leaving some possibly good young biathletes but no obvious leaders. There were major questions about who was going to lead the team, who would make up the relays, and where would they be getting any points? As it turns out it is a mix of old names and new coming through to fill the void for Switzerland.

Looking at the Nation’s Cup standings Switzerland currently stands at 6th place in the women’s competition and 9th in the men’s. While the men are running about where they have the last several years, making up for the loss of Benjamin Weger without missing a beat, the women are just 64 points out of the top 5. The last time Switzerland finished in the top 5 of the Nation’s Cup was I’m not sure ever. I couldn’t find data from before 2005-2006. Interestingly enough you know who was #5 for the women in 2006-2007? China. If you got that right then kudos to you.

Women: Nation’s Cup Rank: 6th
Top Women: Aita Gasparin (23rd overall), Elisa Gaspain (24), Lena Haecki-Gross (27), and Amy Baserga (46)

In our previous post we discussed the impressive seasons that Aita and Elisa Gasparin are having. Each is performing at a level they haven’t been able to do in several seasons. They felt the need to make up for their sister’s retirement I guess and are doing it amazingly well. Selina Gasparin does hold the record for best overall finish and while that seems unattainable for them this season they are each in contention for some of the best finishes in Swiss history. Both are either matching or setting new career bests in skiing and shooting right now. With that it isn’t surprising that both are on pace to either set or come very close to career bests in top 20’s and best ever overall ranking.

Lena Haecki-Gross meanwhile is having a mixed year. Her ski speed is at levels she’s only attained once before in her career. She’s currently 17th overall in skiing. The last time she was skiing like this was 2019-2020, the best overall finish of her career. However her shooting has taken a pretty big step backward. Her standing shooting is down to 70.8% and total shooting 76.9%, both are big regressions from the last two seasons. If she can get her shooting turned around, with this ski speed she could improve on her current 27th place ranking. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see her push for a top 20.

Amy Baserga meanwhile is trying to make her breakthrough. After spending her first season on the World Cup last year she didn’t off to the flying start she might have been hoping for. However she did set a new career best finish with a 20th place in the Pursuit in Annecy-le Grand Bornand. She’s made mild ski improvements but has her already good shooting to 92% overall right now. This season looks to be another solid step forward in her career!

For the relays the Swiss women are having their best success in several seasons. In the two relays so far they have finished 5th and 6th. The best ever relay finish for the Swiss women was 2nd place in the 2019-2020 season. As it turns out having four all around solid athletes on the team leads to good an ability to stay in contention. Interestingly enough the Swiss women also had a 5th place finish in the last relay of last season. Other than that this was their best finish since that 2019-2020 season. The Swiss have only three total finishes better than 5th this year for men and women combined. If they keep performing like this they have a good shot at adding to that total this season.

Nation’s Cup Rank: 9th
Top Men: Niklas Hartweg, Sebastian Stalder, Joscha Burkhalter, Jeremy Finello

Clearly the big breakthroughs here are Niklas Hartweg and Sebastian Stalder. Both Hartweg and Stalder are shooting tremendously well. Hartweg currently ranks 3rd in shooting percentage at 92.2% and Stalder 5th at 91.5%. It buoyed them both up to high levels with Hartweg currently ranking 13th in the overall with Stalder at 24th. These are massive improvements for both of them.

Burkhalter, the third of the young Swiss hopefuls, is not having quite the breakthrough that Hartweg and Stalder are. His overall rank is up to 45th buoyed by career best skiing. Jeremy Finello on the other hand has only scored in one race.

The men’s relay team has almost had as much success as the women. They did finish 7th in Hochfilzen after a remarkably bad 18th in Kontiolahti. When Hartweg and Stalder were on the course the Swiss are right up there with the top contenders. However they fall off with Burkhalter and Finello which shouldn’t be a major surprise. If Hartweg and Stalder can keep them in contention early they have the ability to stay near the top 5. However breaking into the top 5 will require some amazing performances by Burkhalter and Finello.

Overall Switzerland is taking a rather unexpected step forward this season. They lost two of the most decorated athletes in the history of Swiss biathlon and yet this year the teams are performing better than ever. These teams are primed for a good few years here and maybe able to etch some history for Switzerland in the next few years including at the 2025 World Championships.

Finland

Finland truly does have a strong history in biathlon. They have many several top finishes in the Nations Cup, it just happens that they were all 30-40 years ago at this point. More recently though they have the incredibly strong performances of Kaisa Makarainen and her three overall Crystal Globes. That’s not nearly as strong as the profound Norwegian biathlon history or the more recent Swedish success. However, you can’t discount Finland as a biathlon nation. While not reaching those incredible highs, Finland is certainly seeing some successes this year.

2021-2022 Season2022-2023 SeasonBest Ever
Women’s Nations Cup Rank11th9th2nd (1989-1990)
Men’s Nations Cup Rank10th6th4th (1985-1986)
Top Ranked WomanMari Eder (27th)Mari Eder (14th)Kaisa Makarainen 1st x3 (2017-2018)
Top Ranked ManTero Seppala (12th)Olli Hiidensalo (25th)Tapio Piiponen 4th (1985-1986)
Best Relay Finish Women9th (Antholz)7th (Kontiolahti)1st (1989-1990)
Best Relay Finish Men9th (Kontiolahti)5th (Hochfilzen)1st (1974-1975)

Since the retirement of Makarainen as the face of Finnish biathlon, the mantle of leader of the group has been passed around a little. This year though it seems that everyone is pulling together a great year all at the same time. Just look below:

AthleteCurrent Overall StandingCareer Best
Mari Eder (35)1427 (2021-2022)
Olli Hiidensallo (31)2538 (2021-2022)
Tuomas Harjula (24)2862 (2020-2021)
Tero Seppala (26)2912 (2021-2022)
Suvi Minkinnen (28)3043 (2021-2022)
Nastassia Kinnunen (37)4732 (2011-2012)

Right now you have four of the top six Finnish athletes currently having their best career seasons. Clearly this isn’t just the young ones too as Mari Eder is having the best season of her career at age 35 and Nastassia Kinnunen is having a her best season in 10 years. And it isn’t just the “expected” improvements of Tero Seppala and Suvi Minkinnen because it is fair to say few people saw this leap coming from Tuomas Harjula. No, something really fun is happening with the Finns this season.

I could post all of the numbers for you but I’ll save myself and you the time. Almost every single one of them is showing significant if not staggering improvements in both skiing and shooting. In many cases they are either at new career bests or reaching back to heights they had not seen in several years. The only real fly in the ointment is Tero Seppala, who after a brilliant 2021-2022 campaign, has been able to maintain his ski speed for the most part, but has had a regression in his shooting back towards his career norms.

If you’re wondering what changed from year to year, well Finland hired Erik Bartlett Kulstad as their new head coach this offseason. Prior to this Kulstad was an assistant coach with Bjorendalen in China. Clearly he brought a new philosophy to the group. In reading a few interviews he did before the season including this one with Biathlon23 he makes it clear that he wanted to increase their threshold training. It’s clearly worked as everybody is performing at a higher level this season.

If you want further reasons for optimism then you can see in the IBU Cup 18 year old Arttu Heikenen has had four finishes in the top 16 so far this season. Otto Invenius is overcoming an off season injury but hasn’t dropped his performance level at all. Lots of reasons to be optimistic!

If we’re looking at the highest levels achieved by Finnish men and women well then that won’t be matched this season. Also highly unlikely that either relay team will win a race this season. It looks like Finland made a good hire for head coach. A few of these athletes are reaching the end of their careers but I think Finnish fans have to be optimistic at least for what is coming next.

Belgium

Belgium is a bit of an unusual nation when it comes to biathlon. If you just do a brief search you’ll see some really good athletes performing for Belgium. In the past though, it has been a home for good athletes with dual citizenship who are nearing the end of their careers. For example Nathalie Santer and Michael Roesch came to the Belgian team when their careers with Italy and Germany respectively were nearing the end.

What we have right now is a little different though. Lotte Lie came to the Belgium team when the Norwegian teams looked far too full. Florent Claude had a similar story when there was a lack of true chance to compete with France. The difference with these two though is that they came at the beginning of their careers not at the end and are spending the peaks of their careers with Belgium. It’s leading to a bit of a burgeoning biathlon boom in Belgium including the opening of the new biathlon center in Herzebosch-Eisenborn this past summer.

2021-2022 Season2022-2023 SeasonBest Ever
Women’s Nations Cup Rank22nd24th22nd (2021-2022)
Men’s Nations Cup Rank27th20th17th (2020-2021)
Top Ranked WomanLotte Lie (28th)Lotte Lie (26th)Lotte Lie (28th)
Top Ranked ManFlorent Claude (32nd)Florent Claude (19th)Florent Claude (32nd)
Best Relay Finish WomenNoneNoneNone
Best Relay Finish Men16th (Ostersund)None13th (2017-2018)

We are right now living in the peak times of Belgium biathlon. Michael Roesch came and had a couple of solid years but Florent Claude has surpassed him as the best male biathlete in Belgian history. Lotte Lie is definitely now the best woman to have competed under the Belgian flag. The Belgian federation is investing more heavily in biathlon which is amazing to see. And when you look down the pike you can see even more talent on the way up.

When you look at the top Belgian men and women, Claude and Lie, you see that they succeeding primarily because of their shooting talent. Right now Florent Claude is #1 in shooting accuracy, tied with Sturla Holm Laegreid, and Lotte Lie is ranked 4th. Easily the best 1-2 shooting punch for any country on the World Cup. This ignores that both have also made significant leaps in their skiing over the last 2-3 years. Right now when looking at average course time rank, both Claude and Lie are at their best ski levels of their careers.

If you look down to the lower levels Maya Cloetens is coming up and may become possibly the greatest biathlete in Belgium history. She’s 20 years old and currently splitting time between Juniors and the IBU Cup. On the Juniors level she has five races this year and has 4 podium finishes. No wins yet but it feels like they are coming. On the IBU Cup level she has only three races but all are top 30s. When you compare her similar aged ski ranks to Lotte Lie she is definitely faster but doesn’t have the incredible shooting. Hopefully she can go to school with Lotte Lie and Florent Claude.

Overall this seems to be a boom time for Belgium biathlon. It sometimes takes a few athletes to create a tradition and inspire a few more young athletes. Hopefully this can be that generation!

Czech Republic (men)

For the 2021-2022 season the Czech women, led by Marketa Davidova and Jessica Jislova, where the breakthrough nation of the year. By the end of the season they just squeaked into to the top 5 of the Nation’s Cup. While the women haven’t quite lived up to the exceptionally high bar they set last year the men are having quite the surge this year.

2021-2022 Season2022-2023 SeasonBest Ever
Men’s Nations Cup Rank9th5th5th (2014-2015)
Top Ranked ManMichal Krcmar (28th)Michal Krcmar (15th)Ondrej Moravec 6th (2014-2015)
Best Relay Finish Men9th (Hochfilzen)5th (Kontiolahti)1st (2000-2001)
Not counting results as Czechoslovakia

Right now the men are sitting at that magical #5 spot that the women achieved last season. It would not only win them the pride of being top 5 but it would also grant them an extra starter for Sprints and Individual races for the 2023-2024 season. It would also match the best Nation’s Cup finish for the Czech men last set during the heyday of Ondrej Moravec, the iron man who was the best Czech biathlete of all time. Clearly the team of today doesn’t have quite the same top line talent but they are making up for it with depth and youth.

In the season preview we discussed how rock solid, steady Michal Krcmar has been for the last several years. I’m posting his career ranks below just because you can see how solid he has been. Very little variation to pretty much anything in his stats over the last 5 years. And then this year he has a bump up in performance in every aspect. This doesn’t go back to the earlier years or his career but he’s right now putting up a career best season in skiing and his second best shooting percentage of his career. The results are what you would expect. Over this stretch of steady performance he has been good for 1-3 top 10 finishes each season. Already this year he has a 6th, 11th, and 12th. If he can keep this up he’s going to easily have the best overall rank of his career.

For the Czech Republic’s overall score the most important development has been the advancement of Jakub Stvrtecky’s racing. Stvrtecky at 24 years old is entering the early phases of the peak of his career and has definitely been showing encouraging signs. Right now he’s showing more improvement in skiing than in shooting but it is quite an improvement. He’s gone from 36th in skiing to 16th which puts him in the neighborhood of Filip Fjeld Andersen, QFM (this year), and in range of Tommaso Giacommel. From a numbers perspective he’s gone from about 1.5% faster than the average biathlete to 2.6% faster than average. It should be mentioned that he is shooting a little better as well with his shooting percentage up to 76.5%. That leaves TONS of room for improvement.

Arguably the most exciting aspect of the season has been the racing of Tomas Mikyska. He’s 22 years old and experiencing his first real World Cup level racing. Every weekend he seems to have a little bit of growth. After starting the season with a 66th he’s been top 40 in each of his last 5 races. He’s shooting incredibly well with a total shooting percentage of 90% right now. At just 22 you have to have faith that he can get better on the skis. For right now he’s been decent on the relay team. He has avoided the penalty loop so far but is still losing about 1 minute per leg to the leaders. In particular he’s losing about 30-40 seconds on the shooting range. Definitely somewhere to clean up to keep the team in the top 5 of the Nations Cup.

Looking deeper Hornig is currently in 11th on the IBU Cup. I do wonder if maybe he gets a call up at some point this season. He’s only 23 years old and performing pretty well. I do think that he could be an asset on the team but we’ll see what happens.

I can’t wait to see how the rest of the season plays out for this Czech team. I mentioned before the success the women had last season. It would be really awesome to see the men match the feat the very next season. With Krcmar performing at a career level, Stvrtecky taking another step forward, and some good young talent coming up maybe this could be a good couple of seasons for the Czech men!

Slovenia (Women)

Slovenia is a bit of an underrated biathlon nation. They certainly aren’t one that you would consider to be a super power, but at least once a decade they have a little run of success with either the men or the women. Most recently the men had a run of high success last decade with Jakov Fak reaching the top 10 multiple times. Prior to that the women had surges in the mid 2000’s and prior to that in the mid 1990’s. We’re not quite in one of those surges right now…but I think we’re getting close.

2021-2022 Season2022-2023 SeasonBest Ever
Women’s Nations Cup Rank16th17th6th (2005-2006)
Top Ranked WomenPolona Klemencic (99th)Polona Klemencic (32nd)Andreja Koblar 4th (1995-1996)
Best Relay Finish Women19th (Hochfilzen)8th (Hochfilzen)3rd (2005-2006)

The last few years for Slovenian women have been a bit of a nothing. It’s been a struggle but beneath the surface there has been some talent coming up. The first name to emerge were has been Polona Klemencic. The last few seasons have not been successes in the traditional sense of the word. She only one time prior to this season finished with an overall ranking higher than 90th. She stated on the World Cup when she was 21 years old though and had plenty of learning experiences. Coach Ricco Gross has come in and Klemencic appears ready to fly.

Look, Klemencic is improving everywhere. Gross was primarily hired as a well qualified coach and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a sharpshooter who can bring along Lampic. He’s clearly having a good effect on more than just Lampic though. You love seeing this kind of amazing break through and I can’t say enough about it.

Lampic is the name that’s getting all of the headlines and for good reason. Her ski speed is off the charts. We expected something like this when Denise Herrman-Wick came over. We expected something like this when Stina Nilsson came over. However when we didn’t we began to think that maybe it just couldn’t be done. Nope. Annamarija Lampic is extraordinarly fast. She’s so fast that she can shoot about 75% and be competing for top 5’s. It’s insane!

She hasn’t yet gotten a win on the IBU Cup yet and she’s only had one race on the World Cup. However she does appear to be a consistent force. In her one race on the World Cup she blew the doors off of everybody including Elvira Oeberg, had shot 7/10, and missed the podium by 15 seconds. Wild. On the IBU Cup she’s the fastest by orders of magnitude. She is currently 11.35% faster than the average IBU Cup biathlete which is insane.

She’s finished 6th, 15th, 32nd, 18, 15, and 2nd. The 32nd was in an Individual which particular punishes her shooting inaccuracy. The 2nd place was in a Mass 60 event in which she had 5 more misses than Gilonne Guigonnat and finished 9 seconds back. We could go on but the lesson here is Lampic is wildly fast. She still can’t shoot yet, but again Ricco Gross is her head coach. How long until she can go from hitting 65.6%, her current IBU Cup hit rate, to 75% or higher? Once she does that we’re in for something special. Right now Lampic is 41st overall in the World Cup rankings after one race. Any bets on where she finishes this season? Or next?

The good news for Slovenia doesn’t stop there though. Once again while Lampic is getting the majority of the headlines for the racing on the IBU Cup, Lena Repinc is having a season worth watching as well. Over the last two seasons you could see the potential she has had. She started the year on the IBU Cup and immediately had a 4th place finish, the best of her career. She backed that up with an 11th and a 21st. Kaja Zorc, like Lena Repinc just 19 years old, already has 3 top 10’s on the Juniors level this season. Ziva Klemencic, yes sister to Polona, got the two best finishes of her career on the World Cup in Hochfilzen before returning to the Juniors and getting a 4th place in the 2nd Sprint of the year. Klara Vindisar, a 21 year old who has raced 5 times on the Juniors this season hasn’t been lower than 17th.

Slovenia clearly has potential to grow in to a solid biathlon competitor over the next few years. Lampic is 27 but still has plenty of seasons where she can be in peak form. Polona Klemencic meanwhile is the “old lady” of the young Slovenian hopes at just 25. The best finish ever for the Slovenian women in the Nation’s Cup has been 6th back in 2005-2006. There is a very real possibility that in the next 4-5 years they can challenge that. This is likely just the start of several good years!

2 thoughts on “National Pride

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