Ruhpolding 2023 Week in Review Pt. 2

In part 1 we did our best to recap the best performances and moments of the weekend. In part 2 we’re going to take a look at some of the big take aways and questions coming out of the weekend. First we look at Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen’s season to date. We take a look at Poland’s recent successes and if we should be expecting more big things form them. We quickly touch on some of the old standard bearers who just won’t leave! Lastly a just a few bests from the racing in Ruhpolding.

1.Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen On the Rise

Over the first two plus months of racing I have spent plenty of time discussing JT Bø and his amazing performances. Coming up after Antholz I have a full piece coming up on Sturla Holm Lægreid. Today though, I wanted to just give a little attention to the third member of the Norwegian dominant quartet: Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen.

Of the four he probably gets the least attention. This might sound crazy because he’s coming off a season in which he finished 4th overall and is currently sitting in 3rd. But this team is so crazy that it actually makes sense considering JT Bø is one of the all time greats, Lægreid has finished 2nd two straight years and is in 2nd again, and Tarjei Bø is a former Overall Globe Champion who has over a decade of solid performances. If you put Christiansen on almost any other nation he’s the star. Here he’s the connective tissue…except on social media. There he’s the star.

First of all the most brief history of Christiansen. He’s somehow already 30 years old with 141 solo World Cup races under his belt. I don’t know how that happened. He still seems incredibly young. I would probably guess he would be like 27, but the calendar doesn’t lie. He joined the World Cup team full time in 2018-2019 after finishing 1st overall on the IBU Cup. Since then he hasn’t looked back. Look at the plot below and you can see that he’s primarily been a decent to fast skier. The shooting has good enough to keep him top 10-15.

It took a couple of seasons but he’s really seen a leap the last two years from a good biathlete to a great biathlete. It’s interesting because I started this particular bit thinking I would identify ways in which Christiansen took last season and built off of it. While his overall ranks have taken a leap up the last two seasons they are from remarkably different reasons.

Last year’s success were driven by the best shooting of his World Cup career combined with continuation of his top 20 ski form. The end result was two wins, surpassing his career total prior to last season, and new career highs in podiums, top 5’s, top 10’s etc. It was a career season by ay standard.

This year initially looked like it was going to be a step backward when he started with just two top 10’s through the first two weeks. Through the same point in last season he had already scored his first win of the year and worn the Yellow Jersey. Over that early season period he was, not surprisingly, slower and shooting worse. His average course time rank was 13.2, down a touch from last year. Meanwhile his shooting was a little lower including standing shooting of just 75%.

Since Hochfilzen things really turned around. Over the last three weekends of racing he’s never been worse than 8th in course time rank and has averaged the 4th best time every race. That’s almost JT Bø level. The other important thing is that his standing shooting has improved even just a little bit. Since the start of 2023 he has been at 80% standing shooting. The results? Three 2nd place finishes and just one finish outside the top 10 in seven races.

Should we expect this to continue? It really looks like he’s racing as well as anybody in the world right now with the exception of JT Bø. The most encouraging signs are that over the last three races he is averaging 90% standing shooting. In both the Individual and the Mass Start in Ruhpolding he was 2nd only to JT Bø. Could be heading towards a peak at the absolute right time for some World Championship glory!

2. Norwegian Relay Team

Is this the greatest relay team of all time? I’m not going to try to answer that question right now. I just wanted to throw it out there. After the season is over and we have a full set of data to look at I’ll go over it, likely with RJ, and we’ll see if we can make a list of the strongest relay teams of all time.

Right now I just wanted to say that they are on a heck of a run. I actually went back to the 2019-2020 season just for fun to see their finishes:

That’s ridiculous. Out of 21 total races:

  • 14 wins = 66.67% winning percentage (winning percentage!!!)
  • 20 podiums = 95.2% podium percentage
  • Most wins by any other nation: France with 4 wins
*Russia has not competed since 2022 Winter Olympics missing last 4 relays

One other way to think about how great they are? Sturla Holm Lægreid had a penalty loop and Norway was 50 seconds back on leg #2 but they never felt like they were too far out to win. In fact by the 2nd shooting of leg 3 they had reached the lead group. The tension was completely gone by JT Bø’s first shooting so much so that he admitted he felt no pressure at all on the standing shooting resulting in some loose shots.

3. Poland on the Rise?

Over the last two weekends we’ve seen Poland have two very good relay results. In the Mixed Relay in Pokljuka they finished 8th and in the Men’s Relay in Ruhpolding they scored 10th. For the Mixed Relay it was the Poles’ best relay performance overall since the Women’s relay finishing 6th in the World Championships also in Pokljuka. It was their best Mixed Relay performance since 2010-2011 when they finished 7th in Maine. The men though had not had a top 10 since Hochfilzen 2006-2007.

Maybe a surprise to you, I certainly had forgotten some of it, over a decade from about 2006-2007 through 2019-2020 the Polish women had a pretty good run. Over that period the Polish women were regular top 10s and it was actually a surprise to see them outside. They also achieved several top 5’s including one podium, a 3rd place finish in Hochfilzen in 2007.

The last few seasons have been a little barren with just a couple of top 10 finishes and more finishes below the top 15 than inside it. It hasn’t been just limited to the men, the women have been struggling a little bit as well. And not surprisingly mixed relay success was rare as well. It has been a true transition period. It does appear though that there is some light appearing. Lets look at the stars of the recent mixed relay success to see a peak of who might be coming up for Poland to lead the youngsters.

Kamila Zuk (25) – It feels weird to call Kamila Zuk a youngster because she’s been around for a few years now. At first glance it appears that she has stalled out a little bit in her progressions. However we’ve seen several athletes recently make breakthroughs once they reach their mid to late 20’s. I’m not saying Zuk will be like that but it is always a possibility.

She’s been slowly improving her shooting every year. In 2018-2019 her average shooting percentage was just 71.3%. This season she is currently averaging 85.7% which is getting up to a very respectable territory!

Her course ranks have been steady for awhile now. She’s been averating course time ranks in the mid to upper 30’s over the last several years. However, overall her finishes are slightly up. Last year she was averaing a finish of 52 and this season 45. However she did have a 15th place finish earlier this season, her 5th best of her career.

Joanna Jakiela (23) – Joanna Jakiela has only recently made the leap to the World Cup as a full timer this season. Prior to this she was a middle of the road athlete on the IBU Cup with overall finishes of 102 and 55 the last two seasons. As a Junior she did finish 15th and 17th overall in her 19 and 20 year old seasons proving the potential is there.

As a Junior she relied primarily on her ski speed. Over those last two successful seasons she was finishing consistently in the top 10 in course time ranks. However her shooting was really mediocre just 72% overall both of those seasons.

This year the most promising finding for Jakiela is that her shooting is dramatically improved. She is currently shooting 85.8% overall including 96.7% prone. Right now she ranks 56th in skiing. This puts her just a little bit better than average skiing .25% faster than the average woman on the World Cup this level. However at age 23 there is plenty of time and room for her to get better and faster. Two seasons ago, her last World Cup racing, she was 1.4% slower than average in her limited races so she already has made so improvement.

I am optimistic on Jakiela’s potential. She’s already made such incredible shooting improvements and she does seem to be finding her legs on the skis. This season she started out strong and had finishes of 26th and 28th for her first two top 30 finishes of her career. Looking to build out a strong women’s team and she looks like a key piece.

Marcin Zawol (20) – Marcin Zawol is very young in terms of biathlon experience. He has only completed two full seasons on the Juniors level, two total races on the IBU Cup level, and as of this weekend has 17 combined solo and relay races on the World Cup level. It’s hard to tell exactly who he will be. However you can already see some good things.

First of all, he was a part of both of the relays that finished in the top 10 and that alone is good. In the Juniors races he has flashed some very good speed. He was finishing in the top 10 in course time rank in over half of his races over the last two seasons. This included several top 5 course time ranks. He hasn’t shown that speed yet on the World Cup but he’s just 20! The shooting is the major area for improvement. Over the last two seasons he has shot 76% in both seasons. Now he is up a little to 80% this season on the World Cup which is really good to see. He’s 20 but he could be a solid biathlete for the next decade.

Jan Gunka (20) – See Zawol’s 1st paragraph and repeat. Very little overall racing. But there are a few things we can see.

Once again lets emphasize that Gunka was on those two relays that had success. You can’t have success without having solid performances from the entire team (unless you are Norway but that’s a different discussion). Gunka though has shown some very high personal achievements as well. Last season he was #3 overall on the Juniors level which included 3 race wins. Like Zawol the skiing is his big attribute, consistently top 5-10 over the last two seasons. However his shooting is definitely better than Zawol’s has been finishing 81.3% last year. That’s also been the big problem this season on the World Cup, hitting just 68.3% of targets

Both Zawol and Gunka have potential. They are getting exposure at a young age. Hopefully they can fulfill this potential and lead a little renaissance for Polish biathlon alongside Zuk and Jakiela!

4. Old Men Lurking – Over the last several weeks we’ve started to see a couple of pesky old veterans show their names on the leaderboards again. Yes we’re talking about Jakov Fak and Simon Eder. I call them old men because in terms of biathlon they are solidly in the elder category (although Fak is my age and I am telling you I am not old!).

Of the two Jakov Fak has received more attention and for good reason. He surprised many people by getting himself onto the podium in the Individual in Ruhpolding. Side note, do you know Jakov Fak’s career podium percentage? If you do why on Earth are you holding onto that piece of information?!? Well if you were wondering Fak has gotten on the podium in 9.5% of his races. That’s FAR better than I ever would have guessed.

Fak got the attention for the podium finish but ever since the calendar turned over to 2023 Fak has been racing on a different level from the early part of the season and I’m absolutely here for it. Looking at his stats he has seen just a little improvement all around. His average course time rank in the first three weeks of the season was 24. Over the last two weekends that has ticked up to 17.5. Meanwhile his shooting percentages have improved from 86.9% to 90% over the last two weeks.

Eder meanwhile hasn’t really gotten the attention but he’s had almost a more dramatic turn around in his season. At age 39 there is always a sense that every season could be his last, never more so than after the Olympics last year. Eder, though, just refuses to quit! This season started out looking a little rough. Through the first two weeks he was never in the top 25 and looked, frankly, rather old. He didn’t race in Annecy-le Grand Bornand and apparently used the extra time to put on his cape.

Since returning to racing in Pokljuka there is Simon Eder being as stubborn and persistent as ever! Over four races never finishing below 15th. This includes course time ranks of 18th and 15th in Ruhpolding. The last time he had a course time rank higher than that was the 2021 World Championships in Pokljuka. Interestingly enough it wasn’t just an improvement in his skiing though that helped him, it was a return to form of his excellent shooting. Over the first two weekends of competition he was hitting just 86.3% of his shots. Over the course of a season that would be the worst shooting percentage since 2016-2017. However in Pokljuka and Ruhpolding that is back to 92.8%

So what does all of this mean? Well I’m not exactly going to bet on either of these guys for a podium finish in Oberhof. All I wanted to do though is point out that some of these guys are just stubborn and never give up. I admire these two more and more with each passing season. The longer they are out there, even without top notch ski speed, but competing and fighting, and having a decent amount of success, the greater a place they earn in my heart. I hope they are around forever. 60 year old Eder and 55 year old Fak? Why not?!?

5. Career Bests (or just really good races)

Estonian Women’s Relay Team 8th – In Ruhpolding the Estonian women’s team, composed of: Regina Ermits, Tuuli Tomingas, Susan Kuelm, and Johanna Talihärm matched the best ever finish for the women of Estonia! This is the 5th ever 8th place finish, the most recent was 2021-2022, also in Ruhpolding. The Estonian women are having their best season in several years with three top 10s which is actually their most in any season ever matching the 2020-2021 season. Big opportunity to set a new best in Oberhof! Also, if you are a fan of Estonia or this story…stay tuned!

Lou Jeanmonnot 2nd in Individual – I mentioned her yesterday but she’s having a great run right now. Only one more way to make a career best and that’s with a win. Can she do it this year?!?

Tommas Giacomel 5th in Individual – Once again matches a career best. As I wrote yesterday he’s going to get across the line with a top 3 sooner rather than later!

Justus Strelow 8th in Mass Start – He previously set a career best in the Hochfilzen Sprint with a 9th place finish for his first top 10. Well now he’s done that one better. His skiing is much better than it was last season. Noe he just needs to get his shooting fixed.

Sebastian Stalder 9th in Mass Start – It wasn’t a career best but it was darn close! Stalder’s best is 8th place that he set in Annecy-le Grand Bornand, also in the Mass Start.

Alina Stremous 12th in Individual – Not a career best but her best of the season. She’s definitively on the rise with her best racing over the last two weekends. She did a great job peaking around this time last year. Might be a good one to watch for an outsider cracking the top 10.

Eric Perrot 21st in Individual – 2nd best finish of all time behind a remarkable 8th in the 2022 Sprint in Ruhpolding. He also had a great 1st leg in the Men’s relay giving France the lead!

Ukaleq Slettemark 21st in Individual – The face of Greenland biathlon! If you speak Danish definitely check out her podcast with Kristian Wulff Studio .22. She’s been so popular over the last year it is hard to remember she is just 21 years old. First WC points, first MS race for Greenland. No telling what she is going to do next!

Anton Vidmar 22nd in Individual – A 22 year old with just 16 solo races to his record his 22nd in the Individual was a solid career best beating out the 35th from the Kontiolahti Pursuit this season.

Tamara Steiner 22nd in Individual – The first of two young Austrians on this list, Steiner’s 22nd got her into the Mass Start. Her previous career best was 28th all the way back in Pokljuka. Definitely on the upswing!

Alex Cisar 24th in Individual – Another 22 year old Slovenian with a career best! For Cisar his prior best was also in the Kontiolahti Pursuit where he finished 25th. Slovenian fans have to be happy!

Anna Juppe 25th Individual – Just 23 years old she is in her 2nd season on the World Cup and got her first top 25!

Denys Nasyko 26th in Individual – Nasyko is a 27 year old from Ukraine with just 5 solo races on the World Cup but this was a solid career best. Hopefully a springboard for the last half of the season!

Susan Kuelm 29th in Individual – Kuelm is part of the reason that Estonia has had such a great year with the relays. The 26 yera old has all three of her career best finishes this season including a 40th in Hochfilzen and 39th in Kontiolahti.

Raul Flore 31st in Individual – Romania is not a nation we normally mention, but Flore went 20/20 and finished 31st. Not surprisingly his four best finishes are all Individual races. Hopefully he can start to build some ski speed and keep setting career bests!

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