Before the start of the 2022-2023 IBU World Cup season it already felt like there was a moment of generational change getting ready to take place in the women’s field. It felt like none of the recent Overall Crystal Globe winners would be willing or able to compete for the title again. Tiril Eckhoff and Marte Olsbu Røiseland weren’t ready to start the season. While Røiseland would eventually rejoin the circuit after missing the three weekends of racing, sadly Eckhoff never returned. Dorothea Wierer just seemed to be in a different place in her career. After winning back to back globes she had finished 5th and 9th in the Overall standings and seemed to be prioritizing Olympic and World Championship medals along with the occasional race win over another run at the Overall. The door was open for a new champion.
At the start of the season the list of potential contenders for the Globe was long. Was Elvira Öberg about to start a reign of dominance similar to what we’ve seen on the men’s side with champs like Fourcade and now JT Bø? Or was her sister Hanna Öberg going to claim the Globe first? Could Ingrid Tandrevold put together a dream season and continue the run of Norwegian champions? Or Davidova? Or Hauser? Or Herrmann-Wick? It felt like the stage was set for a season long battle between a huge number of women.
Inevitably included in that long list was Julia Simon. Simon was one of a number of French women who over the last several years had shown very high ability. When everything would come together for her, namely her shooting, she was always dangerous to win. And she has a competitive fire not many other biathletes can match. However, like counterparts Justine Braisaz-Bouchet and Anaïs Chevalier-Bouchet, the consistency was the major problem. She just couldn’t string together enough good races to really feel like a threat in the Overall. In particular her shooting would fall apart in dramatic ways that would keep her from contending.
Since becoming a full time member of the French women’s World Cup team her best finish in the overall was 8th in 2019-2020. That career year in which she gained her first World Cup win had been followed by finishes of 13th and 12th in the Overall. The pattern in both seasons was the same. She would have moments of great success including 2 victories in 2020-2021 and a then career best 5 podiums in 2021-2022. However, they would be interrupted by some really rough days including 6 finishes outside the top 50 over those two seasons. For comparison, Wierer had just 1 finish outside the top 50 in that span. For somebody more in the range of a Julia Simon, Lisa Hauser had 0 finishes outside the top 50 over those two seasons.
Throughout all of the ups and downs there were two things that were never in doubt: Her skiing and her competitive fire. Below are her overall ski rankings and her average course time rank of the last 4 seasons before 2022-2023:
It doesn’t take much interrogation of the numbers to see that Simon has always been on the top end of the ski rankings. Over the 4 seasons before 2022-2023 she was never worse than 20th in the overall ski rankings. Her average course time rank per race shows that she was consistently one of the top skiers on the course.
A more subjective and less objective note on Julia Simon is that she was always competitive. You could always see the drive in her eyes as she was chasing somebody down. And if you’re a French fan didn’t you just feel more confident when Simon was shooting on a relay rather than on her own? She seemed to rise to the occasion. Never more so than her Single Mixed relay gold with Antonin Guigonnat at the 2021 World Championships. Or when she avoided the penalty loop on an extremely blustery 2nd lap of the Mixed Relay at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
The fire was there, the skiing was there. It was just the shooting that was holding her back. And it was a dramatic improvement in shooting that took her to the top of women’s biathlon in the 2022-2023 season.
If you were watching closely the shooting improvement actually didn’t start this season. For those that were paying particularly close attention you could see a change happen. Looking back now it’s almost shocking what a change there was. Here, just look below and see if you can find the moment where everything changed. This is a graph of the shooting percentage for every single one of Julia Simon’s 126 solo races.
Do you see it? If not let me help you out…it’s right here:
That red line is right on top of the 83rd race of her career. That race was the Sprint race of the Annecy-le Grand Bornand in the 2021-2022 season that occurred on December 16th, 2021. That was the day everything changed. Now what changed I don’t know. Was it technique? Confidence? Probably a combination of both. At this point it is 34.9% of her entire career so it is fair to say that it is a large sample size. The results and the numbers tell the story:
- Simon’s Shooting Percentage races 1-82 in her career: 77.3%
- Simon’s Shooting Percentage in races 83-Present: 85.8%
- Simon’s Shooting Percentage in 2022-2023: 88.3%
That is a MASSIVE improvement in shooting. Just a brief examination of the chart reveals two things. 1) Her floor rose markedly. The really bad shootings days that were all too common in her career disappeared almost overnight. 2) Even more importantly the frequency of races where she shot better than 90% grew significantly.
- Shooting Percentage of 75% or worse occurred 31 times = 37.8% of those races
- That means out of every 10 races between 3 to 4 of them would have a shooting percentage of 75% or often worse. Or 1 out of every 2.66 races would be 75% or worse. So basically at least 1 time every weekend of racing on average.
- Shooting Percentage of 90% of better occurred 18 times = 22% of those races
- Just 2 out of every 10 races would Simon have a shooting percentage of 90% or better. 1 out of every 5 races. About once every other weekend of racing.
- Shooting Percentage of 75% or worse occurred just 6 times = 13.6% of races
- This is roughly 1 out of every 7.5 races. This means that Simon would have just 1 instance of 75% shooting or worse approximately every trimester.
- Shooting Percentage of 90% or better occurred 22 times = 50% of all races.
- 50%. I don’t think that needs any further perspective. It’s pretty damn good.
Digging deeper it is clear that it was an across the board improvement.
There are so many ways to break it down and examine it. The inescapable conclusion is that something changed or clicked between the Hochfilzen stop and the Annecy-le Grand Bornand weekend of the 2021-2022 World Cup seasons. In the period since that time Simon went from being an wildly inconsistent shooter to one of the best shooters on the World Cup.
We spent so much time focusing on her shooting improvement that it would be easy to overlook her skiing improvement as well. Even throughout the season as it was happening we never took the time to appreciate how much better she was doing on the skis. Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as the improved shooting accuracy but Simon went from being pretty fast to being really fast. She ranked 3rd in overall skiing this season. 3rd! She was being Lampic and Herrmann-Wick. The fastest non-XC convert.
You could argue that she benefitted from the absence of a few of the top skiers like Eckhoff and Røiseland. Well here’s another way to look at her skiing. In 2018-2019 she was 2.3% faster than the average skier. Last season she was 4.7% faster.
So what is the point of all of this? Well it’s to celebrate Julia Simon, a worthy and rightful champion of the 2022-2023 World Cup season. There are reasons some might think it was a fluke. No Russian/Belarussian competitors. The absence of the most recent champions for some or all of the season. It’s clear though that Simon competed at a level high enough to win a title, and she did it. What’s more is, that this doesn’t appear to be a one off title for her.
As noted above, she has always been a fast skier and last season, at age 27, she took it to an even higher level. As we have seen over the last several years with our champions she is only just now entering her peak ski speed years so this should only improve.
Her shooting is no fluke either. It’s been a full 1/3 of her career that she has been shooting a much higher level. That’s beyond a small sample size and appears to just be her new baseline.
Never expect Julia Simon to lose her overwhelming competitive fire either. At the beginning of the season we appeared to be on the verge of a wide open era of women’s biathlon. Julia Simon has announced herself as a competitor for years to come. Who will join her?
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