17 Days until Östersund: Gabi and the Czech Team
|10.11.2016, Muonio / IBU Info/JK|
|Another Win Possible; Rebound for Men|
|The Östersund Countdown rolls on. Last season the Czech Republic team had unprecedented success as Gabriela Koukalová won the World Cup Total Score plus three of the other four small crystal globes. Yet, at the same time there was disappointment when the men dropped from 5th to 8th in the Nations Cup both Ondrej Moravec and Michal Slesingr fell out of the top 10 men in the Total Score. The team also completely missed the podium at the IBU WCH in Oslo. After several years of getting better and regularly winning medals; this was big comedown.
The challenge for the Czech team is simple but hard: Moravec, Slesingr and Co need to get back to their 2014-15 level while Koukalová must fend off everyone who wants to take the big Crystal Globe this season. Of course, they also need some podiums at Nove Mesto na Morave in December plus a few WCH medals in Hochfilzen for good measure.|
Gabi, the Queen of Czech Biathlon
Back in December 2012, a just-turned 23-year-old Gabriela Koukalová claimed her first-ever World Cup win at Pokljuka. In her typical manner, she said, "it was the race of my dreams; I never thought I would win a World Cup." A lot has changed since that day; she has become the Queen of Czech Biathlon taking 11 more victories, plus another 13 podiums, two Olympic Silver medals and IBU WCH Gold and Silver medals, plus that big Globe! She was amazingly consistent last season, with just one result outside of the top 10 in 25 individual World Cup competitions. It was a battle all season to hold onto the Yellow Bib, but Koukalová prevailed.
Now the question becomes her ability to repeat or at least battle for the top spot. Since those days in the 2012-13, Koukalová of the charming personality and flaming red hair has become a media star, one of the most popular athletes in her country. A season like last year was draining both sport and popularity-wise; she took some extra time off (including getting married) before resuming training. She and her teammates spent the summer as usual training in places like France and Hochfilzen and most recently in Vuokatti.
Koukalová's success last season unquestionably was built on her consistency; she had her best season start with a win and two fifth places in Östersund and never looked back. In December she only missed seven of her 130 shots during individual competitions. At the same time, she was good on the tracks, consistently having a top 10 ski time, but not overpowering her rivals like her predecessor Darya Domracheva or Kaisa Mäkäräinen can. Another key to her success might have been the same thoughts as in 2012, "I never thought..." Oslo was surely a big disappointment, not winning medals, but she was always close, basically just a shot and one place away from the podium in the sprint and pursuit.
Repeat is a Big Task
To repeat this season, she needs to shoot as well or better and stay focused while not succumbing to the pressure from the media and her big rivals like Wierer, Mäkäräinen, Dahlmeier and others. It is a big task, but Koukalová is the team leader by default and needs to live up to her own lofty standards.
While Koukalová leads the women's team, she has plenty of good support, especially from Veronika Vitkova, 8th in the Total Score. Like Koukalová, Vitkova had a consistently good season, not quite as good as 2014-15 when she was 4th, but very good. She never made it to the podium, except in relays, but was in the top 10 on fifteen occasions. Her biggest asset has always been exceptional shooting; when she was on target like in Pokljuka (57-for-60; 4th, 4th, and 7th places), Vitkova was battling for the win. She has superior ski speed, is the relay team anchor, and a very important piece in the Czech puzzle.
Women's Relay: No Penalties
Even with Koukalová and Vitkova, the Czech women were not as the previous season when they won the relay cup. They were second in Antholz and won in Presque Isle, but sixth in the other relays. Eva Puskarcikova and newcomer Lucie Charvátová handled the other two legs. Puskarcikova was steady in the leadoff leg, but the ex-cross country skier Charvátová had penalties that put the team in a hole so deep that Vitkova struggled to bring them to the podium. She has excellent speed on the tracks, so if she can avoid the penalty loop, the Czech women will be battling for relays wins ion every competition.
The Men with Moravec and Slesingr
Moravec and Slesingr have led the team along with Jaroslav Soukup for the past several seasons. Moravec won three medals in Sochi and was 6th in the Total Score in 2014-15. He has always been known as one of those fast and accurate guys on the shooting range. Last season started slowly, but he seemed to be in a groove after the holiday break with his first, but in the end only podium, second in the Ruhpolding pursuit. He had three other top 10 results in that span, but from Antholz on, he struggled with some illness and never got on track.
Likewise for Slesingr, who struggled through Sochi with illness, but came back with a personal best 8th in the Total Score the next year, plus an IBU WCH mixed relay Gold medal. Yet last season, he had a single podium and finished 18th in the Total Score.
Men's Relay Potential
Their woes meant the relay team, although bolstered by young Michal Krcmar who had a breakthrough 5th place in the Ruhpolding mass start, was really only in contention one time, in Oslo. The team finished 5th there, less than a second behind Austria and just over 20 seconds from the Bronze medal. Olympic Sprint Bronze medalist Soukup won a Silver medal at the IBU OECH and remains a steady shot on the relay team. If the top two men regain their form, the relay will be extremely competitive and the team will be in the mix for a top 5 in the Nations Cup once again.
The rise of and the continued success of the Czech team has been one of the Cinderella stories of biathlon. Last season, they found that the glass slipper fit perfectly on Koukalová while some of the others on the team struggled a bit. If she remains at or near the top and the others regain their strength and consistency; the Czech team will shine all season with another chapter in the story having a happy ending.