For many years now Zaitseva has been the informal leader of the entire team. Source: RIA Novosti
Ilya Trisvyatsky, special to RBTH
The biathlon relay races in Sochi – the men’s, women’s, and mixed events – are scheduled for February 19. Russia has always been among the strongest contenders in these disciplines.
The strongest and most reliable relay race performer in the Russian women’s biathlon team is Olga Zaitseva. She is also the only one of the 225 Russian athletes competing in Sochi to have won gold medals at the two previous Olympics - the 2006 Games in Turin and the 2010 Games in Vancouver, at both of which she scored victories in the relay races. In Italy she was the third member of the Russian relay quartet, and in Canada the fourth, i.e. the last to set off.
For many years now Zaitseva has been the informal leader of the entire team. At the 2009 World Championship the Muscovite single-handedly salvaged prestige for the Russian team, which had suffered a great deal of damage to its reputation after Albina Akhatova, Ekaterina Iourieva and Dmitry Yaroshenko were caught taking performance-enhancing drugs. In Pyeongchang she won gold in the relay race and the mass start; she also took bronze in the sprint and the pursuit race. Russia was not represented on the podium at the 2011, 2012 and 2013 world championships, but Olga has won several medals, including gold, at individual World Cup stages.
Incidentally, her chances of winning more medals have greatly improved now that the mixed relay race has been included in the Olympic program. It is hard to predict who else the coaches will choose for the mixed team – but Olga is almost guaranteed to be part of it.
Meanwhile, her personal results in the pre-Olympic season have not been particularly impressive. She came second in the sprint event at Östersund, and made it to the Top 10 in the sprint and the pursuit race on several other occasions. She had to miss the last stage in Italy after coming down with flu.
Germany and Norway have long been the main rivals of the Russian women’s team. Ukraine and Belarus have made a lot of progress in recent years, and are also among the contenders for Olympic medals. The French are regarded as strong competitors as well.
Three relay races have been held this season as part of the World Cup. The Ukrainian team took gold in early December at the Hochfilzen stage. A week later Germany won the stage in Annecy, France. Russia came in first in Ruhpolding, Germany, in early January. Zaitseva was the second to set off in all three relay races; the Russian team also included Yekaterina Glazyrina, Irina Starykh, and Olga Vilukhina.
Apart from Ukraine, Germany and Russia, this season's medals have also gone to French and Norwegian athletes. The list could have been longer, were it not for the fact that the team race on January 19 at Anterselva, Italy, was interrupted due to thick fog.
The Russian women’s team was split into two groups for training ahead of the Olympics. One of them was coached by Germany’s Wolfgang Pichler, the other by Russia’s own Vladimir Korolkevich. Zaitseva was in Pichler’s group.
“Pichler is a maximalist, and I am entirely happy with that,” Zaitseva says. “He has my full confidence. We have worked together for a long time, and I don't have the slightest doubt about his skills. He is a professional, and he does everything right… For me, the Olympics are the most important event. The Winter Games are always very exciting, because they happen only once every four years, and you spend the entire time preparing for them. It's impossible to get used to the Olympics. I have gained some experience during the previous Games, but every time it feels very different.”
For his part, Pichler is full of praise for Zaitseva. “She is incredibly talented and hard-working,” he says. “She is also psychologically resilient, which is extremely important in biathlon.”