OSTERSUND, Sweden (Reuters) – Swedish Olympic champion Stina Nilsson shocked the sport of cross-country skiing by making an abrupt switch to biathlon, but four years on from her gold medal in Pyeongchang, she has been selected to go to Beijing in her new sport.
On a freezing January morning Nilsson, who won cross-country’s individual sprint in Pyeongchang and silvers in the team sprint and 4x5km relay events, was out before the sun came up, pounding around the ski trails and displaying the new shooting skills that have delivered her to a third Olympics.
“That’s what biathlon is all about, to be able to push yourself out in the tracks, and in the same time come into the range and just like take full control over your body,” Nilsson told Reuters as the national team trained in Ostersund, some 550 kilometres north of Stockholm.
“Be able to calm yourself down and don’t hear all the noises behind you, that’s what it’s all about. I really think it’s a fascinating sport so I really love this challenge,” she added.
Despite her relative lack of experience, the 28-year-old has taken to the sport like a duck to water and become an integral part of the Swedish team, impressing coach Jean-Marc Chabloz.
“We started the process (of teaching her to shoot) last year, but this year it’s been even more about condensing the time so one doesn’t have to think about the shooting too early,” the Swiss coach, who is himself a four-time Olympian, explained.
“When she skis, then she skis and when one approaches the shooting range one switches over (mentally) to shooting.”
The pair conferred briefly after each trip to the range, with Chabloz showing Nilsson where her shots hit and making suggestions for minor adjustments before she tore off again, her strong skiing technique powering her up the first hill.
“I don’t usually compare cross-country skiing and biathlon skiing because I think it’s two different kinds of skiing and in biathlon we have other people who are faster,” Nilsson said modestly.
“I feel like in the pursuit (race) I can take a big advantage of my sprint skiing from cross-country skiing, because it’s like many tight duels, and that I’m good at.”
Though clearly an excellent skier, Nilsson’s place in the Swedish biathlon team was not a given. The youthful squad sent to Pyeongchang in 2018 came home with two gold and two silver medals, and competition for places is fierce.
Since then Elvira Oeberg, younger sister of Olympic champion Hanna, has burst onto the scene, but Nilsson held her own while learning the new sport and managed to grab one of the last spots on the six-person Olympic women’s team.
With each country limited to a maximum of four competitors in each individual race, her next task will be to convince the coaches that she should be given a chance to compete in Beijing, but Chabloz sees a bright future for her.
“There’s no limit, that’s clear and I’ve said it from the beginning,” he said.
“I’ve never doubted her skiing capacity, so now she’s beginning to bring it all together and it’s incredibly exciting. I am so happy that things are going the way they are.”
Whatever happens, Nilsson is keen to learn during her first Olympics as a biathlete.
“There’s another Olympics in four years and I think that if I’m able to qualify there I would have much more experience,” she said.
“I don’t see myself going back to cross-country skiing.”
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Toby Davis)