Norway's Bjorndalen, a.k.a 'The King of Biathlon', won 13 Olympic medals (including 8 golds), across six Winter Games, and 45 medals at the World Championships, more than anyone else. His wife Domracheva of Belarus has a total of 6 Olympic medals (4 golds) in three participations.
They describe the sport that combines cross-country skiing and shooting as "Fire and ice".
"You need to be fire and then need to be cold as ice on a shooting range. The combination is the most interesting here," Domracheva said, in an exclusive interview with the Olympic Channel alongside his husband.
After their retirement, they moved to Beijing in 2019 to start working with the young Chinese team. The Norwegian is the head coach, while Domracheva is in charge of the women's team.
During a lengthy conversation from their home in the Chinese capital, the 'golden couple of biathlon' explain how they are helping China develop both in cross-country skiing and shooting, despite the challenges from the coronavirus restrictions that prevent their squad from competing at international level.
"Our goal is to develop the athletes as far as possible." - Ole Einar Bjornadalen and Darya Domracheva to Olympic Channel.
Olympic Channel (OC): How is your adventure in China going?
Ole Einar Bjorndalen (OEB): It’s going quite well, although we would like to be in Europe competing at the World Cup, but they don't send us because of the situation with coronavirus in Europe now. So we are in China all the time, we do a preparation here and we have good snow conditions. We are training very hard, as hard as we can. The athletes are in good shape, they do development every day. So we are all very optimistic.
OC: You started training the Chinese team in September 2019. What was your first thought when you receive the call from the Chinese National Olympic Committee to lead their team?
OEB: The first thought was: “Wow! That seems very interesting, but we need to have a little bit more time to think together.” For sure it was a big challenge because the level from the Chinese athletes in the last years was not that good. We really needed to think, more than two times, about these questions. Then I took a visit over here and looked at some athletes, looked at how they do the training, and we saw that this potential could change quite a lot with a training philosophy. We also found a few talents, so we [started to] think that it was possible to bring up some [athletes to a] good level.
Darya Domracheva (DD): For me, when I first heard about such a proposal, that could probably be our next job, I was very surprised. At the beginning, I didn’t think about such a situation, but after a few days I thought: “Why not?” Because we, as professional athletes, as people who like to challenge ourselves, [thought] this is a very interesting challenge and a very interesting way to continue our career after [retiring from] our active athlete's career. To share your experience with other people, with other athletes, it's a great opportunity to develop yourself.
Only by such international cooperation, you can develop the total level of international sport. We hope that biathlon will get more and more popular in China. We are working on that very hard right now. Of course, we are looking forward to a new official competition for our team and of course looking forward to Beijing 2022.
"We hope that biathlon will get more and more popular in China. We are working on that, very hard"
OC: China has never won a medal in biathlon. How realistic it is to clinch one on home soil at Beijing 2022?
DD: The results of China’s biathletes have been not that bad in the past. They performed quite well on the World Cup level before the Vancouver Olympic Games. After that, it was a little bit [of a] step down, a lot of good athletes retired. Now we are working with a new generation, trying to bring good results up again. Biathlon is a very unpredictable sport. You need a very high level of confidence in the moment, but we both believe that is possible to reach some good results.
OC: What are the challenges that you are facing?
OEB: To live in China is, for us, not a big problem, because when you are in training resorts it's almost everything the same as in Europe. The biggest challenge is for sure the culture and understanding for sport, and understanding how we do the training, how we explain it... Some of them understand quite good English, so that’s very good and is much easier for them. Others speak only in Chinese, so they have a big challenge. We need to have a good translator.
DD: The main challenge is, of course, the situation that our team cannot go out now and compete with other athletes and there are some kind of mental difficulties. We need to find some extra motivation for them, because when you have competition as a goal the motivation is very clear, but when the schedule of the races and competition is not so clear, then you need to find other motivation. We are trying to be creative in this way, and try to use that creativity in our daily training.
OC: How are you motivating your athletes without competing? How do you keep them motivated, even more if they are new to the sport?
OEB: We're very lucky that we have internet here, so we can look at the races from Europe. That gives them actually a lot of motivation because you see the high level and you can study everything from women to men: how they are skiing, how they're performing. So that gives them motivation. Then we need to find interesting training sessions. We build up test competitions and basic training. We have many different ways to give them something to look forward to.
DD: In biathlon it's possible to make fun training. We try to make some fun shooting [sessions], relays.
OC: How would you define the level of the team when you started? How has been the evolution in this year and a half?
OEB: The level when we started was not that good, but we saw that there was some talent there although they were missing a lot in the technical, endurance training… We saw that we could build something on these athletes. They develop quite fast.
Last year was also a big challenge because we came very late into the team. We came in September, so we missed all the Summer training. We needed to take over a team with a different training philosophy, so that was not easy. We had to jump into the team and then two, three months of preparation for the season and we needed to do our best. And then at the start of this year, after two months with the team, they couldn’t go out, they needed to do almost all the training in the room. The situation in China with the coronavirus is very strict, but now we can do what we wish for training. Although we’d like to be in the World Cup, at least we can do whatever we want in training [here in China]. The development is going well. They develop quite fast.
OC: What will your goal be at Beijing 2022?
OEB: Our goal is, first of all, to develop the athletes as far as possible. If everything goes well, if we can catch medals, it’d be amazing. But it’s very difficult for our team now if we cannot take part in any competition this year. It’s very challenging for our team to make good preparation for the Olympic Games. In the first case, we can only start with two athletes, and maybe we don't have a relay team, because we cannot make any qualification through this all season. That is the first case, so we’ll see…The season is still not finished, but I don’t think it would be possible to come to Europe.
OC: How much pressure are you experiencing to bring success?
OEB: The pressure is very high. They push us to train athletes harder and harder. But everybody knows that sometimes you need to let them rest too. That is our job: to find the balance in all training because China is very motivated, athletes are motivated and everyone knows that “more is not always better.” We need to be smart and take small steps. This is the fastest way to the top.
OC: Both of you are used to winning all the time, how hard it is to deal with athletes that are, as I said, basically greenhorns / novices?
DD: Every athlete that has a sports career, has a long way to achieve the results. And we also came through such a way, so we know how to go step by step to the results. In our case, it was not like snowfall on our head. We worked a lot to achieve the results that we had and we know how to do it. We try to work with our athletes step by step. Of course, you need patience and time. We do our daily job and our athletes work well, so we will see.
OC: How is the culture of biathlon in China?
OEB: The knowledge is very, very low. We travel around the region and it’s very sad to see how far behind they are from the European side. Biathlon is quite a young sport and it developed very fast. In World Cup, you have 20 nations that are working very well. That is also part of our job: to inform [people] how it is possible to work better in a different direction in China. The time is very limited and they are too far away from the level of Europe. They just have basic knowledge about biathlon training.
"The pressure is very high. We need to be smart and take small steps."
OC: China is investing a lot of money by bringing in other also prominent sports coaches from traditional Winter sports nations, like you in biathlon. have you been in touch with any of them to compare experiences?
DD: Right now we are in the training center with a lot of other teams. There is freestyle, snowboarding, cross-country, ski jumping. There are a lot of teams, a lot of foreign coaches and we are quite lucky to have such communication with them. We cheer with each other, with different opinions, with different experiences. It’s very interesting for us.
OEB: Some of these teams had also very good results, they are very successful in the World Cup. It's very interesting to see how they work with the Chinese system for so many years, some of them have been working for six, seven years. We learned a lot and they help us to understand how we can reinforce the result in this new culture for us and it’s very helpful.
OC: In what way are you feeling like pioneers in China?
OEB: We don't think so much about that, but for us privately, this is the first job to do and it’s very different being from being an athlete because in coaching you need to think in a totally different way. To me its like ‘pioneer’ thinking, because you have your thoughts about how to make success, but then you try that and see how some of them work and some others don’t, so you learn something every day and you need to cooperate with so many people. We need to be in a very big team and use all the people around you if you want to bring some results.
DD: Of course, all athletes are different and everyone has their own individuality and own reactions on training. So you need to feel the team, you need to understand them very well. For me, that's very interesting.
OC: What do you miss the most of competing?
OEB: When we look at the World Cup competitions of course, we miss it. It was a great time in our life and we did it for many years. We especially miss when we were very close to the start. When you do the race is okay because you are in your bubble, but going, waiting and getting ready the last days before the competition, there are so many interesting thoughts, so many mentalizing you need to be prepared for and then the start and it’s only you…I missed that a lot. It’s not easy to get that feeling in other parts of your life.
DD: What I miss the most is challenging myself.
OC: How do you train mentally in biathlon?
DD: Biathlon is fire and ice. You have to be very hot in the distance, and when you're coming to the shooting range, you have to be cold as ice. You need to have such a good switcher in yourself, to be able to switch it on and switch it off. Always try to keep a balance and do it in the right moment and work with your own emotions, and that is not easy. I had that challenge for some years at the beginning of my career, but everything comes with experience. When you understand yourself better, then you understand also how to work in biathlon, how to work with this switcher. We try to explain such things to our team, but we don't make some special mental training, we try to explain that in our daily training.
OEB: There are many ways to do training, and the mental part is, for sure, very important. We want to try to bring the European and Norwegian ID to the Chinese system. The mental thing is important but we are still far away from that at the moment because we have many other places where we need to work much harder.
OC: Ole, you are known as the “King of Biathlon” (8x Olympic champ, 20x world champ). You won your first Olympic medal in Nagano 1998 and the last one in Sochi at 40! What did you do to be on top of the sport for so many years?
OEB: I was always hungrier for the next race. I love my sport so much, for me, it was never a job. Every year I was looking forward to the next one with a lot of enthusiasm. For me, it was very easy to continue to motivate myself.
But to stay up you need to think about development because if you look at my first Olympic gold at Nagano 1998 and you go to Sochi, you see a huge difference in my technique, how I shoot. So you need to be open-minded, but you need to be in constant development mentally. That’s the most important.
OC: Darya, what has motivated you to keep competing and on top for so many years as well?
DD: The love for my sport. I like so much of the feelings when I was on the track, like flying feelings. That’s what makes me happy and my biggest motivation. Of course, there was also a lot of tough training and hard work. I like to challenge myself and I like to have the feeling of satisfaction after a long period of hard training sessions, and then when you're coming to the competition, you are 100% focused. That kept me motivated to do my sport.
OC: In your opinion, what does biathlon have that makes it such a special sport?
OEB: When I started with biathlon in Norway it was a very interesting sport, but it was not so popular, because the traditional bad cross-country skiers started with the shooting and then they started biathlon. Today is a little bit different. Now you need to be a very fast skier and you need to do the shooting at a very high level too. So this combination is what makes it more interesting because when I was 14, 15, 16, 17 years old, I was much better in cross-country. I won everything in cross-country, but in biathlon, I had no chance. Anyway, I started biathlon because I like the sport much more, and especially the mental challenge. I was not a talent in shooting, I needed to learn it from the basics. When you can handle that, it is very great because as I said, you need to be fire and then need to be cold as ice on a shooting range. The combination is the most interesting here.
DD: For me, exactly the same. At my young age, sometimes in the sprint competition, I made nine or ten penal loops. It was a big challenge, but I liked that so much. My biggest wish was to come over myself, to find the balance, and, as I said, the switcher, was a very interesting process. It makes biathlon really interesting for spectators: it’s an unpredictable sport. Even if you are the strongest physically, it could come some weather conditions, different things that make it very difficult to say who is going to win before the start. Things change very fast also during the race and that makes it super attractive for spectators.
OC: What can we expect from the world championships that are starting in February in Slovenia?
OEB: I think that we can expect a very interesting world championship. I hope that more nations can come up, more athletes, more teams that can fight tougher. Normally that happens in the world championships. The surprise this year is Belarus on the women's side, they are stronger than before. Sweden has the biggest development from all the teams this year, they are very strong. So I hope it will be interesting.
DD: This world championships in Slovenia will be on altitude, so probably for the athletes who are normally good in altitude will be good there. We are looking forward to competing with our athletes there, but we will only be able to watch the competition. I think it will be a big fight for the medals.
OC: In one year in February 2022, we will be enjoying the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, in the city you are living in now. What are your predictions for biathlon?
OEB: I think, as I said before, that biathlon is an unpredictable sport. We have good support from spectators, we are very lucky that our discipline is very nice to watch on TV, you don't need to be in the stadium to get the atmosphere and the feeling of our sport. It is very interesting and easy to understand. This Olympic Games will be a lot of speed. We will see a lot of action on the track of the Olympic Stadium.