Gabriela Soukalová has recently become accustomed to crossing the biathlon finish line in first place, smiling radiantly and proudly waving the flag of the Czech Republic. With the Sochi Games just around the corner, she has timed her rapid rise well, racking up numerous podium appearances, topping the overall World Cup standings and capturing the small crystal globe for her performances in individual races. “It’s amazing! It’s almost unreal,” says the enthusiastic biathlete, a highly accurate shooter with a seemingly effortless skiing motion.
It has been a remarkable period for an athlete who had originally gone into this current campaign full of trepidation. “I thought that the season was going to be tough,” she admits. “I was a little bit concerned because people would know what to expect from me – last year, nobody knew me.”
Indeed, it was not until the end of season 2012-2013, in March in Khanty-Mansiysk (RUS), that she shot to prominence on the international stage, triumphing in all three events on the calendar – sprint, pursuit and mass start.
The sweet sound of success
To celebrate that sprint victory, Soukalová demonstrated another talent, performing a passionate and pitch-perfect version of George Gershwin’s Summertime while seated between fellow biathletes Andrea Henkel and Miriam Gössner at the post-race press conference.
The previous month, at the Biathlon World Championships in Nové Město na Moravě (CZE), the Czech skier, who sings for the ‘Bond Biathlon Band’ in her spare time – a group that recorded For Your Eyes Only for an amusing parody film entitled The Spy Who Loved Biathlon –had entertained a delighted partisan crowd with her take on No Doubt’s Don’t Speak.
Like mother like daughter
“I never thought that I would compete at this level,” says Soukalová, whose role model is retired two-time Olympic gold medallist Magdalena Neuner (GER). “When I was a little girl, I was pretty lazy. I loved drawing, painting and horse-riding, but I wasn’t really interested in sport. When I first took it up, it was because of my parents. But after that, I did it for me, because I enjoyed it.”
Soukalová comes from fine biathlon stock. Her mother, Gabriela Svobodová, won a silver medal in the 4 x 5km cross-country relay at Sarajevo 1984, and now coaches her, along side her husband.
She is keen to stress the influence her mother has had on her career. “What I most remember about the Games is watching the cross-country skiing,” she recalls. “My mother played a very important role in my development. We would race each other when I was young, and her medal was on display in the living room. She told me that these days she turns away when I’m about to shoot, as it makes her very nervous. More nervous than me, in fact!”
Now 24, Soukalová has become more adept at modifying her tactical approach when needed. For example, if her skiing is letting her down she always takes time to fire off the perfect shot. Her recent form has seen her emerge as a realistic medal hope in the six events in which she is competing in 2014, but she is keeping her feet firmly on the ground. “The biathlon is always a bit unpredictable,” she says. “You can be on top one moment, and then suddenly find yourself at the bottom of the heap,” she points out.
For that very reason, she chooses to downplay the fact that she is currently top of the World Cup standings, but there is no denying that, 30 years after her mother won Olympic silver, she has what it takes to go one better in Sochi.