The all-singing star of world biathlon
A double Olympic silver medallist at Sochi 2014, an IBU World Cup winner in 2016 and a sprint world champion a year later, Czech biathlete and part-time chanteuse Gabriela Koukalová will undoubtedly be one to watch at PyeongChang 2018.
“I never thought that I would compete at this level,” said Gabriela Koukalová, née Soukalová, reflecting on her rise to the top of the biathlon world. “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.”
Born in Jablonec nad Nisou, the Czech biathlete is coached by her parents Karel and Gabriela. Her mother, who won silver in the 4x5km cross-country relay at Sarajevo 1984, has had a major influence on her career. “My mother played a very important role in my development,” she explains. “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!”
Hitting the big time
Koukalová, who married the badminton player Petr Koukal in 2016 and names the German biathlon great Magdalena Neuner as her role model, showed that she belonged in the sport by winning relay gold at the 2009 Junior World Championships in Canmore (CAN).
After a low-key Olympic debut at Vancouver 2010, she made her breakthrough on the senior scene in the 2012/13 season, scoring the first IBU World Cup victory of her career in the sprint in Pokljuka (SLO) and ending the campaign with sprint, pursuit and mass start wins in Khanty-Mansiysk (RUS).
Tuning up for Sochi
The sight of a smiling Koukalová clutching the Czech flag down the home straight became a common one in the lead-up to Sochi 2014. A very accurate shooter with an effortless skiing style, she scored a series of World Cup victories and top-three finishes to win the individual small crystal globe and move to the top of the overall leaderboard before heading to Russia for the Winter Games.
Taken aback by her success, she said: “I thought that the season was going to be tough. I was a little bit concerned because people would know what to expect from me. Last year, nobody knew me.”
The Czech’s opening event at Sochi was the sprint, in which she placed 23rd after missing a series of shots. She was back on form in the pursuit, finishing fourth, just five seconds off the medals. Shooting errors again proved fatal in the individual, however, with two misses costing her two minutes in time penalties and condemning her to another fourth place.
Koukalová’s luck changed in the mass start, where she produced a superb performance to pick up silver, 20 seconds behind Belarus’ Darya Domracheva. The Czech then teamed up with Veronika Vitkova, Jaroslav Soukup and Ondrej Moravec to pocket another silver in the new mixed relay event, which was won by Norway.
There was disappointment for Koukalová in the World Cup, however, with Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen ending the season strongly to take the overall title.
The big one
Koukalová collected two medals at the 2015 Worlds in Kontiolhati (FIN): silver in the individual and gold in the mixed relay with Vitkova, Moravec and Michal Slesingr. She then fulfilled a major career objective by winning the IBU World Cup the following season, in which she also won small crystal globes in the sprint, the pursuit and the mass start.
“I think I am more professional than a couple of years ago,” she said, explaining the key to her overall win. “I did not visit parties like some years ago and tried to do a very good job. I think the most important thing was that I was not sick during the preparation and everything was perfect.”
A maiden sprint world title
Success continued to come Koukalová’s way in the 2016/17 season. After experiencing what she described as “the most exciting moment” of her career in winning the mass start in front of 35,000 home fans in Nove Mesto in December, the Czech secured her maiden sprint world title in Hochfilzen two months later. As well as denying Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier a clean sweep of the golds at those championships, Koukalová also took bronze in the pursuit and silver in the individual.
In the World Cup, meanwhile, she pushed Dahlmeier all the way in the race for the big crystal globe. Though the German beat her to it, Koukalová did more than enough to suggest she will be in contention for Olympic gold at PyeongChang 2018.
Koukalová is more than just a talented biathlete, as her performances on stage with fellow biathletes and talented guitarists Lowell Bailey and Jean-Guillaume Béatrix have shown. Together, they form the group Gabi, Lowell, Jean-Gui & Friends, which regularly entertains the members of the biathlon tour.
She first revealed her gift for singing at the press conference that followed her maiden World Cup sprint win in Khanty-Mansiysk in 2013, performing George Gershwin’s Summertime to a suitably impressed media corps.She also wowed the crowds at the World Championships in Nove Mesto that same year, singing the No Doubt song “Don’t Speak” to her fans in the stands. Then, in Chisinau (MDA) in September 2016, she treated the members of the IBU to a superb rendition of the Ben E. King hit “Stand by Me”.