At the age of just 20, Sweden’s Hanna Öberg shocked the biathlon world by winning Olympic gold at PyeongChang 2018 without missing a single shot. She says her singular focus and ability to stay calm under pressure will be key in her pursuit of even greater success.
When the going gets tough in biathlon, Hanna Öberg gets on top of her game. And that ability to thrive on pressure, she says, was key to her winning a surprise Olympic gold at PyeongChang 2018 at the age of 20.
“I like to be in those deciding moments, that’s when I enjoy biathlon the most,” she said. “I probably perform better and better the more crucial it gets.”
In one of the biggest upsets in the Republic of Korea, the sprint and pursuit junior world champion won the 15km individual race without missing a single shot, before later helping her team to a silver in the relay.
“To come into the last part of a race when you know you’re shooting for a victory or for a medal or whatever it could be – when you come in there and know exactly what’s required, and to hit all five targets, that’s the toughest but also the most fun thing to do in this sport,” she said.
“PyeongChang was a fantastic experience for me – to be a part of that Olympic Games and to be able to perform and win medals. Now I’ll continue to work hard to be able to perform in the next Olympic Games [at Beijing 2022] too, but there’s still some time to go.”
Originating as a Scandinavian military sport, biathlon combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Skiers race around a track that includes a shooting range, and every time they miss one of the five round black targets at a 50-metre distance, they either get added time or have to race a lap in a penalty loop.
Born in Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, Öberg first stood on skis at the age of two. Her father, a biathlete since his army days, started a club in the city of Piteå when she was 10.
“They didn’t have a club there before, so my dad and some other people started it. My dad was the coach and it was only natural that I’d join the training sessions. I was hooked immediately.”
Öberg loved the sport’s main challenge: the transition from high-speed skiing to precision shooting. Competitors alternate between two positions, prone and standing, where the prone target has a diameter of 45mm and the standing target is 115mm. Every second spent aiming or suppressing hyperventilation can either be costly on the track later or a second well spent on a successful shot.
“The skiing is very physically demanding, and then to just switch around to being totally focused on performing the shooting, which demands a high level of precision and accuracy, is something completely different,” Öberg said.
“You really need to stay switched on mentally to be able to switch between those two elements.”
The main spectators’ stand is always placed beside the shooting range, where most races are decided. The cheering crowd adds another possible distraction when biathletes need to block out everything but the target.
“If I lose focus just a little bit during a shooting session, I’ll miss. You need to be 100 per cent focused and focused on the right things. To be stressed, thinking that you need to chase someone or thinking that ‘I really must hit this target’, rarely works. I shoot best when I’m calm and comfortable with myself, putting the focus on what I need to do rather than what’s happening around me.”
The mental training does not always have to be done wearing skis. US biathlete Susan Dunklee, whose hobby is bee-keeping, has said that keeping calm in the middle of a bee swarm has helped her to find focus when she approaches the shooting range.
“You can do anything where you work with being present,” Öberg said. “Mindfulness meditation, for example, has quite a few similarities.
“I do it a little bit, but the training on the shooting range itself works best for me.”
For the past two seasons, Öberg has been shooting with a total hit rate of 87 per cent and 86 per cent respectively. The biathlete shoots twice in the sprint and four times in the individual race and in the pursuit – a race where competitors’ starts are separated by their time differences from the previous race. A clean series of five straight hits is the ultimate goal for every shooting session.
“It’s a huge joy, almost a euphoria when you get it. I really feel that I learn something every time that I’m in a critical shooting session, no matter how it goes, but when I can manage to shoot clean I really feel like I’m growing, and I bring that feeling with me in the race.”
Öberg’s boyfriend Jesper Nelin, 27, is a Swedish biathlete who won gold in the men’s relay at PyeongChang 2018. Her younger sister Elvira recently joined the World Cup team.
“It’s so much fun to have her on the team now, and it’s also inspiring for me,” Hanna said.
“I’m teaching her everything that I know but she knows how biathlon works – you shoot and you ski – so it’s not that much about that but rather, since she’s new at the World Cup, in the different venues, how you walk to the start, where you have the weapon control, and the practical things with the media and how I work professionally with everything around the sport.”
Proving that the PyeongChang success was not a fluke, Öberg won an individual gold, a relay silver and a bronze in the mixed relay on home snow at the Östersund 2019 Biathlon World Championships a year later, finishing fifth in last season’s overall World Cup rankings. She has started 2020 strongly and is currently no.2 in the standings.
Focus is on the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games where she could defend her title and go for a relay gold medal together with her sister, who is three years younger.
With her temperament and obvious talent, such feats should no longer be such a surprise.