She was one of the most successful biathletes. Anastasia Kuzmina has always impressed, especially on the Olympic stage. Now the 39-year-old is back after four years – an unusual comeback with question marks.
It’s that time of year, in February, when the World Championships are coming up. Then suddenly they are back again, the former stars of the scene, the Olympic champions, the medal collectors, the big names of the biathlon circus – mostly with new tasks.
While the “cannibal” Ole Einar Björndalen looks through his binoculars at the shooting range for Norwegian television, the most successful Finnish biathlete and overall World Cup winner of the past, Kaisa Mäkkärainen, writes autographs. Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff is still in good shape on the cross-country ski trail in his jersey, as are the Sportschau experts Arnd Peiffer and Erik Lesser during the route check.
Back on the international stage – at 39 years old
But one of this special group wears a bib with a start number. She is no longer an alum, because Anastasia Kuzmina is back on the international stage – at 39 years old. The three-time Olympic champion attacks again after four years of abstinence: “I missed biathlon a lot and I want to help the young Slovak athletes, as a sparring partner, but also mentally. There are a lot of new names, I have to get used to that“, she describes.
Her external image has hardly changed, as she stands in front of the camera in the Slovakian national suit – slim, tall, athletic. Kuzmina smiles, the biathlete has always been likeable. She seems content and relaxed. She has built her own team with her husband Daniel Kuzmin and wants to support young talent in her home country. The “Team Kuzmina Project” includes eight athletes, seven from the young generation and the old champion.
A complicated relationship with his Russian brother
Anastasia Kuzmina has shaped the sport of biathlon, winning nine medals at world championships and the Olympic Games and reaching the top of the podium four times. She has her roots in Russia and was born in 1984 in Tyumen, a biathlon stronghold. Three years later her brother was born: Anton Shipulin. Shipulin? A name that is not unknown in biathlon circles. He was also a successful biathlete, Olympic champion and world champion.
But since the war in Ukraine, Russian and Belarusian athletes have been excluded from the World Cup and are organizing their own racing series. The contact between the siblings has decreased significantly. Shipulin is an avowed Putin supporter. Anastasia Kuzmina is less able to identify with the political situation in her former homeland; it is a difficult situation, even within the family.
“Why should I do that?”
When she left the international stage after 13 years in the World Cup, she was in top form, won the sprint and the pursuit in Oslo in March 2019, and then it was over. The path back to competition, however, was not easy, she explains a good eight months later: “My body felt different than before, I trained three to four times a day, whereas at the time of my comeback it was only five sessions a week. I first had to get used to high levels of stress again, also mentally.”
The idea of a comeback arose last summer when she was training with young athletes in Osrblie for fun and was approached by a few coaches and officials from the national team: “At first I thought, this is a crazy idea, why should I do that? But a few days later and after talking to my husband, I said why not.“
Ban on starting the Summer World Cup
The starting shot was supposed to be given at the Summer World Championships in Osrblie, her home country, but Kuzmina was not allowed to compete. After a break, top athletes must be registered for doping controls with WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) at least six months before their first start in international competitions.
The three-time Olympic champion is preparing for winter with her team, always looking for snow in the fall. And she found what she was looking for in Switzerland, with an old friend – training together with Selina Gasparin. “It was only after my career ended that I understood who my friends from the biathlon family were. Once you leave, the contacts break down. Selina took us in immediately and rented us her house.”Kuzmina remembers.
“I apologize, …”
Six months later there were again championships in Osrblie, this time European and on snow in winter. It was supposed to be her first appearance – 59th place in the sprint, far away from her previous top results. “My goal is no longer to run for gold medals, I’ve realized that. I see myself much more as a team supporter and take smaller steps. I’m happy that the fans are behind me too and I apologize that they don’t See Anastasia from before.“
Nevertheless, she was nominated for the World Championships. The association needs Anastasia Kuzmina, especially for the relay, because without her there would only be three Slovakians at the start. There is a lot of interest in the returnee in Nove Mesto, among journalists and fans: “The atmosphere is unique, every athlete knows that“, says Kuzmina and pauses, because the fan horns from the stands are so loud that it is difficult to understand your own words, ““You feel the power of the spectators everywhere on the track, they push you.”
“My legs just wouldn’t work anymore”
And yet in the end all the spectator magic at her first individual start wasn’t enough, even if it was extremely close: “It’s incredible to be here again and yet I’m disappointed with my sprint result. Actually, I’ve been feeling stronger and stronger over the last few weeks, but the final lap was just terrible, nothing worked anymore, my legs didn’t want to go anymore.“
The former medal guarantor missed her pursuer by one place, in 61st place, or the equivalent of just 0.6 seconds. The question quickly arises, why would a superstar of this sport do this to himself again? But the 39-year-old doesn’t have to think long for the answer.
Half an eye is looking towards the 2026 Olympics
Despite the disappointment, there is a burning sensation in her eyes and with a smile, as if she had a very clear and well-structured plan in her head, she says: “If the young athletes get strong enough without me, then I can go back with peace of mind. Until then, I’ll fight, especially for our Slovakian relay team, maybe even until the 2026 Winter Olympics.“
It would perhaps be the crown of a special athlete’s story, which, in addition to many medals, also shows greatness and a heart for the Slovak sport of biathlon. Something is already certain, Anastasia Kuzmina will start at least twice in these world championships: in the individual race and with the women’s relay, for which she returned to the national team specifically.