Germans love biathlon. As the name implies, the competition comprises two parts, skiing and shooting – and is one of the world’s most popular winter sports. Gerald Hönig has enjoyed great success coaching Germany’s female biathletes since 2007, including Kati Wilhelm, Andrea Henkel and – the current world champion – Laura Dahlmeier.
A gray sky hangs over Oberhof, Germany, and this morning a surprisingly large number of people are making their way through the nearby forest in this normally sleepy town. Cars and buses lead the way. More than 60,000 biathlon fans from all over the world make a pilgrimage once a year to Grenzadler am Rennsteig, where the Biathlon World Cup is taking place: the international races constitute the most prestigiuos tournament for this sport.
The spectators have been making their way to the DKB Ski Arena in Oberhof since the early morning hours. With brightly painted faces, they cheer and sing – in spite of the icy temperatures. Today, the women’s 7.5 kilometer sprint will take place.
It is 11:30 in the morning. The target shooting begins. Shortly before the event is about to start, the athletes adjust their rifles to account for the atmospheric conditions. Gerald Hönig, who coaches the German Women’s Biathlon Team, had hoped for the mild weather forecasted. He need not be disappointed: there is minimal wind – the small red flags on the shooting range show how hard and in which direction it is blowing. Visibility is optimal. Hönig, dressed in a bright blue hat and a green jacket from the German Ski Association, is standing there looking through the right eyepiece of his ZEISS spotting scope. While he is responsible for the team’s strategy at the shooting range, the other coach, Tobias Reiter, concentrates on the race ahead.
Routines and tactics carry the day
Both men already started their final preparations for the race the night before by discussing their tactical approach one last time. On the day of the competition, the team’s training kick into gear and their performance is shaped by routines and oft-rehearsed regimens. “There isn’t some sort of special ritual, nor is this rocket science,” explains Hönig. An experienced group of technicians and support staff assists the team. “The results from the past few years demonstrate that we have very good chances.”
The arena is almost sold out. Hönig looks through the lens and concentrates on his biathletes. Laura Dahlmeier is in the middle of shooting at the target 50 meters away. After each shot, Hönig places small white magnets on the wood-framed board he is holding. He repeatedly looks intently through the spotting scope. The shot pattern looks good. Dahlmeier turns to her coach, excited to see what he will say. Hönig gives her a nod, briefly explains a few things and gives her a few tips. She rotates the diopter on her rifle. Today, all eyes are on her. In the wake of an illness, this is her first real competition of the season. When speaking to the press, the German trainer has warned people that she is not at the top of her game, “Given what has happened, we can’t be certain that she is feeling 100% quite yet.”
From a hobby to a career
Hönig is a coach through and through. He loves what he does. Born not far from where today’s biathlon is being held, Hönig discovered the sport for himself as a boy and began attending the renowned sports school in Oberhof in 1973. At the time, biathlons were considered an obscure sport. After graduating, Hönig joined the Winter Sports Club ASK in Oberhof, studied sports science in Leipzig and, beginning in 1984, started working as a coach in Oberhof – the very year when the first Biathlon World Cup was held in the newly completed ski arena in Oberhof. 34 years later, Hönig is back at the shooting range.
Just before the event starts, camera teams, photographers and journalists swarm around the coaches from more than 30 countries to get last-minute interviews and sound bites. To the right of the German coaching staff are the Italians, to the left the Norwegians. Everyone is staring through their spotting scopes. It is 12:30. Hönig looks to the screen to follow the start of the event.
The new up-and-coming athlete on the team, Denise Hermann, starts off the competition while Maren Hammerschmidt and Vanessa Hinz are close on her heels as the German team heads down the cross-country ski trail. Hönig does not betray any sign of tension. “There is nothing worse than when a coach seems uncertain or discombobulated and then infects his team,” says Hönig, speaking from experience. “I’ve become more relaxed over the years.” So you aren’t even a little bit nervous? “Of course I am!” he admits. “At the climactic events of the season, such as the Biathlon World Championship or Olympic Games, you need this positive tension, these emotional moments to stay alert and notice minor details.”
“Working with people and their different personalities is something I find exciting. Moreover, I love being challenged by an athlete and integrating them into the training process.”
Everything happens for the best
Herrmann reaches the shooting range. Hönig looks through the optic. The athlete lies down on the mat and fires. Bang. It’s a hit! 10,000 people cheer. She does it again, ultimately hitting the black target five times. She only misses once. “One miss for Herrmann,” says Hönig into his radio. This means a penalty loop. Hönig meticulously documents the hits and misses. The other athletes also have to do a penalty loop. Hönig keeps his cool. It is getting louder in the arena. Laura Dahlmeier is up. You can feel the tension. She starts out with three hits. The crowd goes wild. Then she misses a target. Hönig shakes his head. His emotions are projected onto all the screens in the arena. Even when standing to shoot, his top athlete only hits four of the targets. The coach does not let this rattle him.
“Success is as much a part of life as defeat,” says Hönig. He has a lot of good memories, especially from the past ten years. He has particularly fond recollections of Andrea Henkel’s win at the world championship in 2008 in Östersund, or Magdalena Neuener’s two gold medals at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. There have also been other, less enjoyable moments, such as in 2014 at the Olympic Games in Sotchi where the team had a stroke of bad luck: Franziska Preuß fell twice, and the team ended up placing 11th. “This helped me become a better coach, and it was also a learning experience for the girls on the team,” says Hönig, sounding almost paternal. He is convinced that in life there is a reason for everything.
Hönig continues to focus sharply on the competition. All of his athletes still have a shot for a place at the podium. Although Franziska Hildebrand missed a target at the shooting range, she is the third person to leave the penalty loop. Hildebrandt falls in behind the competitors from Slovakia, Finland and the Czech Republic, placing fourth. Laura Dahlmeier ends the race behind Franziska Preuß, coming in 13th. Hönig is pleased with his six athletes’ performance, and praises them again and again.
Looking ahead to the Olympics
It starts to rain. While the biathletes give interviews and sign autographs, Hönig is still standing at the shooting range, speaking with colleagues and friends. If you ask him about his aspirations and goals, he replies, “To help the athletes develop further so that they can hold their own in the major competitions. It would also be great to have another athlete as part of our national team.” The rain picks up. Hönig packs up his spotting scope, puts on his backpack and says his goodbyes. “Now we will assess the competition one-on-one, make a list of where we fell short, and keep looking forward.” Two other races, the pursuit and relay, are still to come. And the world championships in Ruhpolding and Antholz are not far off, nor are the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang. We’ll keep our fingers crossed!
Gerald Hönig, born on 4 September 1958 in Tambach-Dietharz, Germany, is the coach for the German Women’s Biathlon Team. His hobbies include biathlons, mountain biking, golf and beach volleyball. Favorite soccer club: RB Leipzig.