Germany's Magdalena Neuner, who won a silver medal in the 7.5-kilometer sprint Saturday and who will compete in the 10-kilometer pursuit Tuesday, has taken a different, and considerably more lopsided, approach to the sport.
She's fast as heck on skis, but get out of the way when she picks up a gun.
During the past four years on the World Cup tour, Ms. Neuner's shooting percentage—the rate at which she hits targets—has ranged from 73% to 78%, about 10 percentage points lower than the other top biathletes on the World Cup circuit. Ms. Neuner has particular problems shooting from the standing position, where the past four years she has never hit more than 65% of the targets. Lying down, her percentages range from 85% to 91%.
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Magdalena Neuner of Germany competing in the women's 7.5-kilometer sprint biathlon Sunday, in which she took the silver medal.
That sort of inaccuracy can cause serious problems. For each of five targets a biathlete misses during a shooting round, she must do a humiliating lap around a 150-meter penalty loop, costing precious time in the race. The only reason the 23-year-old Ms. Neuner (rhymes with "joiner") has a shot at any medal is that she's far and away the fastest skier on the women's side of the event. She's so fast that Germany's regular cross-country team wants her to ski in next week's relay.
During Saturday's event, Ms. Neuner missed a target during her second round of shooting, sending her to the penalty loop and costing her about 10 seconds. Seven minutes later she crossed the finish line and collapsed into the snow, gasping for air. She'd finished in second place, just 1.5 seconds behind the ultimate gold-medal winner, Anastazia Kuzmina of Slovakia. Had Ms. Neuner completed two clean rounds on the range, she would have won going away.
"I missed the one target," Ms. Neuner said after the race, "but then I hit four more." The fact that she could have won gold with one more-accurate shot didn't seem to faze her. "It's a silver medal," she added, "It's great."
During the 2008-09 season, Ms. Neuner's struggles on the shooting range became a soap opera in Germany, where she's a major celebrity. Some have asked why she doesn't just bag biathlon and focus on skiing exclusively. But biathlon is the third most popular sport in Germany, after soccer and Formula One racing, with televised competitions every weekend throughout the winter. Biathletes take in more than $1 million a year in prize money and sponsorships. Cross-country skiers make substantially less and receive far less exposure and notoriety.
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A six-time world champion at individual distances and relays, Ms. Neuner is one of the stars of Germany's Olympic team. Blond and blue-eyed with a wide, telegenic smile, Ms. Neuner has been called "our biathlon beauty" by Germany's Bild newspaper. News of her silver medal led German news reports Sunday though many German fans were disappointed that she missed gold by just 1.5 seconds. In Whistler, British Columbia, where the skiing events are taking place, a pack of a dozen German sports journalists track her every move.
"I am very impressed the way she is representing her sport and her country," said Thomas de Maiziere, Germany's minister of inner affairs. "And to think she is only 23. That makes her something special."
Ms. Neuner and her coaches say that she has no physical or technical problems and that the issues are entirely in her head. During a weeklong training session in Sonthofen, Germany, that focused entirely on shooting, a riflery specialist made a tiny adjustment in the position of her right leg, placing it more directly behind her left leg on the range. Other than that, team spokesman Stefan Schwarzbach said, head coach Uwe Mussiggang simply told her to relax.
To do that Ms. Neuner has spent countless hours in what she called "mental training" with a psychologist. Her sessions continue during the Olympics from 6,000 miles away. Mr. Schwarzbach said he walked into Ms. Neuner's room the other night and she was speaking to her psychologist through Skype, the Internet video service.
Ms. Neuner said her psychologist first instructed her to change her attitude about the shooting range, to embrace it rather than dread it, and to smile when she picks up her rifle. "Last year, as I would get there I would think, 'Oh, no,' and I would be nervous. But this year, I run to the shooting range, and I get happy when I am there," she said.
Ms. Neuner has learned to control her breathing and visualize hitting each target before she pulls the trigger. As she skis the final stretch of the course into the shooting range, she slows down her breaths and begins to see herself hitting the targets. The screams of the crowd and the ubiquitous sounds of clanking cowbells begin to disappear. "I hear them when I am on the course, but never when I am on the range," she said. "I don't think about the press or the crowds or the other leaders of the race. The focus is only on myself. As soon as I see the targets, I tune them out."
So far the changes have produced slow and steady progress, as Ms. Neuner's shooting percentage has, at times, risen into the mid 80s this season in competition, though when she wins it's often in spite of her shooting rather than because of it, and she has to ski farther than anyone else on the podium.
Last month at Antholz-Anterselva in Italy, for instance, Ms. Neuner won races at 7.5 and 15 kilometers, even though in the 15-kilometer race she missed more targets than any of the next five finishers. In the 7.5-kilometer race, she missed one of 10 targets. The second- and third-place finishers missed none. In a 10-kilometer race that weekend, she missed four of 20 targets, and still managed to finish second.
And yet, true to her new positive outlook, Ms. Neuner won't let any of this get her down.
"I know that I can shoot well," she said Saturday night at Germany House in Whistler, her silver medal sitting at her fingertips.
"Last year was difficult, but I made a U-turn and now I am going to show everybody that I can shoot well. Maybe I make one mistake sometimes, but, all in all, there is a good feeling for shooting now," she said.
—Matthew Karnitschnig contributed to this article.
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