It’s February 2023 and the Biathlon World Championships are in full swing in Oberhof, Germany and Denise Herrmann-Wick was always considered one of the favorites to take home the silverware. In fact, she has already been crowned world champion in the sprint and taken the silver medal in pursuit. But how did she get to the top of her sport? I sat down with her to talk about where it all started, her journey as an athlete and what success looks like to her.
From a childhood dream to reality
Denise Herrmann-Wick grew up in the Erzgebierge, a ski resort in Saxony in Germany, and with her dad being an enthusiastic cross-country skier, it was only natural that she was taken to the trails from a very early age. Through regular training at the local ski club in Bockau and watching the World Championships and Olympics on TV, it soon became clear where Denise saw her future.
After graduating in 2009 from the elite sports school Oberwiesenthal, Denise decided to pursue a career in cross-country skiing. A career in which she celebrated several World Cup podium finishes and participated in the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, where she won the bronze medal with the women’s relay team.
But in the 2016/2017 season, Denise switched from cross-country skiing to biathlon. The question for me was very clearly ‘why?’
Making the switch
Denise explains that at some point in your life you reflect on what has been and what else is to come. For her, this was when she realized that something had always been missing in her career. As soon as she changed disciplines, she knew exactly what she needed to fill the void.
“I no longer have the feeling that 1% is missing to be totally fulfilled. It is so much fun to experience the sport and combine the basics from cross-country skiing with learning something completely new with shooting.
“It’s just so exciting, but a lot of things are also very uncertain. In cross-country skiing you’re like, “Yeah, I’m fit now. I can run approximately such and such a range” but with biathlon anything can change, and it can happen so quickly. All of a sudden tactics shift and that creates this tension in the field.”
She mentioned to me the strong desire to change to biathlon came as a result of several different factors.
“For me it was mixture of moving to Ruhpolding which is a biathlon stronghold, a desire to try something new and taking part in a test shooting with the German Ski Association. It resonated so much with me, and I felt it was something that I really wanted to do. You’ll never really know when the right time is to make a change, but for me it was like, “if I don’t do it now, I’m not doing it at all.” So, I made my decision and took the plunge.”
Tackling challenges and the value of learning
I asked Denise, how it feels to be a biathlete, especially given the challenge of having to learn how to shoot and she explained some of the challenges she’s had to overcome.
“There is always the danger of (rifle) failure, the challenge of being faster than the people next to you and overcoming everything that’s going on in your mind. Of course, this is a common situation in biathlon, but sometimes it’s difficult to stay focused when the direct competition is right up next to you, trying their best to outperform you. Nevertheless, I love this duel of woman against woman, man against man. The thrill of the duel is what spurs me on.”
While motivation clearly plays an important role in achieving success in biathlon, Denise continues to explain that there are other things she takes into consideration.
“Of course, in a race, experience means a lot. You carry a sense of achievement, but also memories of defeat. But you need to take these experiences and learn from them. To help me, I’ve been trying out various mental techniques with a coach has helped me to reach the well-known state of flow.
“However, the most important thing for me is to constantly work on myself. I never stop learning new things and always try to challenge the status quo. You can use certain tactics which initially you can use to great effect, but over time they become automatic, and that effect flattens out over time.
“It’s really important to keep adding new physical and mental stimuli to your training. You always need be on the lookout. When you’re competing at the highest level, you need to work on every detail, but sometimes it’s too easy to overlook the bigger picture. You need to balance these two things out: keep looking at the details, but within that bigger picture.”
Changing your ways doesn’t happen overnight, and Denise tells me you have to be patient. By doing so, you’ll get where you want to be if you just give yourself the time and space.
“Then there comes a point where you’re like, hey, somehow, I’m getting there. Somehow, it’s getting better and better and somehow, I’m improving.”
“You always want to give everything in a race, but you’re not a machine, you’re just a human being. Often you have to take a step back from being purely results orientated and focus again on the things only you can influence, which is to run fast and shoot well, because you can’t influence what others are doing. That helps me build that tunnel, which of course at times can be difficult.”
Denise’s successes include a Winter Olympic bronze medal in cross-country skiing at Sotchi in 2014, and in 2022, biathlon gold and bronze medals in Beijing.
“I believe every success has its own story, but of course my Olympic medal in the biathlon is the biggest thing and it puts everything else in the shade. Nevertheless, the bronze I won with the cross-country relay team is also very special to me, because the women’s team had not been able to achieve any success for many years before and this victory brought the team together in a strong way. It really welded us together as a team. This has shown me that success in this sport does not only require great individual performances, but also excellent team performances.”
Denise left me with one last snippet of advice that she believes will help anyone achieve their goals.
“You have goals, but if you’re smart, you set yourself small interim goals and tasks every day, and that you don’t always live in front of yourself. That also keeps you focused and motivated. Life has so many things to offer. You should also just try different things and look for new goals to push boundaries. When you reach your goals then, that’s a really cool feeling too!!!”
So, you want to follow in Denise’s footsteps? Take some inspiration from her equation for success:
Physical and Mental Health + Right Material + Regeneration + Team + Family and Friends = SUCCESS!
I wish Denise all the best and keep my fingers crossed for further successes and medals!