He is the most successful Czech male biathlete. From Monday, March 15, his results will be listed in historical databases only. Ondřej Moravec, the Olympic medallist, world champion and winner of World Cup races, is ending his successful career. It is obvious that his quality, professionalism, immediacy and humaneness will be missed in Czech team. 

His career was not just a way up. It was in 2008/2009 season that he sunk almost on the bottom: five shots and five misses at the first prone position shooting in a pre-Olympic race in Vancouver meant five penalty loops. Then he did not qualify for world championships in Peyongchang… But he could learn from his own mistakes and reach the top.

“Oh, these were really bad times. I could not go to the World Championships. Then I got sick, so I could not race at the European Championships. My results were dreadful even a year later, during the Olympics in Vancouver. Only then it happened that Ondřej Rybář joined the team and trainings changed dramatically. And my mind set with them… Until then, I had put myself under huge pressure that I could not cope with. And my shooting had been an obvious and blatant proof of that. 2012 World Championships in Ruhpolding were the breaking point where I finished on 12th to 18th position in individual races, but it has been quite a ride since then, and all worked nearly perfectly since then,” Moravec remembers in the beginning of our interview.

If understood correctly, you consider changing your own mind set and meeting Ondřej Rybář, your coach, to be the most crucial points in your racing career. Is that correct?

This had a great influence, certainly. The change in training was one thing, Ondřej was the second thing that enabled us to find a way together, but I want to emphasise a third one: the strength of the whole team. Gradually, step by step, a strong group with Michal Šlesingr and Jaroslav Soukup emerged and was joined later on by Gabriela Soukalova. Now when new athletes appear, they join a train that is rolling already, and it is only up to them to stay on it, if they are strong enough. We would build everything ourselves, the cornerstones of the team that was really strong, which motivated each of its member and made him improve constantly. This element was immensely important.

What do you personally consider to be the greatest achievement in your long career?

Oh, Olympic medals, definitely. This is the highlight. The Olympic Games are more prestigious for me than World Championships, though I do not like to compare the two. I prize every success I have achieved.

How do you perceive yourself? Are you more of a prodigy, or a hard worker?  

I was the latter in the beginning mainly. As time went by, I gained some experience that I drew upon a lot later. But I would never have achieved this without a certain degree of talent, and it is very likely true of basically any athlete that is successful in the world class of any sport. You simply must have a bit of talent. I had my mind set and I pursued every goal set really hard, I would not allow myself any weakness or alleviations. 

Biathlon is a combination of running, which equals great physical strain, and shooting, i.e. absolute focus and concentration. Do you prefer any of these to the other?  

In my best days, I enjoyed everything. I almost did not feel any pain during and after races, and it was just uplifting to know that you have it, and it is nearly effortless. But then there are moments of struggle, you try hard and still you achieve nothing. This all is what sport is about. I myself regret nothing. I sacrificed a lot to my sport, but I got much more in return. Sometimes it was not pleasant to train hard, especially during summer, but then the races came and you could show what you achieved in those hard times. It was all about the actual setting in you. About setting your mind right… 

What is the last season like for you? Were there moments that you though that you would add one more year to your career? 

No, no, I did not consider racing for one more year. I even did not want to turn my attention to anything particular so that I would not lose my focus, be sentimental in the way that “Oh, this is the last time I am here…” But this craziness that goes on outside does not improve the mind-set, either – it is nothing pleasant, but you need to deal with it, regardless of whether you want to or not. But back to your question: no, I did not consider staying on. I wanted to do well in my last season, because of myself; my goal was to be well prepared for every race.

You are ending your career at home ground, in Nové Město. What are your sweetest memories of Vysočina Aréna? And the most pleasant ones?

I will never forget the World Championships here, and the mixed relay race. It was my first medal in an important race in the elite category. And the fourth place in individual race at the same championships is what I regret most: it did not occur to me then, but now I am starting to realize that I have never been closer to gold medal as then. It is a bit of a black spot… I cannot turn back time and change it, but if I could, I would do it without thinking.

Races in Nové Město na Moravě are the last for you, or have you thought of racing in Sweden, too?

Nové Město is the last race for me, I am 100% sure of that. It will not change.

Have you arranged with Ondřej Rybář which relay race will you start in? 

No arrangements and plans made yet. I do not know if I start in the mixed relay race, or the single mix. Personally, I do not insist on starting in mixed relays race where I achieved so much. I leave the decision on Ondřej.

If you look back, how do you feel about the first place in the World Cup in Oslo a few years ago?

Actually, this is the only individual race I have won at a big event, so I do cherish it a lot. When I compare World Championships and World Cup, it is harder to win the World Cup as far as contenders are concerned; starting rosters are much more limited in quantity of racers at the World Championships. But I am really glad that I won at least one World Cup race, and I also met the King of Norway, which is the privilege of winners at Holmenkollen. It was such an icing on the cake! 

Your medal collection from your career is full of silver and bronze, though there are some exceptions. How come the gold was so difficult to reach 🙂 ?

Well, I would love to know it myself! It is so difficult to win a race, but I have quite a few silver and bronze medals, so this perhaps means that I have achieved a bit in the end, haven’t I? I might not be the winning type, if you need an answer (laughing). 

Your memories of the legendary burst firing?

I turned into a machine gun here in Nové Město. I am still able to shoot fast, though it is not as fast as it used to be. Actually, I do not even know where I got it: I might be that once I gained some experience, which resulted in my improved self-confidence, and so I came to the shooting range and was not afraid of taking risks. And it often worked.

Michal Šlesingr ended his career last year. This year is the final for you, and it will be in front of empty stands. Do you regret it a lot?

I experienced it last year and it was not pleasant, rather sad, I admit. I bet that Michal’s ideas of his final race were absolutely different. Mine were, undoubtedly. But I am not going to postpone anything; still I regret it a lot. While being here, you come across many historic pictures and photos, and those nostalgic memories return. Like the roaring crowds when Gábina won the individual race. Amazing, unearthly. It is such a shame now…

Can you guess what is it going to be like, saying goodbye to the sport and your career?

I guess I can but I cannot tell if I am emotional or what not. I felt it a bit in Pokljuka, when Markéta got the gold and I saw the whirlwind that you get into when you win a gold medal. I realized that it may be the last time that I experience it. Now when I realize that I have been doing the sport for twenty years, I guess I will feel the weight of it. It is a long way, more than half of my life. It would be strange if I did not feel anything, if I were emotionless.

What lies ahead of you, both from the sport and personal perspective? 

Honestly? I have not given it a single thought yet. I will concentrate on my family. I want to be at home with all of them. My daughter is five, my son two… I owe it to them, and I am looking forward to it so much. I will not do anything for half a year, and I only wish not to make any hasty conclusions that I would regret later. I give myself time and space to decide on what to do next.

Have you got any short-term plans? Like what are you doing in a week from now?

I guess I will accommodate to my kids. Normally, I would train, but there will be no need for me to do so. So I am quite curious about the effect of this on me. A brand new situation. Oftentimes, I would selfishly think of myself, my training, and my regeneration, and not so much of my family. When I was with my family then, like when we went for a stroll, thoughts of training and things that I could improve would creep into my mind. I will not experience this anymore, I think, so I am curious what is it like not to have the thoughts. I am looking forward to it.

Is there any chance that you would ever become a biathlon coach?

I discussed a thing or two with Jiří Hamza, and I appreciate having this offer and support. Also Ondřej Rybář confirmed that gates are open for me, but I do not want to travel at this moment – and travelling is connected with coaching. So I do not want to be a coach now, though I do have some experience and I know what goes on in an athlete’s mind and body while at a shooting range. I guess I could pass some ideas on to others. :-). And so if I ever decide to take this path in future, I will be glad to keep all these memories so that I can pass them on in the best way I can.

What is the takeaway you get from biathlon that you can utilize in your future?

Well, I have never been asked this question… Biathlon gave me discipline, ability to manage my time; I can plan my time well and I stick to the given order. And when I do something in future, I would like to do it in a similar way, that is for sure. I would like to have a job that I would enjoy, that would fulfil me and that would be a journey. I am very self-critical myself and I can recognize and accept my mistake or blame, and I believe that this could prove a good thing for my future.

Does your daughter understand that you are at the end of your career?

My daughter counted days until my arrival. She collected many twigs and branches while we were taking a stroll, and she is looking forward to having bonfire and roasting sausages again. She does not enjoy biathlon much, she does not watch it and is not aware of me being on telly. She has asked me many times if this would be the last time that I go away. And I must admit that it is difficult to realize that a five-year-old thinks like that. Those are the moments that you know you should stay at home. That there are situations that are more important than a sport.

A question that is not related to biathlon: What will you cook for your family when you get home?

This will depend on when I get home. It might be porridge that my daughter may want for breakfast. And my wife will definitely not want porridge  :-).

Is it easier for you to say good bye, knowing that there are successful juniors that can join the team?

Most definitely. The whole team works perfectly. We spent a great deal of time with them in our preparation, and they have great future ahead. In any case, they have much hard work to do yet.

Have you made any really lifetime friend among fellow biathletes?

I would not say so. I have made many friends and buddies among people in the biathlon world, but none of them could be called a lifetime friend in the sense that we would meet in our private lives, or when our careers will have ended. 

Do you have any biathlon keepsakes, apart from medals?

Of course, I keep my medals, though they are not displayed anywhere yet. I shall definitely keep the butt of my rifle – it will be a keepsake to remind me of my days of being an elite biathlete. A biathlete has a deep relation to it, it is almost intimate.

Is there anything you would like to say to fans that have supported you in Nové Město na Moravě? They have always created amazing atmosphere for racers…

They deserve many thanks since what I experienced here… It was unbelievable. What particularly stuck in my mind was 2016: I fell during pursuit race, broke the butt of my rifle… and there I was on the last position. And people here could go crazy, screaming, shouting, cheering for me as if I was struggling for gold. I will never forget this – I still have goose bumps, talking about it now. And though it will not be with a bib when I get back to Vysocina Arena, I believe that fans will return to Vysočina Arena once it is possible. The arena and fans… The two cannot be separated. 

Author: Michal Jilka & Tomáš Hermann
Photo: Petr Slavík & Michal Jilka

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