Germany's Uschi Disl has won more Olympic medals in the biathlon than any other competitor, male or female, in the sport. A curious blend of cross-country skiing and sharp shooting, the biathlon presents unique challenges for its devotees; many, like Disl, serve in the military or as border guards in their home countries, where biathletes are able to train as part of a special unit. During the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, Disl helped bring her team the gold medal against some impressive competition from Russia and Norway, and with it gained the eighth Olympic win of her career, more than any other biathlete in history.
Trained as Teen
Born Ursula Disl in 1970, the future Olympic star grew up in an area known as the "Foothills of the Alps," in Bad Tölz, Bavaria. She began cross-country skiing at age 10, and took up the biathlon in 1986. Germany is home to some of the best athletes in the sport, which dates back centuries as standard practice for hunters in wintry northern climates. The biathlon as a sport formally originated in the early twentieth century as a showcase for military teams. Skiers take off racing on the skis, then must halt to shoot at a small, coin-sized target at a 50-meter distance. Pausing to steady themselves takes precious seconds off the finish time. As Maclean's writer Mary Nemeth remarked, "few sports exact the physical toll of biathlon." The route can be up to 20 kilometers in length, and targets number as many as 20; the competitions are over in roughly 20 minutes. A writer for Sports Illustrated, Robert Sullivan, explained that in this sport, "the difficult part of the sport consists not of skiing fast or shooting well, but of doing both in concert." When biathletes miss a target, they are penalized with additional time or penalty laps. "It is the sports world's Dr. Jekyll: a thing painfully at odds with itself," Sullivan noted. "In other compound sports, for example the decathlon and pentathlon,
events are approached in sequence—the third effort doesn't really affect the fourth, apart from increasing the athlete's fatigue. Not so in biathlon: When the skier glides into the range he starts shooting, and when he has squeezed off five shots he immediately skis on."
Disl first rose to prominence in the sport in 1991 at her debut in the World Championships, held in Finland that year. She anticipated competing in her first Olympic biathlon the following year. It had been a men's medal competition event since the Squaw Valley, Idaho, Games in 1960, but women's World Cup races had taken place only since 1984, and it became a women's medal event in the Olympics at the 1992 Albertville, France Winter Games. The Olympic biathlon featured three separate categories for men and women: a 15-kilometer individual race, the 7.5-kilometer sprint, and a team relay. At Albertville, Disl and her team won the silver medal for Germany in the relay, but she placed poorly in the sprint, finishing eleventh. She fared better at the Lillehammer Winter Games in Norway in 1994, taking a bronze in the 15-kilometer individual, and again helping the German women's biathlon team take a silver in the relay. The sprint again proved Disl's toughest challenge, and this year she finished in thirteenth place.
Won First Olympic Gold
Four years later, at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, Disl won gold, silver, and bronze medals. She won a silver in the sprint, and the bronze for her time in the 15-kilometer individual event. The gold-medal winner of the individual was another formidable Slavic athlete, Ekaterina Dafovska of Bulgaria. Disl's skiing in the relay—even though at one point she lost a pole, and had to return and dig it out of the snow where others had skied over it—helped Germany take the gold medal in the relay. It was her sixth career Olympic medal, but her first-ever gold, and she described it as "the greatest thing one can have in one's life in sport," a report in the Fresno Bee quoted her as saying. Disl and the other German women again bested some impressive competition from the Russians and Scandinavians. Press reports mentioned that Disl had attempted to have her brown hair dyed gold as a good-luck gesture, but the process did not take and she emerged a redhead instead.
Readying for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, Disl faced tough competition from Sweden's Magdalena Forsberg , pegged as the top woman biathlete. But Disl bested Forsberg in the 7.5-kilometer sprint, taking the silver, with Disl's German teammate Kati Wilhelm winning the gold. The German women again took the gold medal in the relay event, though another teammate, Katrin Apel, had missed some shots and the team sank to sixth place; again, Disl's quick skiing helped them gain points, and at the finish, Disl won her eighth career medal, giving her more Olympic wins than any other male or female biathlete in the world.
Disl again made an impressive finish in the World Cup event, held in Oberhof, Germany, in January of 2003. In the women's 12.5-kilometer race, she had four shooting mistakes, but finished ahead of Bulgaria's Dafovska by three seconds. Disl trains near her home in the Austrian Tyrol, in Kössen and Tux, and has worked as a border guard and a bank clerk.
|1970||Born in Bad Tölz, Germany|
|1986||Begins biathlon training|
|1992||Enters first Olympic competition|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1990||Gold medal in team event, Junior World Championships, Sodankyla, Finland|
|1991||Bronze medal in 7.5-kilometer team relay, World Championships, Lahti, Finland|
|1992||Gold medal in team relay, World Championships, Novosibirsk, Russia|
|1992||Silver medal, 7.5-kilometer team relay, Albertville Winter Olympic Games|
|1994||Silver medal, 7.5-kilometer team relay; bronze medal, individual, Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games|
|1995||Gold medal in 7.5-kilometer team relay, silver medals in sprint, individual, and team events, World Championships, Antholz, Italy|
|1996||Gold medal in 7.5-kilometer team relay, World Championships, Ruhpolding, Germany|
|1997||Gold medal in 7.5-kilometer team relay, World Championships, Osrblie, Slovakia|
|1998||Gold medal, 7.5-kilometer team relay; silver medal, sprint; bronze medal, individual, Nagano Winter Olympic Games|
|1999||Gold medal in 7.5-kilometer team relay, World Championships, Kontiolahti, Finland|
|2000||Silver medal in pursuit and 7.5-kilometer team relay, World Championships, Holmenkallen, Norway|
|2001||Silver medal in sprint and 7.5-kilometer team relay, World Championships, Bled-Pokljuka, Slovenia|
|2002||Gold medal, 7.5-kilometer team relay; silver medal, sprint, Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games|
"Bjoerndalen Wins Third Straight." New York Times (January 13, 2003): D9.
Deacon, James. "Queens of winter." Maclean's 106 (February 22, 1993): 55.
"Disl Finally Gets Biathlon Gold." Fresno Bee (February 20, 1998): D4.
"Germany Rallies In Women's Biathlon." St Louis Post-Dispatch (February 20, 2002): D8.
Gordon, Jeff. "Tipsheet: Looking at Who's In and Who's Out in the World of Sports." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (February 20, 1998): D2.
Heika, Mike. "Athletes to watch in women's biathlon." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (January 31, 2002).
Hillenbrand, Barry. "Have Gun, Will Triumph." Time International 159 (February 25, 2002): 48.
Nemeth, Mary. "Pursuing the agony of victory." Maclean's 107 (February 14, 1994): 58.
"Olympic Digest: Disl Wanted Golden Hair, Gets Gold Medal Instead." Seattle Times (February 19, 1998): D6.
Reed, J.D. "Marching to their own beat." Time 123 (January 30, 1984): 50.
"Russian Biathlete Wins at the Wire." Rocky Mountain News (February 15, 1998): 20C.
Sullivan, Robert. "She turns rabbits into rocks." Sports Illustrated 59 (November 28, 1983): 104.
"Winter Olympics: Monday's Medal Winners." Los Angeles Times (February 19, 2002): U2.
"Winter Olympics: Tuesday's Medal Winners." Los Angeles Times (February 19, 2002): U2.
"Dafovska wins first Olympic gold for Bulgaria." http://www.shinmai.co.jp/oly-eng/19980209/0005.htm (January 31, 2003).
Uschi Disl Fan Club, http://www.uschi-disl-fanclub.de/ (January 31, 2003).
Sketch by Carol Brennan