Tough as Nails: Doing the Double

August 16, 2023
This is the second story of a two-part series about pushing mental and physical limits, courage and extraordinary resilience. 

For years, she has dominated cross-country. Now she’s going for a double by adding biathlon to the lineup and aiming for the 2024 World Championships. Meet Vilde Nilsen (NOR)

This is the tale of two resilient World Champions who have pioneered their sports and then set out for more in a whole new sport, inspiring others along the way. 

See also “Tough as Nails” part I: 
Follow Your Dreams: Meet Tara Geraghty-Moats (USA)

At 22, Vilde Nilsen (NOR) has already dominated the cross-country Para World Cup for years: Nilsen earned her first Paralympic medal at 17 and has since collected three Paralympic medals and 12 Para World Snow Sports Championships medals. 

Now, the Tromsø native is ready to try her hand at biathlon, aiming for a spot on the Norwegian team to the 2024 Biathlon World Championships. 

“I really want to try biathlon this winter,” Nilsen says. But unlike many cross-country skiers who have ventured into biathlon at the World Cup level, Nilsen is not giving up her other sport. She is just going for twice as much fun. 

Nilsen realizes that her approach will be considerably more work with additional challenges than simply switching, particularly given that she also must manage a physical disability. But challenges are nothing new to Nilsen. When she was seven years old, she was diagnosed with linear scleroderma.

For her, the condition affected her left leg from her toe to her hip. Even though she received treatment for several years, her left leg has about 40 percent less muscle mass and is about an inch shorter than the other leg. The disability has affected both her balance and coordination, but it has never affected her drive and motivation. 

Madshus caught up with the ambitious 22-year-old, who now lives in Lillehammer, pursuing her career in both cross-country skiing and biathlon. 

So, you want to pursue not one but TWO extremely technical and challenging sports at the World Cup level – at the same time: Why? 
“It’s pretty simple: Cross-country is heading into a non-championship season, which means the World Cup will be the main gig and my focus there. But championships are the most fun. The next World Championships for cross-country are not until 2025 and the next Paralympics are in 2026. In biathlon, they have Word Championships every year!” 

There’s a plan behind this
However, biathlon is an extremely complex sport that typically requires thousands of rounds at the range before anyone can expect to be consistently at the top level. This tends to be the case even for athletes who switch from cross-country skiing, and thus have a solid base both on the technical and physical side of that side of biathlon.

How are you planning to be able to put in sufficient time at the range and the biathlon-specific elements to perform at the World Cup level when you are simultaneously continuing cross-country at that level? 
“Actually, I don’t think that will be a problem,” says Nilsen, pointing out that she’s not entirely new to biathlon. 

In fact, she is well aware of what it takes to compete in biathlon. 

“I come from a family where all my siblings were doing biathlon growing up. So, when I was a kid, it was natural for me to start doing the same thing. For several years, I even raced biathlon more than I raced cross-country. And as a youth and junior racer, I competed in both sports for several years at the elite level,” she says. 

Accordingly, Nilsen doesn’t think the transition to doing both sports again will be too rough. 

“I think I’m a pretty decent shot, but I need to add some drills at the range in order to rebuild the routine with coming in from the course, find my position, aim and shoot quickly. That’s also where I had my weak spot when I was pursuing biathlon earlier. So, that’s one thing that I need to prioritize in my training plan now,” she says.  

Heading into the 2023/24 season, Nilsen has increased her overall training volume: both because she is now pursuing two sports, but also because there is just a lot that needs to be done. In addition to drills at the range, Nilsen is focusing on technical and tactical skills on the course that will benefit her in both sports. 

“I am doing more work on how to attack turns and descents and other technical features on the course. That’s where I lost time at the World Championships last winter. I ended up with silver instead of gold in the sprint, but it was only a matter of a few meters.”

Unfinished business at the range
Nilsen explains that the main reason she quit biathlon and has focused on cross-country for the past years was convenience. 

“It used to be that both cross-country and biathlon for parasports were organized by the same national association. When the national ski association and the national biathlon associations decided to field each of their separate national teams, I just found it too complicated to deal with two organizations all the time. So, that’s when I decided to hang up my rifle,” she says. 

At the same time, Nilsen feels that she has unfinished business at the range, and that’s the number-one reason she wants to come back to biathlon. 

“In 2020, I was selected for the national team to the para biathlon World Championships in Östersund (SWE), but that was also at the start of the pandemic. Just after we had arrived the city of Östersund announced that they had registered one case of Covid, the entire World Championships were cancelled and nobody got to race. So, I really want to compete in a biathlon World Championships,” she says. 

In a way, doing the double is more like coming full circle for Vilde Nilsen: she hopes to make the national team to the 2024 biathlon World Championships, and then go to both the biathlon and the cross-country World Championships in 2025. But the long-term plan is earning gold at the 2026 Paralympics. Preferably in both sports. 

Photo by: Helena Ivarsson