Pin-up Magdalena Neuner is the Maria Sharapova of German sport.
But while the Russian tennis superstar wields a tennis racquet, Neuner goes to work packing a high-powered, 3.5 kg rifle and ammunition and brings a dash of glamour to biathlon, the winter sport so often mired in sordid tales of doping.
Her winning combination of girl-next-door beauty, coupled with her ruthless efficiency in the combined cross-country skiing and shooting event, makes Neuner a name to remember for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. She is already a six-time world champion, the youngest-ever triple-world champ, a seven-time junior world champion and was voted Germany’s sportswoman of the year when she made her senior debut in 2007.
Neuner underlined her success by scooping three gold medals at February’s World Championships in Sweden, showing her strength to win the 12.5 km mass start and celebrated her 21st birthday on the first day of competition.
And while her achievements in the sport are unusual, her hobbies away from the sport are just as untypical.
Her passions include knitting – making woolly hats is her speciality – and music – she plays the harp – with both hobbies inspired by family members.
She is a licensed motorbike rider and regularly takes her father’s machine out for a spin.
Her father works in the local bank, in Neuner’s home town of Wallgau, and is a volunteer conductor of the local brass band.
Born in the German alpine region of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Neuner was winning cross-country races by the age of eight.
With biathlon blighted by failed drugs tests and doping suspicions, Neuner has been heralded as the great – not to mention clean – German hope for the sport which doping expert Werner Franke has described as “the most tarnished discipline alongside cycling.”
Her rise has been meteoric, she scooped up three gold medals at the 2007 World Championships while she was only 19. Junior biathletes normally need three to four years to make the transition to join the professionals in the senior ranks. Neuner didn’t even need one.
But last year the whirlwind of presentation evenings, media requests and constant interest in her life took their toll. In the middle of last summer the stress got too much and she was left in floods of tears.
“My parents took me aside and said ‘Enough is enough, Lena, this can’t go on, you have had enough’,” she told German magazine Stern.
“I had slipped into a situation out of my control. Many people said they had never seen anything like it, but for me it was all new.”
Now an agent looks after her activities away from her sport and the German Ski Federation (DSV) even set up a Neuner Task Force to protect their rising star led by German women’s coach Uwe Müssigang.
Having displaced Kati Wilhelm as both Germany’s top female biathlete and sportswoman of the year, Neuner’s success is not begrudged by her predecessor – ten years her senior.
“You wonder about the future of the sport, so from that point of view I am happy that we have stars like Lena who have seamlessly taken over,” said Wilhelm. “What has happened to Lena is mind-blowing.”
Wilhelm makes the point the success of Germany’s team – who topped the medal table with five golds in Oestersund – is over-shadowed by the media frenzy around Neuner’s success.
But if Neuner realises her potential, it is something her teammates will have to get used to.