RUHPOLDING, Germany – In last year’s World Championships individual, Helena Ekholm of Sweden navigated blustery conditions to claim a two-minute win.
This morning, she woke up with her usual pre-race jitters, and one more question on her mind.
“Of course I this morning I am thinking, oh, maybe I am just the champion for a few more hours,” she said in a press conference after the race.
The women’s 15 k had plenty of twists and turns but Ekholm was ultimately right – she finished with bronze, not gold.
The surprises started immediately as Sunday’s pursuit champion Darya Domracheva of Belarus, wearing bib four, missed four shots in her first stage. Then Saturday’s sprint winner Magdalena Neuner of Germany missed two. Both stars ended up with six penalties, an irreversible catastrophe in this format where missed shots accrue a one-minute time penalty apiece.
While the previous races’ gold medalists were out of the picture, American Susan Dunklee was in it. Starting with bib one, Dunklee set the pace for the field. With a single penalty, she led at nearly every time check until bibs in the mid-20s began coming through. Dunklee eventually finished fifth, seven seconds out of a medal.
Ekholm missed a shot in the first stage, but from there cleaned the rest of her targets and followed a gradual upward trajectory. She was outshone, though, by Norway’s Tora Berger, who matched Ekholm’s shooting and skied 45 seconds faster.
“I felt really good today,” Berger said after the race. “It was almost a perfect race for me: I just missed one target. I did my very best.”
That effort netted her a 56-second victory and the first individual World Championship of her career.
The 31-year-old has been close before; she has two bronze and one silver medal from World Championships. And she also owns Olympic gold and several relay victories. Today, she was happy to cross one more title off her list.
“[An individual title] was my goal for the season, so it was really fun to get it, especially here in this race,” she said.
The Norwegian star said that after collecting a penalty in the first stage, rather than tensing up, she actually relaxed.
“I didn’t think so much, after that,” she said. “I think it was easier to do my work. After I had missed one already, I wasn’t thinking of the results; I was really focused.”
Berger skied the third-fastest time of the day, behind only Neuner and Domracheva. And it wasn’t only her speed on the snow that helped her win: her standing shooting is among the fastest in the world, and when she’s “on”, she can be in and out of the range in the blink of an eye.
Marie Laure Brunet of France came between Berger and Ekholm, Brunet didn’t pick up her one penalty until the final stage, meaning that she was leading the race until then.
“Today my shooting was really excellent,” she said. “It was like a game for me. On the last shot I wasn’t thinking [about winning], I just forgot to finish the work – but a silver medal is great.”
At just 23 years old, Brunet is something of a prodigy for France. She started her first World Cup in 2007, when she was 19, and finished in the top ten later that season. At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, she won bronze in the pursuit.
But this season hasn’t been so kind to Brunet, who has finished in the top ten in only half of her races. Before this silver medal, the year had brought just a single podium in World Cup racing.
“The difference between the race today and the past months I think is just my shape, which is just arriving now for World Championships,” said Brunet, who had the eleventh-fastest ski time. “I think that’s perfect.”
Brunet finished 56 seconds down on Berger; if she’d hit that lost shot, she would have had a four-second win. Ekholm was further back and only narrowly snagged the bronze. Her 1:11 deficit to Berger put her three seconds ahead of Marie Dorin Habert of France and seven seconds ahead of Dunklee.
“It was really tough, but I’m glad I had some extra power left for the last loop,” Ekholm said. “It was good when I was hearing that, because I went out four seconds behind Susan Dunklee and then I heard I was taking her and then was in the lead, so it was good.”
The day, though, was all about Berger – and so was the night. The medals plaza in downtown Ruhpolding was filled by a sea of red jackets, waving Norwegian flags, and chants of “To-ra! To-ra! To-ra!” The evening ceremony was even delayed by five minutes so that it could be broadcast live on Norwegian television.
The result was a boost for the Norwegian team, which was undoubtedly expecting more at these Championships. After winning the mixed relay and placing Emil Hegle Svendsen second in the sprint, the team hadn’t won another medal. Last year’s overall winner Tarjei Bø has had lackluster races, as has veteran Ole Einar Bjørndalen.
“It was wonderful to stand there on the podium and accept the medal,” Berger told broadcaster NRK. “That’s what I have struggled to do for so many years.”