While the once-dominant Norwegian men are in a slump right now, their teammate Tora Berger is just getting started.
With an exhilarating mass start win in Antholz, Italy on Sunday – which came down to the final hundred meters but at the same time was a foregone conclusion at least a kilometer earlier – Berger collected her fourth victory in as many individual races, after winning Friday’s sprint by almost 30 seconds as well as the sprint and pursuit in Ruhpolding, Germany last weekend.
“I just tried to fight the hardest that I could, and I guess I was strong enough today,” Berger said in a press conference.
She missed a shot in the second (prone) shooting stage, leaving the range in 14th place. No matter: after the fastest third loop in the field, Berger was back near the front. But she missed a shot in the final standing stage as well, and by the time she hit the trail again she was in fourth place behind Darya Domracheva of Belarus and France’s Marie Laure Brunet, as well as Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia.
All four skiers won individual medals at the Vancouver Olympics, so it was bound to be a good race. Domracheva took off, putting distance on Brunet in the first kilometer of the loop. Then she tired. Brunet caught up, led for a bit, and appeared to be headed for the win.
But behind the two leaders, Berger, who is undeniably one of the fastest skiers on the biathlon circuit, was charging furiously. After passing Kuzmina, she gradually made up the 15 seconds on Domracheva and Brunet. By the time she and Brunet took the final corner into the stadium, she was slingshotting around the outside and sprinting furiously for the line. Although Brunet put in a token effort at sprinting, she appeared exhausted and resigned to the fact that Berger was much faster, and gave up before reaching the finish line.
“I was just trying to get to third place,” Berger said in a press conference. “I was fighting with [Kuzmina] in the start of the loop, and then I was going so fast and saw the other two people in front of me… [I wasn't sure that I would catch Brunet], but I just fought with all I had.”
Still, today’s victory wasn’t the one that would have meant the most to Berger this weekend. She still felt guilty about her performance in Saturday’s relay, which she anchored. Berger received the tag in fourth place, and was expected to ski the team onto the podium. Instead, in an uncharacteristically error-filled effort, she used all of her spare rounds in both shooting stages and still hit the penalty loop five times. Despite her best efforts on the tracks, the team finished sixth.
“I wish I could have swapped this victory with the relay along with the other girls,” she told the Bergen Journal, a Norwegian newspaper. “But I can’t do anything about it now.”
While Brunet’s defeat must have been dispiriting – she had one penalty to Berger’s two – Domracheva, who shot clean, was still thrilled to be on the podium. She blamed her slow last loop on bad skis.
“I was very happy with my shooting today, after five penalties in the sprint,” she said in a press conference. “But I was disappointed in my skiing. I did not have the best skis, as fast as some of the others.”
No Canadians raced in Antholz, and Laura Spector was the lone American to qualify for the mass start, who had the last bib in the field. It was a tough race for Spector, who after the sprint had told FasterSkier that she was tired from three weeks of World Cup racing. She missed five shots and was the last woman across the line.
However, she received a gift of sorts from World Cup leader Kaisa Makarainen of Finland, who was disqualified for “avoiding start or finish inspections”; U.S. Biathlon Association President Max Cobb said that this usually means that the athlete failed to get to the start in time to have their skis or rifle marked, although there was no additional information about Makarainen’s specific offense.
Because of Makarainen’s disqualification, Spector finished 29th rather than 30th and grabbed a few more World Cup points. She now sits 39th in the overall standings.
Despite failing to score any points in today’s race, Makarainen is still the overall World Cup leader. However, she only leads Sweden’s Helena Ekholm by 14 points. Berger moved up to seventh in the standings with her victory on Sunday.