The most exciting days in sports are when a team that is down by a seemingly insurmountable margin comes back for the win. Those are the kinds of days that fans live for: when almost as much adrenaline courses through their own veins, as they wonder “will they?”, as through those of the athletes themselves.
Today’s 4 x 6 k relay in Ruhpolding, Germany, was not one of those days. The Russian women were never more than 10 seconds from the lead and skied a consistent, if unremarkable, race. Anchor Olga Vilukhina secured a six-second win by using a single spare round on her own leg.
But even though the Russians still won, it was almost – almost! - one of those days. Fans knew they were in for something special when Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle, an Olympic gold medalist in cross country skiing, took the tag from German teammate Franziskza Preuss.
Preuss had led off with a painful penalty lap in the first prone stage of the race, then also used a spare round in standing. She was in 18th place, almost a minute behind the top team.
Sachenbacher-Stehle was having none of it.
She may not be a veteran on the range. This is only Sachenbacher-Stehle’s second year competing in biathlon. But you’d never know it. Not only did she use her skiing skills to turn in the fastest course time of all the second-leg skiers, but she also dropped all of her prone targets in quick succession and used a single spare round in standing. Her shooting times weren’t even that much slower than her competitors, who have been doing this their whole lives.
After the prone stage, she had climbed to 13th. Then after standing to sixth, but still over 20 seconds behind the lead.
No matter. By the time she tagged off to Laura Dahlmeier, Sachenbacher was at the front of a four-woman pack, and technically crossed the line first.
Germany was unable to hold onto the lead; Dahlmeier skied and shot impeccably and entered her own exchange even with Russia’s Irina Starykh, but anchor leg Franziska Hildebrand (new to the job) lost just a few seconds to Vilukhina, and Germany ended up second.
It wasn’t as good as a win, but Sachenbacher-Stehle’s exciting performance may have jazzed up the German crowds even more than a more even-keeled winning race would have.
The Germans were without both veteran star Andrea Henkel, who is sitting this race out, and Miriam Gössner, who ended her season early after being unable to fully recover from fractured vertebrae sustained in a bike accident this spring.
The final podium spot went to Norway, which had a major turnaround of its own. Tiril Ekhoff led off with two spare rounds in prone and then two penalty loops in standing, and was left in 22nd place, far behind even Preuss.
But Ann Kristin Flatland began the comeback, taking the team up to 10th, and then Synnøve Solemdal shot perfectly – a rare feat for her – to ski all the way to third as teams around her continued to make errors.
Anchor leg Tora Berger, who won the mass start in Oberhof last week, could have arguably pushed for second place. Instead, she used a spare round in each stage and was in fourth place for much of the race. She eventually buried Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko in the final loop and made up more than 20 seconds on the leaders, but Solemdal could be forgiven if she was a little grumpy with her teammate’s performance on the range.
Ukraine settled for fourth and France used an excellent anchor performance by Anais Bescond to move from 11th to fifth.
The other big excitement came as Switzerland surprised by earning their first-ever top ten in a women’s relay, thus meeting the Swiss Ski standards for an Olympic nomination. The team consists of three sisters, making the trip together even more meaningful (read more).
The Canadian team of Rosanna Crawford, Megan Imrie, Audrey Vaillancourt, and Megan Heinicke finished 12th with a combined seven spare rounds.