When Germany talked about having a “new” women’s relay team this season, it was assumed that they were talking about one thing: replacing Magdalena Neuner, their World Cup winner and many-time World Champion.
But by the time the women made it to Sochi for the second-to-last World Cup of the season, the relay team had become even fresher. It included one newcomer who was still a junior, and had never expected to compete on the circuit this season – and another in her first year of biathlon, period.
Joining veteran Andrea Henkel and teammate Miriam Gössner were newly crowned World Junior Champion Laura Dahlmeier and former cross country skier Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle. That might seem like a risk, but Germany skated through Sunday’s relay with one strong performance after another and ended up with an eleven-second victory.
“I never imagined such a season,” Dahlmeier marveled in the post-race press conference. “I focused on the World Junior Championships, and I hoped to be good there. After that I heard that I could go to the World Championships in Nove Mesto and I started in the relay, and it was really great for me. Then I heard that I could go to the World Cups in Russia. But I never imagined that it would be possible to be a winner in the relay.”
None of the newcomers were cut any slack, and neither were the veterans. Henkel started things off with one of her strongest efforts of the season. On the podium in Ostersund, Sweden, earlier this season, Henkel had told reporters that her coach had said she was too old to be strong all season. That seems to be an underestimation of the eight-time World Champion, who picked up silver in Nove Mesto and was still plenty quick today.
Henkel used a single spare round and skied the fastest time among all the scramble legs to hand off in first place.
“It’s always fun when you win, but we always put effort into our relay and our races,” she said in the press conference. “So it’s nice that it worked out today. Of course it’s hard work to win, but when it has this prize at the end, we are fine now.”
Next up was Sachenbacher-Stehle, probably the biggest question mark in the lineup. The day before, she had stunned by shooting clean and placing sixth in the sprint. An Olympic gold medalist in skiing, it is her first year of biathlon. Could she repeat the performance?
Not quite – Sachenbacher-Stehle used two spare rounds in standing. But her years of skiing on the World Cup circuit no doubt came in handy as she handled the pressure with aplomb and still tagged off in third.
The deficit was not small; 46 seconds separated the team from the Czech Republic. Germany was right on the tails of Ukraine as they embarked on the third leg.
But Czech racer Jitka Landova, after cleaning prone, had a disastrous standing stage and fell out of the picture completely. Instead, Valj Semerenko of Ukraine took the lead. Gössner hadn’t shot so well herself, skiing a penalty loop after standing, but managed to drag herself within five seconds of Semerenko by the time she tagged off.
And from there, it was a race. Dahlmeier, the rookie, was anchoring for Germany, but the woman she was chasing wasn’t so experienced herself. Mariya Panfilova, like Dahlmeier, has only joined the World Cup circuit in the last few weeks. She placed 13th in the individual race in Sochi, but said that anchoring this relay team – which has done so well in the past – was a serious obstacle.
“For me the biggest challenge in Sochi was not the tracks or the weather but the fourth lap today,” she said. “It was a very high burden for me, and not as successful as it could have been.”
But you wouldn’t have guessed these women’s relative inexperience if you hadn’t been told. Both cleaned the first stage, with Dahlmeier trailing Panfilova out of the range by eight seconds. They battled around the loop; their ski times were separated by less than a second. Despite using a spare round, Panfilova left the range with a scant five second lead.
But Dahlmeier soon charged past her, and went on to claim the win. The other thing that the young Ukrainian might have to worry about was a threat from further back: World Cup leader Tora Berger of Norway had moved into third place.
As it turns out, Panfilova’s coaches made sure she didn’t worry about that.
“To tell the truth I wasn’t aware of the fact that Tora was following me,” Panfilova said in the press conference. “I just knew that when I left she was thirty seconds behind me, and with thirty seconds I was sure to beat her.”
At that point, teammate Olena Pidhrushna leaned over and whispered something in her ear. Panfilova laughed and kept talking.
“Actually, it was twenty seconds!” she said. “I was told thirty seconds, so I felt quite confident.”
Regardless, her lead was safe, and Ukraine took silver while Norway was stuck with bronze.
It was better than they might have hoped for: after Hilde Fenne and Tiril Eckhoff had raced the first two legs, Norway sat in sixth, over a minute and 15 seconds back. Veteran Ann Kristin Flatland cut that deficit to 33 seconds before Berger took over.
“I think it’s very important that every does a good race,” Flatland said. “If everyone has good races, then we can be on the podium. But I’m very glad that Tora is on our team, because she is really strong, especially on the last shooting and the last loop.”
Dahlmeier, though, was almost as strong, skiing only eight seconds slower than Berger on her six-kilometer leg.
“These were good races for me and I hope to be so strong in Khanty-Mansiysk also,” she said.
Sachenbacher-Stehle, too, wondered at her success this weekend. Both hope that next year they can be a part of the Olympic team on these very trails.
“Now I feel for the first time more like a biathlete than a cross country skier,” Sachenbacher-Stehle said. “I’m really happy to be part of the World Cup team now for the last races. I hope that I will be part of the World Cup team for next year too. I will work hard for that, and it will be my goal.”
When that time comes around, Henkel admitted, “maybe we are one of the favorites now.”