PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Some things were the same on Thursday night: the attention-grabbing biathlon stadium announcer generating an atmosphere of stoke, thumping house music, and shivering yet engaged fans. Making it feel like true winter, a heavy snow squall settled in over the Alpensia Biathlon Center for the women’s 4 x 6-kilometer relay.
Ultimately, Belarus won gold in a time of 1:12:03.4 hours with Nadezhda Skardino, Iryna Kryuko, Dzinara Alimbekava, Darya Domracheva. Sweden’s Linn Persson, Mona Brorsson, Anna Magnusson, and Hanna Öberg took silver (+10.7), while France’s Anaïs Chevalier, Marie Dorin Habert, Justine Braisaz, and Anaïs Bescond claimed bronze (+17.6).
For the first few legs, however, all three medaling teams seemed an outside shot at the podium. On a windy and, for the first time at the Olympics, snowy evening, the win was up for grabs from the start.
After the first lap, a rainbow of suits came into the shooting range together, 7.8 seconds separating the leader from the field’s tail. America’s lead-off skier, Susan Dunklee, skied out of the range first after shooting clean in prone. The U.S. skier was followed by Ukraine, 2.9 seconds back. And Canada’s Sarah Beaudry had also cleaned without any spares to put her team in third, 7.1 seconds back.
Dunklee held her lead through the 2.9 k checkpoint and by 3.6 k, she was up to 8.1 seconds ahead of Japan chasing in second. Canada had fallen to 12th, 14.9 seconds back. With dumping snow and blustery wind before their second shooting round, it was Dunklee all entering the range all alone that was featured on the stadium’s jumbotron.
For her standing stage, Dunklee missed one target, but cleaned it with one spare. She left the range 5.2 second behind Italy’s Lisa Vittozzi, who had also cleaned with one spare. After the first leg’s final shooting stage, the field started to spread out. Beaudry used three spares to clean standing and avoided the penalty lap, returning to the course in 13th, 50.5 seconds out of first.
“There’s some, as a friend of mine would call it, Disneyland snow, falling from the sky so it makes it exciting in the relay,” Beaudry told FasterSkier after her race. “Everyone shoots at the same time so I wouldn’t say anything is unfair. It makes opportunity. So hopefully my teammates can take advantage of that.”
Dunklee came through the 5.6 k checkpoint trailing Vittozzi by 7.2 seconds. At the first exchange, Italy tagged off first and Dunklee handed off to Clare Egan 7.6 seconds back in second.
“It has been a tough Games. We came in here with a lot of expectations and certainly haven’t really lived up to them,” Dunklee told FasterSkier after her leg. “It’s extremely frustrating. To think about every decision you make in your life over four years, with your best training in mind and your best performance in mind, and then getting sick at the wrong time is tough. The guys have struggled.
“We have had some bright spots with the girls; Emily and Joanne have carried us, they have had PR’s here. That is exciting,” Dunklee added, before looking up at the screen to see Egan skiing in third. “And this is exciting today. This is really exciting! Anything is possible.”
Beaudry tagged Canada’s Julia Ransom in 15th, 1:15 minutes out of first.
“I was really happy with my first lap and my prone,” Beaudry said after her first Olympic relay. “I tried to keep with the group on my second lap and I think that left me a little shaky in standing. I’m not too pleased with my two spares, but I mean, I missed three and I didn’t miss a spare, so at least shoot a spare, hit a spare.”
After the first loop of the second leg, Italy was still in first, with Dorothea Wierer at the helm. In prone, there was a reshuffling of leaders as Slovakia’s Anastasiya Kuzmina cleaned with one spare to move into first, 15.3 seconds ahead of Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff, who had cleaned with a single spare, in second. Egan cleaned without a miss and left the range in third (+17.3). Meanwhile, Wierer still had two targets standing after using all three spares, leaving her with two costly penalty laps and 1:11 minutes back in 13th.
Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen shot clean to put her team in fourth, 23.9 seconds behind Kuzmina. France was sixth (+32.6), and Belarus ninth (+46.6). Canada’s Ransom shot clean without any spares and left the range in 12th (+1:08.3) while Sweden was 15th (+1:16.4).
While Kaisa Mäkäräinen moved into second behind Kuzmina on the next loop, Eckhoff and Egan followed them into the range in third and fourth, respectively. There, during an especially blustery standing stage, Kuzmina missed her first three shots and ended up with a penalty lap, which put her 20 seconds back in eighth. Wierer cleaned to reclaim first for Italy, just 0.9 seconds ahead of Mäkäräinen in second, who used two spares to avoid a penalty. Belarus’s Kryuko shot clean to leave the range in third (+7.9), and Egan hit five more shots without any spares to follow her in fourth (+10.7).
Ransom used three spares to avoid the penalty lap and headed back on the course in 10th (+44.2) for her final 2 k loop.
“Oh my gosh, I was really due for this,” Egan said after. “It’s by far my best race of the season so I couldn’t be more happy with my race.”
By the time the skiers came in for the second exchange, the order had changed again. Finland handed off in first, Italy second, 14.2 seconds back, Slovakia third (+16.1) and U.S. fourth (+16.8). Canada came through in 10th (+1:09.5).
“Kuzmina kept being behind me and then passing me,” Egan reflected. “I think every lap Kuzmina passed me so there is a lot of really fast skiers, most teams put their fastest skiers on their second legs. I tried to stay with them, but I can’t always do that. I did have people around me the whole time though so I was able to keep fighting.”
“All you can do is just leave it all on the track no matter what it is,” Ransom said of her race. “My standing was a little bit precarious, missing three from the clip. But I’m happy I was able to hit the precious spares. It was very gusty.”
Egan tagged off to Joanne Reid for the third of four legs. Reid slipped to sixth on her first loop and during her first prone shooting, she used three spares and had to ski a penalty lap, returning to the course in ninth, 33.6 seconds behind Italy’s Nicole Gontier, who cleaned with three spares, in first. Gontier skied just 0.4 seconds ahead of Slovakia’s Terezia Poliakova, who used one spare to clean.
Belarus had moved into third (+2.4), France into seventh (+19.2), while the Swedes sat in 11th (+1:33.6) and Canada, with Emma Lunder who had to ski a penalty, was still in 12th (+1:45.7).
As the leaders came in for their standing bout, it was Italy, France, Belarus, Norway, Finland, Slovakia, Poland, and U.S.A. Belarus’s Alimbekava took the lead after using one spare, Poland chased in second (+6.2), Slovakia was next, followed by Italy. The U.S. was back up to fifth (+28.1) after Reid used one spare to clean. France was sixth (+29.2) and Sweden eighth (+1:10). Lunder cleaned to put Canada in 11th (+1:24.7).
“I had a pretty good standing, but we need every second we can get,” Reid said after. “You never know what will happen in the next stage and the wind picking up. So even if we’re in fifth you never know. I was just trying to hang on on that uphill and give it everything I had.”
“I didn’t feel amazing, skiing, but I ripped off my standing with no spares, like, record fast, so I was really pumped about that,” Lunder reflected. “I moved up like a ton in the range there. So I think I tagged Rosanna in a decent position to be with some girls and fight a bit.”
Poland’s Krystyna Guzik caught Belarus’s Alimbekava and by the final exchange, it was Poland in first, France in second, Italy in third, and Belarus in fourth. Reid handed off to Emily Dreissigacker in sixth (+21.4) while Lunder tagged Rosanna Crawford in 13th (+1:22.6). Sweden exchanged in eighth (+59.1)
The skiers had maintained their order as they approached the range for the seventh round of shooting. Belarus’s anchor leg, Domracheva, shot clean to take the lead. France was now in second, Poland third, and the U.S. in seventh (+41.1), after Dreissigacker used two spares to clean. Sweden was back in ninth (+41.9), while Crawford cleaned with one spare and out for her second loop in 12th (+1:28.6).
Coming into the final shooting shooting round, Belarus teetered on a lock for gold, 24.8 seconds ahead of France in second. Poland still clung to third, 34.5 seconds back, while Sweden was now ranked seventh, 56.4 seconds back. The U.S. had moved back to tenth, while Canada was right behind them in 11th.
Domracheva missed three targets standing, but used three spares to clean and avoid any penalties to hang onto first. France’s Bescond needed three spares to clean but stayed out of the penalty lap and headed out on the final loop in second (+6.4). Sweden’s Öberg cleaned her second-straight stage without any misses to move all the way up into third (+10.9).
For the U.S., Dreissigacker used her three spares to clean standing, but experiencing unsteady winds, took her time to steady her shot and left the range in 12th (+1:20.2). Canada’s Crawford used one spare to clean and moved up to 11th (+1:19.9).
“It was really windy for my standing,” Crawford noted. “I really waited it out.”
“It wasn’t great,” Dreissigacker, a first-time Olympian, said of her race. “I didn’t feel that great skiing, might’ve went out a little hard, and the shooting just wasn’t good either. I was happy to at least hit them all with my spares, but standing especially, I took all three spares and the wind came up like crazy, right before I started shooting my spares, so I had to like stand there and wait out the wind, which cost me a lot of time.”
Over the last 2 k of the race, Domracheva kept her competition behind her and crossed the line first for Belarus’s first relay gold in 1:12.03.4 (after its mixed relay team placed fifth two days ago).
Öberg passed Bescond to claim silver for Sweden, 10.7 seconds back, while Bescond anchored France to bronze (+17.6), ahead of Norway in fourth (+29.7), Slovakia in fifth (+38.4), Switzerland in sixth (+43.5), Poland in seventh (+43.6), Germany in eighth (+53.9), Italy in ninth (+1:04.1), and Canada in 10th (+1:33.4). The U.S. finished 13th (+2:01.9) of 18th teams.
With the first-place finish, Domracheva is the most decorated female biathlete in Olympic history, with six medals (four golds, a silver and a bronze) between three Olympics. Her husband, Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway, is the most successful Olympic biathlete of all time with 13 medals.
“I didn’t think that before you said it,” Domracheva, 31, said of her medal record during the post-race press conference. “Of course it was a lot of challenges for me on the way. Such days and such medals mean that it’s important to believe in yourself, important to believe in your team and overcome some difficulties, and then all doors are open for you.”
In the last four Winter Olympics, France has claimed three relay medals. Before Thursday’s bronze, their most recent was silver in 2010 and prior to that, bronze in 2006.
Sweden’s silver medal was its first in the women’s 4 x 6 k relay at the Olympics.
“This team worked together really hard for the last couple of years,” said Öberg, who won her first medal — gold — in the 15 k individual race earlier in the Games. “That we are here today is unbelievable. I’m really happy to share this medals with the rest of the girls.”
Crawford caught Ukraine’s Anastasiya Merkushyna in her final lap to anchor Canada to 10th while the U.S. finished three places later in 13th.
“My last loop I could hear Julia [Ransom] and Sarah [Beaudry] all around the course,” Crawford told FasterSkier. “They managed to be everywhere really cheering me on, and that fueled me to catch the Ukrainian.
“I’m just so proud of this women’s team,” Crawford added. “We fought so hard out there today. We’ve been through a lot this summer and really supported each other. And I’m just really proud of the team and I think biathlon in Canada has the potential to have a bright future.”
— Chelsea Little, Harald Zimmer, Andrea Potyondy-Smith, and Alex Kochon contributed