(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from American Claire Waichler and Canadian Aidan Miller.)
Imagine a race where you’re in second place for the first half of it, then suddenly, you emerge out of the third of four shooting stages in first (disclaimer: this is a biathlon race), 13 seconds ahead of second place.
You cruise around the 2.5-kilometer course, entering the range for the fourth and final time, where you hit all five targets and set out on your final loop almost 40 seconds ahead of anyone else.
What goes through your mind? For US Biathlon’s Sean Doherty, it definitely wasn’t damage control.
“Let’s lock this up,” he recalled thinking in a phone interview on Sunday after the junior men’s 12.5 k pursuit at IBU Junior World Championships, the final junior race of his career.
“The pressure kind of changes when you’re in the lead. A lot of people fall into a track where, ‘I don’t want to mess this up.’ That’s the wrong mindset. You’re still in charge,” he said.
Doherty, 20, didn’t lose sight of that and raced to his first win of the week in Cheile Gradistei, Romania, with enough time to grab an American flag from a teammate and wave it high above his head as he crossed the finish line in first. That moment meant a lot to him, he said.
Previously, Doherty had placed third in the 15 k individual and second in Saturday’s sprint, behind Austria’s Felix Leitner, who won both previous races at this year’s worlds. On Sunday, Doherty hit 18 of 20 targets, missing one on his second and third stages, to secure the win by 29.6 seconds over Russia’s Nikita Porshnev in 36:01.1.
Porshnev had one penalty in the first stage, then three clean stages and the fastest overall course time to rise from 12th at the start to second at the finish. Leitner recovered from three late penalties (0+0+2+1) to land on the podium in third, 38.8 seconds after Doherty.
Before the flower ceremony, cameras panned on Doherty and Leitner, 19, casually chatting.
“We’ve been racing together off and on a bit; we’re just kind of buddies,” Doherty explained.
But do some of the other junior athletes look up to him?
“I always like to talk and discuss race strategies,” Doherty said. “I’ve been in all sorts of different positions with this stuff.”
Sunday marked his 10th career medal at IBU Youth/Junior World Championships. He had previously set the all-time record on Saturday with nine medals.
“I didn’t know I had done it until a good ways after the [sprint] race,” Doherty recalled of becoming the most decorated biathlete at youth/junior worlds. “I was in the press conference [and a reporter] asked the question, and I didn’t know until that point that I had set a new record.”
When it came down to it, he insisted he was just like every other junior at the championships. He woke up each morning on race days and had to kill time while staying focused until 2:30 in the afternoon. Then, he’d put on his race suit, get into his pre-race routine, and get down to business.
“I get nervous just like any other human,” Doherty said. “There’s a lot of pressure for these races I just did, and I’m really happy with how I performed with it all, but it’s something that’s not that easy to deal with.”
“I get nervous just like any other human. There’s a lot of pressure for these races … I’m really happy with how I performed with it all, but it’s something that’s not that easy to deal with.” — Sean Doherty, US Biathlon A-team member and IBU World Cup skier, on podium expectations
He reached the podium in all three individual races at these championships and started Sunday’s pursuit 12 seconds behind Leitner as the second starter out of the gate. Mostly, Doherty said he focused on his own race and staying confident in his ability to catch Leitner.
“Even though it’s tempting to charge out of the game and try to catch Felix on the first lap, it’s not smart,” he recalled.
After cleaning his first prone stage, Doherty missed his first shot of his second prone. That wasn’t ideal, he explained, but he made a point to maintain his energy and keep a good headspace heading into his second loop.
“That wasn’t damaging, that one miss,” he said.
Meanwhile, Leitner cleaned the first two stages to remain in the lead, by 21 seconds over Doherty. He entered the range for the third time in first, well enough ahead of Doherty that he had fired off his shots before the American settled in.
While Doherty knew it was best to focus on himself, he couldn’t help but notice Leitner had missed two in that standing stage.
“I tried to stay to stay calm and not let what was was going on with him not affect me too much. I got a little excited and kind of jerked the last shot,” Doherty said.
He missed one, but emerged out of the penalty loop 13.4 seconds before Leitner.
“I just really wanted to finish the race off and I knew that I could do it,” Doherty said. “I just tried to think of it like training: I’ve done this before and nothing crazy needs to happen right now.”
The Austrian went on to miss another in his final standing stage (while Doherty cleaned) to fall to third. Russia’s Porshnev cleaned his last three stages to take hold of second place.
“This was my biggest comeback because in general, I am not so good with the shooting,” Porshnev said in the post-race press conference. “I was really lucky and I understood that if I want to be in the top I need to shoot well today.”
Despite missing out on a sweep of the individual races, Leitner said he was happy with third.
“At the moment I am really tired, but I am very happy with this whole week,” he said in the press conference. “It is like a dream. There are too many great athletes here, and I am happy with my [bronze] medal.”
For Doherty, capping his junior career with gold in the pursuit was perfect.
“I really couldn’t have imagined a better ending, really,” he said. “This is the perfect end to my junior career.
“I’m still pretty over the moon,” he added.
On Monday, Doherty planned to fly home to New Hampshire, where he’ll spend the next week recovering leading up to the IBU World Cup in Presque Isle, Maine — about a six-hour drive from his hometown. He is skipping Tuesday’s junior relay and the upcoming World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, which starts Thursday.
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Another Top 10 for Phaneuf
In the junior women’s 10 k pursuit, 20-year-old Maddie Phaneuf (US Biathlon X-team) started seventh and finished ninth with four penalties (1+0+1+2).
In fifth after the first prone stage and up to fourth following the second stage, Phaneuf slipped to seventh after a penalty in her first standing, then ninth with two more penalties on the final standing. She finished 2:08.8 behind the winner, Sweden’s Hanna Öberg, who won Saturday’s sprint and started the pursuit first, 1 second ahead of Switzerland’s Lena Häcki.
While Öberg cleaned the four-stage pursuit to win in 33:16.8, Häcki finished second, 13.7 seconds back, with six penalties (0+2+3+1) and the fastest overall course time by just over a minute.
“I felt crazy good on the skis today, it just went all by itself,” Häcki said during a post-race press conference. “After the three misses in the third shooting, it was then very difficult for me. But after I got the info from my coaches that I was still on course for the medals, I could really turn it up again.”
“I couldn’t believe I get the second gold medal in a row,” Öberg said, according to the event organizers’ Facebook page. “I was so tired during the race today. Lena is so great on skiing. I was not nervous on the shooting range and like yesterday, I was confident.”
France’s Chloe Chevalier rose from fifth to third (+41.9) with two penalties, both in the first stage (2+0+0+0).
“I am really happy to be on the podium,” Chevalier said. “After my first shooting it was very hard, but I was very motivated today so after that I did zero mistakes.”
Phaneuf explained in an email to FasterSkier that she was hoping to reach the top six and flower ceremony that came with it for the second time this week. She placed fifth in the 12.5 k individual.
“But I also just wanted to stay in the top ten!” she wrote on Sunday. “I found myself consistently in around 5th place throughout the race. I was not happy with missing one in my first prone, but glad to be skiing fast and holding my positions.”
Despite feeling tired during the second half of the race, Phaneuf posted the sixth-fastest course time on the last loop.
“I just tried to ski hard and not let any girls pass me,” she wrote. “I was skiing mostly alone on that loop I think, I didn’t even know there was a Russian behind me until the last 500 meters before the finish.”
She held off Russia’s Kristina Reztsova by 3.6 seconds for ninth place, and finished 11.7 seconds out behind Germany’s Christin Maier in eighth. For Phaneuf, it was her third-consecutive top 10 of the week (after placing fifth in the individual and seventh in the sprint).
“I was really happy and surprised with my results overall,” she wrote. “The training I’ve been doing with [US Biathlon development coach] Jean [Paquet] all year is showing in my skiing and strength and it’s been really great!”
Also in the junior pursuit, Canada’s Leilani Tam von Burg placed 33rd (+6:13.2) after starting 28th. While the 20-year-old Ottawa native and Chelsea Nordic skier cleaned both prone stages, she missed three between the two standing stages (0+0+1+2). Siena Ellingson placed 50th for the U.S. after starting 48th, ending the day with six penalties (1+1+3+1). Canadian Kendall Chong finished 58th with eight penalties (3+1+3+2) after starting 51st.
While Doherty was the lone American in the junior men’s pursuit, Aidan Millar led the Canadian men in 37th (+6:00). He improved 18 places with 19-for-20 shooting (0+1+0+0) to post his best result of these championships (his third).
“I was pretty happy with how the race played out. Especially on the shooting range,” Miller wrote. “Felt pretty strong on my skis but faded a little in the last lap. Overall I was super disappointed with the championships. Going in I wanted a top 10 so obviously didn’t meet that. My shooting was no where near as good as it should have been which was the most disappointing part. Over the week my skiing felt better and better but still not as fast as it needed to be for a top 10.”
Also for Canada, Matthew Strum finished 47th with four penalties (1+1+0+2) after starting 37th, and Pearce Hanna placed 49th with 11 misses (2+4+3+2), slipping one spot from 48th.
Three Canadians in Top 20
Three familiar Canadian youth skiers again landed in the top 20: Teo Sanchez in 17th (+4:54.9) and Adam Runnalls in 19th (+5:10.5) in the youth men’s 10 k pursuit, and Megan Bankes in 18th (+3:47) in the youth women’s 7.5 k pursuit.
The result stood as the second-straight 17th place for Sanchez, 18, of Wakefield, Quebec. He shot 95 percent with a single miss on the first standing stage (0+0+1+0). In all three races this week, Sanchez has shot 90 percent or better.
“I’m a little disappointed with my result considering my skiing. It was kind of frustrating to shoot so well but not ski very fast,” Sanchez wrote on Sunday. His course time ranked 48th overall.
“I feel like I could’ve been several spots higher,” he added. “17th place is still nothing to scoff at though. I think overall, three top 20’s is pretty awesome and it shows some pretty good consistency.”
For Runnalls, 80 percent shooting with four penalties (0+0+3+1) was right where he had been all week.
“I was a little nervous coming into today because I had never done a ‘real’ pursuit before,” Runnalls, 17, of Calgary, wrote in an email. “In Canada pursuits are usually started with 5 second gaps between starters but here at world juniors we start at the time we finished behind the winner of the sprint. This new style of pursuit was a little intimidating in the start gate.
“After my second clean prone shooting I tried to keep a clear head and not get ahead of myself,” he explained. “I knew that with 2 clean prones I was in a good spot and need to nail my standing.”
However, he described overthinking his first standing stage and slowing down too much.
“I tried too hard to find the perfect shot and didn’t follow my normal pattern, which caused me to only hit 2,” Runnalls wrote. “Coming into my second standing I told myself that this was a do or die moment and to not overthink it, follow my normal pattern which worked out with me hitting 4.
“I am super excited about my finishes here as it shows I belong here on the international stage,” he added. “I couldn’t be happier with the way I performed and with my overall result.”
Russia’s Viacheslav Maleev won the youth men’s pursuit in 30:14 after starting third (based on his third-place finish in Saturday’s sprint). He won by well over a minute after overtaking another Russian, the sprint winner Igor Malinovskii and beating him by 1:07.6 after Malinovskii had seven penalties (2+1+2+2).
Norway’s Harald Øygard, the 12.5 k individual champion, moved up from eighth at the start to third overall (+1:13.4) with two misses (1+0+0+1). Another Norwegian, Aleksander Fjeld Andersen placed fourth (+1:44.1) for the second-straight race.
In the youth women’s pursuit, Kazakhstan’s Ariana Pantova started sixth and cleaned every target but one in her first stage to win her first world title in 27:15.2. Ukraine’s Anna Kryvonos rose from third to second place at the finish, 3.4 seconds back, and Germany’s Marina Sauter reached the podium for the second time this week in third (+1:02.9) after starting 14th. While Kryvonos had three penalties (0+0+1+2), Sauter had two (0+1+0+1).
Canada’s Bankes missed seven targets (2+1+2+2), but skied the seventh-fastest course time to place 18th. It was her second top 20 of the week, after finishing 19th in the 10 k individual.
“The goal for today was to continue my fast skiing in order to move up as many places as possible, and focus on hitting more targets,” Bankes wrote in an email. “Because the course and the race are both quite short, fast skiing was necessary, but good shooting was really important, especially in the first bout. My skiing felt pretty strong again today, however the snow on the course was pretty soft, which made my legs quite tired right off the start.”
She lost track of her position rounding the penalty loop twice after the last stage, and explained she was excited to learn she finished 18th.
“I knew today that my ski speed would definitely keep me in top 20 contention as long as I could hit a few targets,” she wrote. “Overall I’ve been very pleased with my skiing this week, and it’s nice to see my ski speed progressively get better over the last three years. My main issue this week was my shooting, which I was overall very disappointed with. … On a whole I am super stoked by the results I achieved this week, even if my races weren’t entirely perfect.”
Six places behind her, another Canadian, Nadia Moser placed 24th (+4:52.4) after starting 19th. Moser had eight misses (1+2+3+2) on the day.
For the U.S., Claire Waichler picked off 25 places to end up 33rd (+5:29.5) with three penalties (0+1+2+0).
“This is my first time at world juniors so I was hoping to just have fun and experience competition at a higher level,” Waichler wrote in an email. “My skiing had been going well throughout the week but the shooting had been unusually rough. So my goal for the pursuit was to keep up the skiing and shoot a cleaner race — at least 70%. When I shot 85% and cleaned twice I was stoked.
“The competition is very strong and being able to chase down foreign girls during the whole race was educational,” she added. “And a top 20 isolate pursuit time was certainly more than I’d hoped for.”
Canada’s Emily Dickson followed in 35th (+5:48.1) with five misses (0+0+3+2) after starting 41st, Amanda Kautzer of the U.S. slipped three places to 55th with 10 penalties (3+2+2+3) and Canada’s India McIsaac went from 54th to 60th with 13 misses (3+3+4+3).
Two American men moved up in the pursuit, with Brendan Cyr rising to 35th (+6:49) with three penalties (0+1+2+0) after starting 46th. For the 18-year-old Maine Winter Sports Center biathlete, it was his first top 40 in his debut world championships.
His teammate Cody Johnson finished 41st (+7:11.1) with two misses (0+2+0+0) after starting 50th.
“I knew that I had plenty of time that I could make up in the Pursuit,” Cyr wrote in an email after starting in bib 46. “I knew that if I came into the range calm and focused on my own shooting process for each of the stages, while also keeping a good rhythm on the skis, I could put together a top-40 performance.
“The key to my success on the range was just making sure that every time I came to the mat, I was not rushing any of my process,” he added of his 85-percent shooting. “On the skis, the key for me was just making sure I kept a good rhythm throughout the race, most importantly towards the end.”
IBU Youth/Junior World Championships conclude with the three-person relays on Monday and Tuesday, with the youth relays on Monday.
Chloe Levins, Kautzer and Ariana Woods are slated to start the youth women’s 3 x 6 k for the U.S., while Dickson, Moser and Banks represent Canada.
In the youth men’s 3 x 7.5 k, Johnson, Vaclav Cervenka and Peter Carroll are listed for the U.S., while Sanchez, Runnalls and Zachari Bolduc are on the start list for Canada.
— Harald Zimmer contributed reporting