HOCHFILZEN, Austria — In a World Championships that started as a contentious battle of snubs between France and Russia, the first week ended with three guys who couldn’t be happier to compliment each other on the podium.
Starting third in Sunday’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit, after earning bronze in the sprint, Martin Fourcade of France was nearly perfect. He only missed the last of his 20 shots and cruised to a 22.8-second victory for his first gold medal of the Championships.
In the press conference, he was liberal with his praise for second-place Johannes Thingnes Bø and third-place Ole Einar Bjørndalen, both of Norway.
“I am pretty satisfied to be on the podium with Johannes, one of the greatest biathlon talents, and with Ole who is as well one of the greatest biathlon talents,” Fourcade said, understating Bjørndalen’s role in the history of the sport. “It was amazing for me to share this podium with them, because Johannes is always good on the big events… And everyone is asking me when I will break Ole’s record, and how I will do that. But I am simply sure that if I want to break one his records he will have to stop.”
If Fourcade seemed to have things locked up with one stage to go, the battle for second place was fierce.
Bjørndalen, Krasimir Anev of Bulgaria, and Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic were all in the pack close behind Fourcade, but all missed a shot. Lowell Bailey of the United States, however, cleaned – as did Bø and Anton Shipulin of Russia.
Bailey headed out of the range in second place, with Bjørndalen exiting the penalty loop just behind him.
The American led for a while, but Bjørndalen was stronger. And although the pair had a substantial lead on the others when they left the range – Bailey had 7.1 seconds on Anev, 12.8 seconds on Bø, and another 2-3 seconds on Moravec and Shipulin – the chasers were charging hard.
About the time that Bjørndalen passed Bailey, Bø realized he had a chance.
“I was not sure I would catch Ole,” he said in the press conference. “When I closed up he was going past Bailey… he looked quite strong. But Lowell had not his best day I think on the last loop, and on the last uphill I managed to catch Ole.”
Bø fought with Bjørndalen in the final kilometer. He ended up with a clear edge, earning silver (+22.8) while Bjørndalen took bronze (+25.6).
The 43-year-old Bjørndalen seemed to harbor no hard feelings after being knocked down a spot by his younger teammate.
“It was a really good race for me,” Bjørndalen said. “Shooting was really good, and I felt much better on the skis also today, so it was a really good race.”
The last time World Championships were in Hochfilzen, in 2005, Bjørndalen won three individual gold medals, as well as one in the relay. On Sunday, bronze was good enough.
“2005 I was definitely stronger on the skis than I am in the moment today,” he said.
His younger teammate started in second place, just where he finished. But it was not a straight line in between. Bø racked up three penalties and had a bobble that tripped him up and sent him sprawling to the ground as he left the shooting mat at one point.
While he had been disappointed to be second the day before – by just 0.7 seconds to Benedikt Doll of Germany – he seemed ebullient with his pursuit silver.
“Today it is quite a better feeling,” he said. “Not quite so tired after the race as I was yesterday. It’s quite fun to [finish by] gaining places up to the podium today. It’s a little bit more fun than losing the gold medal [at the end] yesterday.“
As for Bailey, he was finally caught by a group of Shipulin, Moravec, and Anev. He couldn’t stay ahead of anyone but Anev, and finished sixth (+34.7).
“In the end I just didn’t quite have enough,” he said at the finish. “It’s just so close and there are so many good guys. One more shot! One more shot, ten more seconds… You know, I could keep going and going, but that’s the way it is.”
A New High for USA
Although Bailey was so close to the podium he could almost taste it, sixth place was still a solid result to follow up his fourth-place finish in Saturday’s sprint.
“Two times in the top six, we cannot complain about that,” U.S. Biathlon Associaiton Chief of Sport Bernd Eisenbichler said. “It’s a fantastic result for Lowell.”
While fourth place in the sprint was the second-best result ever by an American at World Championships – Tim Burke won a silver medal in 2013 and Josh Thompson a silver in 1987 – two top-six finishes in a single Championships is pretty unprecedented.
Starting a pursuit in fourth position is certainly an advantage, but it’s also far from any sort of guarantee. Just ask Doll, who won the sprint but ended up 11th in the pursuit. Or Germany’s Vanessa Hinz, who started the women’s pursuit sixth but ended up 20th.
“I think it was really impressive how he approached those two races,” Eisenbichler said. “Yesterday he was really aggressive on the range, really went for it, had the second-fastest shooting time. And you know, it was just unlucky that there were three better guys… And I have to say that I am even more proud today, because this was a really tough race for him. And he kept it together in the last shooting, and I am really proud of that.”
Bailey had a similar assessment.
“Obviously I would have loved to be on the podium,” he said. “That’s what we all hope for. But I approached each race this year just telling myself to go out there and do what you can do for the day. Some days you got more in your legs than others. I am actually really happy with the shooting today, because I held it together shooting up there near the lead the whole time. Quite honestly, that’s where I have struggled in the past. So I am really happy to have stuck with my game plan in shooting and kept my focus.”
Bailey took his time to clean the last five targets, but even so was the second-fastest shooter in the field when all the stages were added up. That helped him, since the skiing did not go exactly as he would have wished.
“I would say the pace was a little bit faster than I would have liked to go in the beginning,” Bailey admitted. “But I knew that if I didn’t maintain contact, I wouldn’t have a chance. So I went as hard as I could in the beginning, and then I paid for it in the end. But you have to be there at the end to have a chance. So…”
He shrugged his shoulders. What are you going to do?
The weekend netted Bailey another major accolade: he became the first athlete of any sport to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team to PyeongChang, South Korea, for 2018. U.S. Biathlon qualification rules stated that any athlete with a top-six finish at 2017 World Championships would get a spot, and Bailey nailed it – twice.
“It’s a goal that I’ve had for a long time and I think now it means so much more for me to be competing with the support of my wife Erika and our new daughter Ophelia,” Bailey said of the 2018 Olympics in a Team USA press release. “To know that I can represent the U.S. team for her is really special for me to be able to have that privilege.”
Behind him, his three American teammates didn’t have as strong days on the range. Tim Burke had three penalties to move from 40th up to 32nd (+2:45.4); Leif Nordgren had five missed shots to drop from 26th to 49th (+4:11.1); and Sean Doherty collected nine penalties to fall from 39th to 55th (+5:15.2).
But Eisenbichler focused on their performances in the sprint as a sign of what was to come.
“I am really happy how the recovery goes for [Nordgren and Doherty],” he said, referring to a toe injury and mononucleosis, respectively. “I still call it a recovery, they are still on the path to get back to their full shape. Sean had a really super shape in the summertime — he was there with Tim and Lowell –and Leif had also a really high level. And so I was really pleased to see Leif’s 26th place, and Sean also taking points with two misses in prone which is absolutely not perfect. But with a clean shooting he’d have been up there. And don’t forget about [Burke], too. We had a really good men’s team performance overall yesterday, so we are really looking forward to the individual and to the relay.”
Personal Best for Gow to Lead Canada
Meanwhile, Christian Gow matched Bailey’s shooting to move from 32nd up to 23rd and collect a new personal best.
“I was super happy with it, finally breaking into the top 30,” Gow said. “I have been in so many races right around that cusp. So it feels good to get into it.”
Before the competition, it hadn’t seemed like things were off to an auspicious start. Yet Gow kept an open mind and began to feel better and better.
“Starting today, I didn’t feel very good warming up,” he admitted. “I felt exhausted still from yesterday, and my legs just felt kind of dead. The first loop of the pursuit was crushing. I was kind of like‚ ‘Okay, there is 2.5 out of 12.5 done…’ I don’t know, it was looking a little bleak, but then something changed on the range, and all of a sudden I just felt fine on skis. And I felt like I was fine on the last lap. I was pretty hurt, but I am really happy with the race.”
32nd had been the best sprint result of Gow’s career, so he was starting the pursuit in fast territory. That added some pressure.
“Looking at my skiing yesterday, it wasn’t great,” Gow said. “And a lot of the guys around me were guys that are some of the strongest skiers, who just missed too many yesterday. So they had two or three misses and were at my [level] with three more hits. So I knew today was going to be a lot of work, but I kept together on the range really well, I am happy about that. It was great to feed off the fast guys out on my loops. And sometimes your realize, ‘Oh wait, that pace isn’t so bad, I can manage that’.”
His older brother Scott Gow had seven missed shots to drop from 25th to 47th (+3:56.0), and Brendan Green missed five to slip from 38th to 52nd (+4:19.5).
— Harald Zimmer contributed