Imagine for a moment, if you can, that you’re a two-time Olympic gold medalist from four years ago, and so far this winter, you’ve been on the podium in every biathlon World Cup you’ve raced but one (the first race, a single-mixed relay in November).
Your name is Martin Fourcade and you’re an 11-time world champion from France. You’re also a 29-year-old dad and you’ve spent the last four years since the last Olympics more or less preparing for gold in another race: the first race of the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Now imagine that in that race, which you came into feeling more prepared than ever, you finished eighth after missing three targets in the first prone shooting stage.
Fourcade recalled in a press conference on Monday that his result in the men’s 10-kilometer sprint on Sunday wasn’t frustrating. It was disappointing.
“It was a really strange feeling,” Fourcade said after Monday’s 12.5 k pursuit. “… I was disappointed because yesterday I did not understand why I missed three, and I wanted this Olympic gold in the sprint more than any of the competitions. I worked really hard for this competition. I worked on my shooting for being good in the sprint, I worked on my skiing to be good in the sprint, and I think I was relaxed, I was in a good mood, I had good preparation. … And after the race [yesterday] I was really sad because I didn’t understand what I did bad.”
On Monday morning, he reviewed a photo of his missed shots in the sprint and figured out his error. The red flags that show the strength and direction of the wind in the range were waving more violently than he had remembered feeling during that prone bout.
“I realized it was not because I was unlucky … it was because I did a mistake, and from that time it was really much more easy to turn my anger into strength for the competition today,” Fourcade said. “It’s a bit masochist, but it works.”
Fourcade started the second race of the 2018 Games, the pursuit, 22 seconds behind Germany’s Arnd Peiffer (who won Sunday’s sprint) in eighth. Peiffer held his ground through the first loop and first prone shooting in first, hitting all of his targets and leaving the range in second, just 0.8 seconds behind Austria’s Julian Eberhard, who also cleaned and started the race in fourth.
Fourcade missed his third shot and emerged from the penalty loop still in eighth, now 28 seconds out of first. He and Peiffer both cleaned the second prone, putting Peiffer back into first and Fourcade up to sixth, 21 seconds behind, while Eberhard missed one to drop to seventh.
All the while, the little red flags blew in various directions, twirling around their posts. Gusts kicked up flurries of snow into the air, under a pitch black sky past 9 p.m. Korea time — the start of the men’s pursuit.
It was once again frigid out there and only those who were shooting carefully enough and could feel their fingers (or were managing it regardless) were succeeding.
On the third loop, Fourcade hooked up with a chase group in an effort to catch Peiffer, and by the end of that 2.5 k loop, they did. Heading into the range for the first standing shooting, Fourcade put himself in second, just ahead of Germany’s Simon Schempp in third and behind Peiffer in first. Fourcade and Peiffer lined up in the second and first shooting positions, respectively, putting the pressure on Peiffer in particular.
Then, Peiffer missed his first shot. He hit the remaining four, but it wasn’t enough — Fourcade had knocked down all five and had taken his time to do so, posting the 28th-ranked shooting time. While Peiffer skied his first penalty lap of the day, Fourcade headed back to the course in first place. Peiffer slotted into second, 20.3 seconds behind.
“I think it was a key time of the competition because on the third shooting, the wind was really tricky, challenging, probably it was the most difficult shooting of today,” Fourcade recalled of that standing stage. “I took a bit more time then my opponents to shoot my first ammunition and then when I realized I was the only one who shot clean, I knew that I was the only one who could decide who would be the Olympic champion. I didn’t say that I was sure I would win, but the decision was in my hand.”
He rounded the fourth loop on his own and entered the range for the last time all alone. Then, Fourcade cleaned all five targets with the ninth-fastest shooting time, and turned to the stands behind him with a celebratory fist pump.
“My finish line was not the real finish line, it was the last ammunition of my last magazine on the fourth shooting,” Fourcade said. “I really put all my energy into this shooting and I think if I had to fight with any athlete on the tracks, I wasn’t able to do it because after this shooting I was totally empty.”
He didn’t need to fight with anyone on that last loop. Behind him, Germany’s Benedikt Doll had moved into second with a clean final stage, 36 seconds back, and Sweden’s Sebastien Samuelsson was up to third, another eight seconds behind.
On that final loop, Fourcade locked up gold, coming into the stadium with enough time to grab a large French flag from the stands, about 100 meters from the finish. Meanwhile, Doll and Samuelsson duked it out for second, with Samuelsson closing the gap to Doll then challenging him on the final climb.
“I saw Sebastien behind me and my legs felt weaker and weaker in the long uphill,” Doll, the 2017 sprint world champion, said at the press conference. “And he came closer and closer, and then he [caught] me so I was thinking, ‘OK, now I need to make a new tactic for sprinting for the finish.’ ”
The 20-year-old Samuelsson overtook Doll, 27, as they crested the last climb and led the downhill toward the stadium finish.
“I knew we had really good skis today and I knew that if I can catch him at the top, I had a really good chance,” Samuelsson reflected. “My plan was to go a little bit later because I wanted a wind shadow, but [my team’s] waxers were … yelling a lot and then I just had to go. I was helped a lot with my skis today.”
In the end, Samuelsson got him by 3 seconds for silver, finishing 12 seconds after Fourcade claimed the win in 32:51.7 minutes. Doll, who had started the pursuit in sixth, settled for bronze, 15 seconds behind Fourcade, for his first medal in his first Olympics with a single penalty (0+1+0+0).
“I couldn’t follow [Samuelsson] and he had faster skis,” Doll concluded. “He was a little bit stronger, and so I think he’s the right holder for the silver medal.”
In addition to shooting 19-for-20 (0+0+1+0), Samuelsson, who started the race in 14th, raced the fastest overall course time of the day, 8.6 seconds faster than Fourcade, who was second fastest. The young Swede reportedly told the International Biathlon Union (IBU) on Periscope that he’d cut his hair if he won a medal at his first Olympics in PyeongChang.
“I think nobody was thinking I’d be able to cut my hair after these Olympics, but now I have to do it, I have said so,” Samuelsson said at the press conference. “But I heard that my teammate said maybe you should keep the hair until the relays because you never know what will happen if you cut it.”
Samuelsson’s previous individual World Cup best was 13th in a sprint last season. He won a relay with his four-man team this season in the 4 x 7.5 k in Oberhof, Germany. After Monday’s pursuit, Fourcade said he congratulated him.
“I told Sebastien in the changing room, it’s not a bad day to start his first Olympics with his first international podium. I know a guy who did that eight years ago in the Olympics in Vancouver,” Fourcade said, referring to his first Olympic medal (silver) in the mass start at the 2010 Games.
Fourcade went on to win the pursuit and 15 k individual race at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where he also took silver in the sprint.
“Martin is, I mean, the perfect biathlete,” Samuelsson said. “I knew when he finished eighth yesterday that today he would be really fighting for the gold medal. For me, it’s a big victory for me to just be on the podium and Martin is unbelievably good.”
“Martin was not happy [after the sprint],” Doll said when asked about Fourcade. “Of course three mistakes in the prone shooting, it’s horrible, so it was for sure that today that he will fight and give everything to win, and in the end his plan fulfilled. He was I think the fastest skier or maybe Sebastien was the fastest skier, I don’t know, but he was the best biathlete today.”
In his book, “Martin Fourcade: Mon rêve d’or et de neige” (My dream of gold and snow), which came out in November, Fourcade wrote about how nervous he was the night before his first gold medal in Sochi.
“Four years ago before the Olympics in Sochi, I was simply shaking because I had a lot of fears,” Fourcade said at Monday’s press conference when asked about that passage from the book. “Many things changed in my life since Sochi. When I came here in Korea, I knew that I will be a happy man even without any Olympic gold in this event, so I think it helped me to take it more easy and I was in a really good mood and really satisfied with how I prepared this competition.”
Asked now if that fear is gone, he said it was.
Finishing 47.5 seconds after Doll was Norway’s Tarjei Bø in fourth (+1:02.6). Bø started 13th and posted the fourth-fastest course time to overcome three penalties (0+0+1+2). He held off three others in a sprint to the line, with Schempp following in fifth (+1:02.7), after starting seventh, Switzerland’s Benjamin Weger placing sixth (+1:03.1), up from 15th at the start, and France’s Simon Desthieux placing seventh (+1:03.7), up from 12th. Peiffer ended up eighth (+1:14.1) with three penalties (0+0+1+2), and Sunday’s silver medalist Michal Krčmář of the Czech Republic finished 30th (+3:49.9) with seven misses (2+0+3+2).
Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø finished the race in 21st (+2:51.0), up 10 places from starting 31st based on his sprint result, with six penalties on Monday (0+2+4+0).
“We both [knew] before the Olympics that it will not be only a fight between us because we know the shooting range [here] is challenging,” Fourcade said of Johannes Bø, his main rival this season. “I thought that at our best level, we could be difficult to beat, but the wind and the Olympic situation will bring many opportunities for outsiders to take [medals], yesterday Arnd did in a magnificent way. It’s not a competition about Johannes today. It’s biathlon.”
Burke Up to 17th
Three Americans and one Canadian qualified for the pursuit in the sprint top 60, and US Biathlon’s Tim Burke raced all the way up to 17th (+2:19.6) after starting 47th, with two penalties (0+1+1+0) and the 15th-fastest overall course time.
“I am very happy with the race,” Burke said in a post-race interview with FasterSkier. “I really felt like I put it together for the opportunities I was given in the race today, but this is not normal biathlon. You saw that they moved the downhill [competition] to a different day; we can’t do that in biathlon we have too many events, so we have to go on these days when it’s honestly unfair conditions like today. I benefited a lot from having very little wind in my standing positions, and I was able to move up a lot. Others I know were not so lucky. Unfortunately that is part of an outdoor sport.”
Asked how he reset after the sprint the day before, Burke said he talked about it with his coach.
“I was disappointed in the result not the performance,” he recalled. “I felt like I executed well. I felt like I hit my cues on the course and on the range, and it just didn’t happen yesterday. The game plan going into today was nothing, there was nothing new, stick to the things that have been working well for me in the World Cup and that’s what I did.”
After Burke, Lowell Bailey was the next best American on Monday, finishing 32nd (+3:51.6) after starting 33rd. He cleaned the first two stages but missed five between the two standing bouts (0+0+3+2).
“Unfortunately today, the weather got involved and I had one stage that really just threw my race off,” Bailey told FasterSkier after. “Wind, I mean, that third stage was just absolutely ridiculous. … There was nothing longer than 20 seconds of those big gusts and that time it was like two minutes. I got through of about 40 seconds of standing there waiting, time bleeding off the clock at that point I just started pulling the trigger, I couldn’t hold on the target, you just got to do your best on that point.”
Then there was Leif Norgren, also of the U.S., who finished 50th (+5:48.7), up from 58th at the start, with five penalties (2+2+0+1).
“Physically I think it was improvement from yesterday,” Nordgren told FasterSkier. “I still struggled with the wind and shooting, and it makes it kind of frustrating because with windy conditions like these it’s a big opportunity to move up in the pursuit and I wasn’t able to capitalize on that today. So a little disappointed in that regard, but that’s just how it goes sometimes.”
Canada’s lone man in the pursuit, Nathan Smith crossed the line in 54th (+6:06.5), after starting 44th, with four misses (0+0+1+3).
While he raced up to 37th after the first three stages, Smith dropped to 51st with three misses in the last standing.
“Three penalties on the last standing was really a lot of time spent in the loop,” he reflected.
Physically, he said the race felt, “really, really hard.”
Biathlon at the Olympics continues with the women’s 15 k individual on Wednesday and men’s 20 k individual on Thursday.
— Jason Albert, Ian Tovell and Harald Zimmer contributed