HOCHFILZEN, Austria — Coming into the women’s 4 x 6-kilometer relay at World Championships, there was certainly one overwhelming favorite: Germany.
Not only had the German women won every relay in the World Cup season so far, but the German mixed relay team won gold to kick off the Championships. Plus, anchor leg Laura Dahlmeier had two individual gold medals to her name and one silver so far.
“As a team we tried to put no additional pressure on us, at least not more than we already had,” Maren Hammerschmidt told German broadcaster ARD. “For me, I can say that it was not easy to resist the pressure today. I think that was similar for my colleagues.”
While the weather in Hochfilzen changed today from the hot, bright sun athletes had adapted to all week – instead, a snowstorm dumped wet flakes onto the course and slowed down the skis — the German team weathered the storm and again came out on top.
It hadn’t seemed like a given. On the first leg of the relay, it looked like it was going to be a fight.
Vanessa Hinz led the race out of the start and cleaned prone, just like you would expect from the best team in the world. Then she used two spare rounds in standing, which provided an opening for other teams.
“In standing the second miss annoyed me greatly,” Hinz told ARD. “I just wanted to do it too fast because I noticed Anais [Chevalier] next to me had already begun shooting, so I got too distracted by that. At least I managed to hit the spares so it was alright.”
France’s Chevalier used only one spare round, leaving the range in first place. Lisa Vitozzi of Italy also used just one spare, and left 6.3 seconds back. Chevalier, the bronze medalist from the sprint, extended her lead by another 1.2 seconds by the time she tagged off.
“For sure everybody wants to hand over first, but not everybody could,” Hinz said in a press conference. “With ten seconds back, it was quite okay.”
Hammerschmidt received the tag in third place, and despite four spare rounds, pulled the Germans into second.
That was partly because the previous leader, Celia Aymonier of France, struggled, using all three spares to hit her standing targets, and slowly.
“I’m in good shape, but on the last shooting my leg was shaking and the mat was wet, so I [slipped] a little bit,” she said of the snowfall. “So it was really hard for me to shoot. But I am happy to put all my extra [bullets] in, so it’s okay, it’s enough for my teammates. They are strong.”
On the third leg, Alexia Runggaldier – the bronze medalist in the pursuit – faltered on the range, losing Italy’s lead with two spare rounds in prone. That gave Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand all the room she needed. With two clean sheets, she moved her team into the lead and they never looked back.
“I was very happy to shoot two times clean and I could give a little bit of time forward to Laura,” Hildebrand said.
Laura: the one everyone was waiting for. Dahlmeier didn’t disappoint, skiing the fastest anchor leg despite already being in the lead. She used three spare rounds, but even then held the lead and delivered another gold medal for Germany – and her fourth of the Championships, a feat no other German biathlete has ever accomplished.
“Of course that is gigantic,” Dahlmeier told ARD. “But I mostly want to point out that we were a really really good relay today, like already during the whole season. It’s just a lot of fun that we are now on the podium together, a great day for us.”
The other Germans agreed, and emphasized that despite the high expecatations, they were simply happy to work together.
“I think we are a strong team, and we had very good results in the past during World Championships,” Hildebrand said. “We can do it all together and have fun.”
While Italy had faded to just out of the picture, the fight for silver was intense. Gabriela Koukalova of the Czech Republic, Olena Pidhrushna of Ukraine, and Marie Dorin Habert of France all left the final stage within 10 seconds of Dahlmeier, and more than that, within four seconds of each other.
“During the last loop I was remembering the last year all the time,” Pidhrushna said. “In every relay last year, it was the fight on the last loop for me.”
The three women skied together for about half a loop, until Pidhrushna’s skis proved superior on a downhill and she glided past the other two. She took the opening and put in a surge up the next hill. Koukalova dropped first, undone by seemingly slower skis, and Dorin Habert couldn’t hang on either. Silver belonged to Ukraine.
“When I overtook the girls under the bridge I realized, this was my chance and now I have to jump for a medal,” Pidhrushna said. “And so I did, and it worked and I’m really happy.”
She finished 6.4 seconds back. France earned bronze (+8.1) and the Czech Republic was left in fourth place (+14.0).
“I’m very happy about this medal with all the team,” Dorin Habert said in a press conference. “It was very stressful for me. I know that Olena is a very good finisher. And of course Gabi is just crazy, she is the top this season, so in my head it wasn’t very easy to make it. So I’m happy to get this.”
Perhaps the happiest woman on the podium was Anastasiya Merkushina of Ukraine. Just 22 years old, she was appearing at her first senior World Championships.
“I have no words because it’s too much emotions for me,” she said in the press conference. “I cannot believe that this is my first World Championships and silver medal, it’s too big. I did not expect this result. Of course I believe in my team, but it’s really great.”
U.S. 14th, Canada 16th
Neither the U.S. nor Canada had perfect shooting days, with 13 spare rounds apiece; Canada also had two penalty loops.
Both teams had good, yet frustrating starts.
The U.S. started in bib 22, after they did not field relay teams for the first part of the season and thus lost out on team ranking points.
“The first leg, it’s so slow [with the new snow] to pass and it takes so much energy that my coaches basically said, ‘Unless there’s room in a good track to go around, don’t bother’,” Clare Egan said. “So I looked at it almost as a 4 k race after the first stage.”
She used one spare round in prone, and then took all three in standing. Despite that, she managed to move up on the trails on every single loop, and tagged off in 16th.
“I was really hoping to clean the prone so that I would be in a good position for that second lap, but I missed my first shot,” Egan said. “Then standing, maybe that 4 k approach meant I was a little over the redline in my shooting. I went really slowly [with the shooting], that was the problem, but I hit my targets. I missed two and then I missed the first spare. Then I had two targets, two bullets, and I’m just really happy that I managed that situation well.”
Susan Dunklee took over and skied the fastest second-leg time among all teams, cleaning prone and then using two spares in standing. Like Aymonier, she struggled with the copious wet snow falling on the range.
“The standing, the mats are really slippery, and I almost fell over just trying to stand up on the mat,” Dunklee said. “Then I just didn’t really take the time to set up in my position, I just felt like my legs were going out from under me the whole time.”
By the time her work was done the U.S. was in seventh place, and had moved from 1:20.7 back to just 36.7 seconds back from the lead.
“I really like having big packs of people in front of me,” Dunklee said. “It’s just really thrilling to chase them down. The course… it’s one of those glazed days where your shin muscles get all tight and it is hard to sprint. So you have to stay right in the middle where people have skied. I had to be a little patient, and when I went I had to go hard, 100%, for a few cycles just to get around people.”
Joanne Reid took over, using four spares, then Maddie Phaneuf used three spares on the anchor leg. The team finished +3:37.0.
“The last loop was so hard,” Phaneuf said. “The snow was just so slow compared to every other day this week. The Swiss girl [Elisa Gasparin] I was with when I left the range did one long impulse up a hill when she passed me and I didn’t have any energy to stay with her. I tried, but nope. I knew there was nobody behind me anywhere, so I just tried my hardest to get to the finish line.”
For Canada, Rosanna Crawford kicked things off by using just two spare rounds, and shot fast, but was tripped up on the trail.
“I was pretty angry on my first loop,” she said. “I had moved up quite a few spots and then the Austrian [Dunja Zdouc] kind of shoved into me, and I spun around facing the wrong way so I lost a lot of time on that first loop, which I’m super pissed about. But the rest was good and the last loop was good, I was catching some girls.”
Austria was later disqualified when Julia Schwaiger used four spare rounds in her prone shooting stage; only three are allowed.
Crawford tagged off in 13th. But with Julia Ransom skiing two penalty loops in standing, the team dropped to 20th. Megan Tandy pulled Canada back to 16th, and Emma Lunder regained 16th after slipping to 17th after a few more spare rounds on the range. The team finished +5:59.4.
“Even though we weren’t in an amazing position, it was still my first World Championships relay, so I wanted to make sure I enjoyed it,” Lunder said. “Last year here at the World Cup in the relay we were 10th. And we also had a 10th in Ruhpolding this year where we shot super well. But I think maybe it just wasn’t there for everyone today. Korea is our last chance this year, so we’ll see what we can make happen.”
— Harald Zimmer and Alex Kochon contributed