(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Canada’s Julia Ransom.)
“Perfectionist” is a term the coaches of Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier often use to describe her.
On Saturday, this quality helped Dahlmeier to brave difficult wind conditions on her way to winning the gold medal in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint that opened the biathlon competitions at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, ahead of Norway’s Marte Olsbu in second and the Czech Republic’s Veronika Vítková in third place.
“A childhood dream is coming true,” Dahlmeier told German broadcaster ZDF after the race, according to a translation. “I have always imagined this, that some day I would stand at the very top at the Olympics, that I could win a gold medal. And somehow exactly that happened to work out today. I am incredibly grateful and proud. It’s an amazing feeling, and I don’t think I have fully realized it yet.”
On the shooting range, Dahlmeier twice adjusted her rifle’s sights in the prone stage to successfully cope with changing winds. Coming into the standing stage, she hit three targets in rhythm, then waited for what seemed like excruciating seconds for a gust to pass, before triggering her fourth and fifth shots. Both targets flipped over to white.
She had taken so long that she only recorded the 76th-ranked shooting time in this stage in the field of 87 athletes, 22 seconds off the pace and almost as long as the time it takes to ski a penalty lap. But that she had hit all shots mattered the most. Only two other athletes managed to clean all 10 targets on Saturday.
Dahlmeier followed that up by skiing the fastest course time on the final loop, and fourth-best overall. She crossed the finish line in a time of 21:06.2 minutes, lunging to not squander even a tenth of a second more, before pounding her chest and raising her arms in jubilation, knowing the time she had set would be hard to beat. Indeed her mark could not be improved again by any athlete starting later.
“I believe if you want to win a race like this one, that doesn’t happen by chance,” Dahlmeier told ZDF. “A lot goes into that. It’s true, I really had to work for it in the race today. But also the team around me, what they had to work during the last days, weeks, months, years, that is embodied by today’s result. It’s just beautiful that I was allowed to fulfill that dream today.”
Olsbu claimed the silver medal, 24.2 seconds back with one penalty in her prone shooting stage and just 1.6 seconds ahead of Vítková on the bronze podium spot, who had missed one target in the standing stage.
France’s Marie Dorin Habert placed fourth (+33.1) with one penalty in prone, while Dahlmeier’s teammate Vanessa Hinz was fifth (+40.3), losing out on a potential medal when she missed the last shot of her competition. Several other favorites struggled with the wind conditions and incurred a number of penalties.
For the two runner-ups, winning a medal at the Olympics was also a dream come true.
“Of course I am happy, it was my best race ever,” first-time Olympian Olsbu, 27, said when asked in the press conference if she was satisfied with the silver medal. “It was difficult on the shooting range today because it was so windy, but I just stuck to my plan. And I was so happy when I crossed the finish line. … That was a dream from when I started in biathlon. Of course [compatriot] Ole Einar Bjørndalen was my hero when I was a child, and I was hoping that one day I will do the same. I don’t know what to say, it is just amazing and today I am sitting here with an Olympic medal.”
“Yeah, it was my dream too, like for Marte, and I am happy that my dream is here,” Vítková, 29, said of her first individual Olympic medal in her third Winter Games.
Starting early in bib 12, Vítková initially appeared dissatisfied when she crossed the finish line and saw that she had not managed to beat Olsbu’s time, after the Norwegian had finished the race just one bib ahead. The Czech feared more athletes would finish ahead of her and still push her several positions down, but aside from Dahlmeier starting in bib 23, no one managed to do that.
So at the “flower ceremony” in the arena, where the podium finishers each received a stuffed animal as their prize (a snow-white tiger called Soohorang that is the official mascot of the 2018 Winter Olympics), Vítková was beaming just like her two peers. The Olympic medals will be awarded in an separate ceremony later.
“I am very happy, because this medal is my first ‘big’ medal in an individual race,” Vítková explained at the press conference. “I had a [silver] medal from the Olympic Games in Sochi, but it was a mixed relay medal. And now I have MY medal!”
Last season, Dahlmeier set a record by winning five events at a single International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships, taking gold in every race but the sprint (where she placed second) in Hochfilzen, Austria. But winning the gold medal in PyeongChang was indeed the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. As an elementary school student, Dahlmeier reportedly had written two career goals into a class book: Olympic champion in biathlon and becoming the manager of an Alpine Club hut, since mountaineering continues to be her other big passion. One down, one to go.
“Today was a victory Laura had to work very hard for, that wasn’t automatic,” German women’s national team coach Gerald Hönig told ZDF, according to a translation. “My highest respect for how she withstood the conditions today. How she repeatedly had to make the right decisions by herself on the course and on the range in order to be successful. She did that great, and she is outshining a great overall team result.”
In 2014 at her first Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the biathlon competitions for Dahlmeier, who was 20 at the time, and the rest of the German women’s team had started off as disappointing with no individual medals, and then descended into turmoil when on the eve of the women’s relay, the doping case of Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle due to a tainted food supplement came to light (her suspension later was reduced to six months) and the team again failed to reach the podium.
“For our team this medal is particularly important,” Hönig said. “We still have the defeats of Sochi somewhere in the back of our minds. Well, I particularly do, so for me this is a gigantic moment. I believe having a medal in the very first race here makes the tasks that lie ahead much easier … It’s the prerogative of young athletes like Laura to chalk that off faster, but I have repeatedly thought about these days in Sochi … Laura showed coolness today, but also executed everything she had worked for in training.”
Dahlmeier, now 24, became the second German athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in the women’s sprint, after Kati Wilhelm claimed the title at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Mixed Day for North American Starters
Canada’s Julia Ransom was the best North American in the sprint, finishing in 40th place (+2:08.8) after she shot fast and accurately, incurring just one penalty in her standing stage.
On the course she skied the 68th-ranked time of the day, consistently losing about 45 seconds on each loop to the blazing pace set by Slovakia’s defending Olympic sprint champion and current World Cup Sprint standings leader Anastasiya Kuzmina, who ended up 13th place with three penalties (2+1).
For Ransom it was her first start in an Olympic race, building on three appearances at Biathlon World Championships.
“It was amazing to start the race today,” Ransom wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Some of my family were in the stands and the others had woken up early in Canada to catch it. Definitely feeling the love!”
She described the conditions as “windy with some extremely strong gusts,” Ransom wrote. “I noticed it more out on course than in the range. I was quite happy with my shooting today, but unfortunately my legs were just cooked (for whatever reason)! However, I think this was a good leg blowout, and after some rest, I’ll be ready for the pursuit!”
All four Canadian women that contested Saturday’s sprint finished in the top 60 to qualify for Monday’s pursuit, with Rosanna Crawford next in line in 53rd (+2:23.0) after shooting three penalties (1+2).
“It was really tough,” Crawford told FasterSkier in the mixed zone after the race when asked about the conditions. “The wind made it hard for shooting and on the course, all of a sudden these gusts would come and blow your poles right out from underneath you. In prone, I made a correction and missed my first shot which shouldn’t have happened, and in standing I overheld [the rifle] for my second miss so I’m pretty disappointed.”
Starting fairly early in bib 22, the race was still going on at the time of her interview, so Crawford feared she might miss the cutoff for the pursuit. At least that did not happen.
“The sprint sets you up for the rest of the week, for two weeks, so I’m pretty bummed,” she continued. “I’m still looking forward to the relays, so that’s definitely positive. It’s just so unfortunate that the sprint dictates the other individual races, other than the 15-kilometer [individual race]. Hopefully I’ll qualify for the pursuit and can go out there and fight again. I love the 2 k course here, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
In her third Olympics, Crawford skied the 44th-ranked course time of the day.
Just behind her, Emma Lunder in her Olympic debut placed 54th (+2:24.2) with two misses in the standing stage (0+2). Her course time ranked 65th.
Megan Tandy, in her third Olympics, finished 57th (+2:36.6) with a penalty in each stage (1+1). She skied the 69th-ranked course time.
“Although I am somewhat disappointed with today’s result (57th with 2 misses and heavy legs) I am thinking positive,” Tandy wrote on Instagram on Saturday. “8 years ago I was the only woman to qualify for the pursuit, this Olympics all 4 of us will be putting up a fight.”
(Note: FS missed interviewing Ransom, Lunder and Tandy in the mixed zone, and with the race in the evening local time they could not be reached for comments at press time.)
In her first Olympic race and on her first year with the senior women’s team, Team USA’s Emily Dreissigacker was the top American 51st place (+2:21.0) after shooting 9-for-10.
“I did I shot zero plus one [0+1], so I’m pretty happy with that,” Dreissigacker told FasterSkier after the race. “The wind was a little tricky out there. I was just trying to stay calm and think about what I could control…. Happy to make the pursuit!
“It was kind of gusty and changing a lot,” she commented on the conditions. “Like on prone, I got a little lucky, the wind was pretty much what I had zeroed in [target practice], which was still pretty windy, but at least was consistent. Then in standing, I mean, it definitely wasn’t terrible, but I could feel the wind pushing my barrel around a little bit.”
Dreissigacker’s course time ranked 74th overall and she slipped 10 places on the final loop.
“I definitely died a little bit on the last lap,” she said. “I think the hills are hard. … You’re not really recovering [anywhere] before you climb back up to come back down into the stadium.”
Previously Dreissigacker’s best result on the IBU World Cup in a sprint had been a 59th place at last month’s race in Antholz, Italy, followed by a 56th place in the pursuit.
For the rest of the US Biathlon women, things did not work out as well as they had hoped on Saturday.
Also starting in her first Olympic race, Clare Egan just missed the cutoff for the pursuit race in 61st place (+2:45.4) with three penalties (1+2), only two seconds behind Emilia Yordanova of Bulgaria.
“Honestly as I was warming today it felt like I was warming up today for any other race, which I think is a good thing,” Egan told FasterSkier after. “I knew I was ready to go today and I was excited to do what I’ve been training to do and become an Olympian.”
But then her race began with a mishap on the course.
“I fell on the first loop at the bottom of the big hill, which is kind of a nightmare. I haven’t fallen in a couple years probably, but I don’t know, it just happened,” Egan said. “Weird things happen in big races I guess, but besides that I am really pleased with my skiing considering I was really sick in our pre-Olympic training camp.”
Skiing only the 71st course time on the first loop due to the fall, her pace improved from there, capped by the 30th-ranked time on the final loop (57th overall).
“I’m really happy with the prone,” she said of her shooting performance. “It was really tricky shooting today, windy, missed one but I am very satisfied with that. Standing I started out really solid, had three good hits and felt good about what I was doing and then I misfired actually. My bullet didn’t eject and I wish I had refocused better after that. I had to kind of pick the bullet out and I didn’t reset adequately. So then I missed my last two shots and I am not happy about that, but it was sort of a mediocre race overall.”
Team veteran Susan Dunklee incurred an uncharacteristic five penalties (1+4) to finish in 66th position (+3:06.9).
Starting early in the race in bib 6, she could be seen on the broadcast making a wind adaptation in the prone stage after missing her fourth shot, then went on to hit the last one having to ski once around the 150-meter penalty lap.
She came back on the course with what would later be the 28th-ranked split time, but in the standing stage, things then turned south and with four additional penalty laps, she could not make up the deficit.
“I’ve had better days,” the 2017 World Championships silver medalist told FasterSkier after the race. “I missed five shots. You can’t be anywhere close to where you need to be with 50-percent shooting. It’s very frustrating. You work for four years and you have big dreams, you see what’s possible, and it all comes down to one of these races like this and the sprint is so important for the rest of the races here. You really have to have a good sprint to qualify for the pursuit, to qualify for the mass start, so I’m really bummed about that, that’s for sure.”
Unlike her teammates, Dunklee skipped Friday’s Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics while “fighting off a small cold,” according to a US Biathlon Instagram post.
She skied the 42nd course time of the day and didn’t want to blame her misses all on the weather conditions.
“The conditions are actually really nice,” she said. “It’s a little bit cold but not so cold as it was when we first got here. You can feel your fingers, which is really nice. Seems like it’s fair. You’ve got really hard-packed good tracks.
“I think I’m going to have to figure out how to allow myself to be disappointed for another hour or so, get it out of the system a little bit and then put it behind me and move on,” Dunklee concluded.
Also in her first Olympic race, the fourth U.S. starter Joanne Reid finished 86th (+5:12.6) with seven penalties (4+3), though she explained it wasn’t due to any race jitters already having competed in front of far bigger crowds on the World Cup before.
“I try and approach every race the same,” Reid told FasterSkier. “Same warm up. Same mentality. Just go out there and hope you hit your targets which didn’t really work out for me today.”
She skied the 67th-ranked race time of the day overall.
“It’s much worse on the cross-country side,” she said of the biathlon course and range conditions. “Everything is real open [to wind] over there. We have only the stadium area and the range [that] gets all the wind, but on the backside it’s pretty good, it’s sheltered. It’s actually really fun, it’s really ripping, it’s up and down with some swoopy corners.”
Reid explained that for her standing shooting she had planned to use the wind cover from a hill on the far left side of the range, as many athletes like Dahlmeier had also done, but that was not possible when she came in to her shooting stage as all those lane positions were occupied.
“Definitely in standing the farther lanes have less wind and when I came there was no farther lane,” Reid said. “It was 30, 29, 28, 27, 26 were all full and then big gusts coming in and that was pretty brutal. Then the longer you stand the more your muscles shake, so you know, that’s life.”
Career Best for Johanna Talihärm
Unlike for most of the North Americans except Dreissigacker, for Estonia’s Johanna Talihärm it was a career-best race in her second Olympics, finishing 22nd (+1:20.8) with one penalty (0+1).
The resident of Bozeman, Montana, is well known on the U.S. collegiate cross-country skiing circuit as a Montana State University junior and a second-team All-American at last year’s NCAA Skiing Championships.
This January leading up to the Olympics, she competed in cross-country races at the U.S. Cross Country Championships in Anchorage, Alaska, and in West Yellowstone, Montana.
Her previous best result on the IBU World Cup was a 29th place in a pursuit race in Hochfilzen earlier this season.
In the PyeongChang women’s sprint, she was the lone racers for Estonia. In Sochi, she finished 48th in the sprint for her best individual result and placed 16th in the women’s relay.
The biathlon competitions in PyeongChang continue on Sunday with the the men’s 10-kilometer sprint, followed by the women’s and men’s pursuit on Monday.
— Jason Albert, Alex Kochon and Gabby Naranja contributed