Just over a year and half ago, Germany’s Denise Herrmann took a giant leap and diverged from her career as a World Cup cross-country skier to take up biathlon. She did so at the age of 27, after having been the second-ranked sprinter in the world at the end of 2013/2014 and earning a bronze medal in the women’s relay at the 2014 Olympics. She narrowly missed another Olympic medal, placing fourth in the classic team sprint with Stefanie Böhler. A year later, Herrmann was fourth again in the 2015 World Championships freestyle team sprint with a different teammate, Nicole Fessel.
After all that, she wanted something different, something new.
“I owe a lot to cross-country skiing, it was a great time with many highlights, but now I want to face new goals,” Herrmann stated at the time. “The switch to a new discipline will be a big challenge, I am aware of that, but I am confident that I can do it with diligence, courage, and determination!”
After bouncing between the International Biathlon Union (IBU) Cup and IBU World Cup last season, Herrmann started this season on the big stage at the first World Cup in Östersund, Sweden. And in her 12th World Cup start as a biathlete, she achieved her first individual win.
“It all begins with dreaming about it,” she told German broadcaster ZDF, according to a translation, when asked if she expected to win at this stage of her career. “But I knew I am currently in a good ski shape and when it works out in the shooting I could probably hang with the top. But to then execute that in competition, in the World Cup and on the big stage here, I was hoping for that, but that I was able to make that a reality makes me all the more happy.”
Herrmann, 28, won the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint on Friday in 19:54.8 minutes after shooting 9-for-10 (0+1). She finished 15.2 seconds ahead of France’s Justine Braisaz in second and was 19.6 seconds clear of Ukraine’s Yuliia Dzhima in third.
Both Braisaz and Dzhima were among 22 women (out of 103 finishers) that cleaned the two-stage race on a cold, essentially windless evening. Norway’s Synnøve Solemdal, who finished fourth (+24.3) to claim the World Cup Total Score leader’s bib, also cleaned, as did Italy’s Lisa Vittozzi in fifth (+24.5).
Coming off a win in the IBU Cup sprint last week in Sjusjøen, Norway, Herrmann started 24th and was up to second place by the time she cleared all five targets in the first prone shooting stage. Her lone standing miss, which was just above the target, set her back to fifth place as she embarked on her final loop, but with the fastest last loop and fastest overall course time, Herrmann took the win from Braizaz, an early starter in bib 10. Dzhima started 11th.
“My goal was to start out with a clean prone stage, and then skiing into the standing stage I thought, ‘Oh, with bib 24 you could also go on lane position 24 on the range today. That might be a good omen,’ ” Herrmann reflected. “Of course you still try to leave no target black, but one was still left standing for me. That can be improved in the days to come.”
Earlier in the week, Herrmann started her season by placing 23rd in the women’s 15 k individual. Asked during an official training session what her chances were of making Germany’s Olympic team, she said she needed to focus on qualifying for the World Cup team first.
“One of my former coaches said, ‘Positions four and five are a cause for debate, but not one or two,’ ” she told ZDF on Friday. “So I said to myself, ‘Let’s lock this thing up today.’ That it already would work out like this today, I wasn’t expecting that. It’s incredible. I’m totally happy.”
Of the 22 women that cleaned Friday’s race, Julia Ransom of Biathlon Canada was one of them. Ransom started the week with a career-best ninth place in the 15 k, after shooting 20-for-20, and finished 29th in the sprint, 1.16.9 minutes behind Herrmann. In two races, Ransom is 30-for-30 on the range without a miss.
“Wednesday’s result was of course motivating, but also hasn’t changed any way I approach racing,” Ransom explained in an email on Friday. “At the end of the day, I race because I love it and it’s fun to compete. That being said, it’s even more fun to find yourself a little higher on the results page. Today I was just hoping to keep relaxed and focused and enjoy the day, whatever result that translated to.”
Ransom’s overall shooting time ranked 36th, up from 53rd in Wednesday’s 15 k.
“My shooting times were perhaps a little more ‘normal’ today because there was less consequence for a miss,” she explained. “Getting into the groove of racing also helps relax into my normal pace.
“Overall I am really happy with my race. It was an incredibly fast field out there today and I am proud of how everything went,” she added. “I can’t wait to start the pursuit. Opportunity awaits!!”
Three Canadian women finished in the sprint’s top 60 to qualify for Sunday’s 10 k pursuit, with Rosanna Crawford placing 46th (+1:41.6) with a single prone penalty (1+0) and Megan Bankes in 60th (+2:10.9) with one standing miss (0+1).
For Bankes, 20, 60th marks her career best in her third World Cup start, and Sunday’s race will be her first World Cup pursuit. Last season, she won the 12.5 k individual race at IBU Junior World Championships. At Biathlon Canada’s team trials early last month, Bankes was one of two additional women selected to Canada’s World Cup team for the first trimester of racing.
“I was super stoked to have solid results at trials and make the world cup team, and then prepare for racing in Europe,” the 20-year-old Bankes wrote in an email. “We’ve been in Oestersund for a week now, and I feel like I’m on European time now. Now I’m working on getting back into the swing of full time racing, which for me has been the main goal of this week.
“It’s definitely hard to know what to expect coming into the first races of the season, but I’ve been really happy with my skiing and my shooting consistency, so I was just excited to come here and give it my best,” she continued. “I’m pleased with my race today, hitting 9/10 and I felt that I skied much better than the Individual. I just decided I would start hard and hold on, which worked pretty well. On the World Cup everyone is so fast, so perfect shooting is pretty much necessary, and skiing crazy fast yourself! I’m really excited for the pursuit, planning on just skiing fast, hitting targets, and enjoying the experience. If I make up some positions that would be fantastic!”
While Herrmann will start Sunday’s pursuit first with a 15-second head start on Braisaz in second, Ransom will head out 1:17 minutes back in 29th, Crawford 1:42 back in 46th, and Bankes 2:11 back in 60th.
Canada’s fourth woman in the sprint, Emma Lunder finished 93rd (+3:07.5) with three penalties (1+2). US Biathlon started three on Friday, with Clare Egan placing 75th (+2:32.2) with three misses (1+2), Susan Dunklee 79th with five penalties (2+3), and Emily Dreissigacker 89th (+3:01.2) with two misses (0+2).
Earlier this week, US Biathlon announced in a press release that its fourth woman, Kelsey Dickinson, would be returning to the U.S. to compete at the IBU Cup Team Trials at Mt. Itasca in Minnesota from Dec.15-19. Because she did not meet the IBU’s World Cup Qualification Point requirement at the first IBU Cup in Sjusjøen, she will need to qualify for US Biathlon’s IBU Cup team.
The men’s 10 k sprint starts Saturday at 8:45 a.m. EST.
— Harald Zimmer contributed reporting