It was a day of redemption. Both for a biathlon superstar and for the best North American in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint at the 2017 International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria.
A year ago, Czech Republic’s Gabriela Koukalová (back then starting under her maiden name Soukalová) was disappointed when she failed to win any medal at the Oslo World Championships, twice placing fourth, once fifth, and twice sixth with her team. She won the overall World Cup that season, but not being on the podium at the highlight event of the year still stung.
“I had a lot of expectations,” Koukalová recalled in a post-race press conference on Friday. “And I was only fourth all the time. A lot of ‘potato medals’ as we say in the Czech Republic.”
Now after a sprint race that had been suspenseful from the first to the very last starters, she stood on the top of the podium at the flower ceremony in Hochfilzen, smiling but with tears welling up in her eyes after winning her first individual title at IBU World Championships (or Olympic Games) in a time of 19:12.6 minutes with no penalties.
“I am not able to describe my feelings,” Koukalová told the IBU in an interview afterwards. “I had a lot of thoughts about this position in the last months. It’s amazing. I did not believe that I am able to win a World Championship.”
A day ago, US Biathlon’s Clare Egan was also disappointed when she ran out of spare rounds and shot a penalty in the mixed relay, causing her team to fall back.
“It is a horrible, horrible feeling to take your team from podium contention to 17th place at world championships,” Egan stated in a US Biathlon press release on Thursday.
She vowed to focus on the sprint race, and she sure did.
“I know that a positive outlook is a prerequisite for a good race,” Egan wrote in an email to FasterSkier after Friday’s sprint. “My performance in yesterday’s mixed relay was one of the more brutal failures of my biathlon career, and I certainly struggled to rebound and lost some sleep over it. One decisive factor in my mental turnaround was a message I got this morning from my cousin Liz Egan. She reminded me of my very own words from my recent blog post: ‘How you do one day has absolutely no bearing on how you might do the next.’ It’s so true and I needed the reminder!”
Taking her time on the range (with the 92nd-ranked shooting time among 101 starters in the sprint) became beneficial when Egan shot clean in both stages to avoid any penalty laps on Friday.
“I had a good plan for my shooting execution today and I stuck to it for 10 shots and it worked,“ Egan wrote. “That doesn’t always happen so I’m grateful it worked today. I had to take 4 clicks in prone (about the distance from the center of the target to the edge), which is fairly significant but clearly the right choice. In standing I focused on getting the set up perfect, which took a while but paid off.“
Egan skied the 31st-ranked course time overall, and was able to pick up the pace on the last loop when she knew she was fighting for a top position (22nd loop time).
“I started my last loop as [Biathlon Canada’s] Megan Tandy was starting her first. Knowing I had someone right behind me pushed me.“
She crossed the line in a time of 20:25.0 in 20th place, 1:12.4 back from Koukalová.
For Egan it was her second-best result in an individual World Cup race, only behind a 16th place in Östersund, Sweden, at the beginning of the 2015/2016 season. And it was her best result (excluding relays) in her third World Championship, improving 20 positions on a 40th place (also in the sprint) from 2015 in Kontiolahti, Finland.
Throughout the race, the athletes at the top changed repeatedly as some of the favorites including France’s Marie Dorin Habert in bib 1 and Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen in bib 4 had picked the first start group, while others such as Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier chose positions in the middle, and Koukalová in bib 96 or Norway’s defending world champion Tiril Eckhoff starting in bib 101 had opted for a start at the very end of the field.
On a clear and sunny day with mild wind, it seemed unclear which starting positions would be the most advantageous. Several of the favorites starting early incurred penalties, and it took a while until the first starter remained clean in both stages.
That was Russia’s Irina Uslugina, replacing her teammate Ekaterina Glazyrina at the last moment after Glazyrina had been provisionally suspended by the IBU and taken out of the start list about an hour before the race began, creating additional unrest. Uslugina emerged as Russia’s top finisher on Friday, but was ultimately a bit too slow on the course to contend for the medals and ended up 15th (+1:03.6).
After missing just one target and skiing fast, Dorin Habert initially held the lead in the finish narrowly ahead of Slovakia’s Anastasiya Kuzmina, before she was bumped out of first by her teammate Anaïs Chevalier. Then, two Italians secured preliminary positions on the podium, but it was not Italy’s star Dorothea Wierer (who went on to finish one position behind Egan in 21st), but Wierer’s teammates Lisa Vittozzi and Federica Sanfilippo.
Starting with bib 64, Germany’s Dahlmeier began the race at a controlled pace for her ability level, and also took her time on the range (with the 43rd-ranked shooting time) in order to stay clean in both stages. Then on the last loop, Dahlmeier skied the fastest time of the day, and in the finish she had improved on Chevalier’s time by 21.1 seconds.
But the last word in this race had not yet been spoken, as Koukalová had only just started. She set the best time after her prone stage, narrowly ahead of Kuzmina, and kept pushing hard on the next loop coming into the standing stage with a lead on the field. Shooting clean again, Koukalová left the range with a 10.5-second lead on Dahlmeier.
With her coaches shouting split times from the side of the track, Koukalová did everything to carry her lead into the finish, but after initially expanding it to 12 seconds, it began to shrink up the last climbs.
Pushing out of a tunnel and up the inclined finishing stretch in Hochfilzen with her long earrings dangling side to side, Koukalová rescued a 4-second lead to Dahlmeier into the finish, which also knocked Chevalier down to third place (+25.1) and Vittozzi off the podium by a mere 0.2 seconds (+25.3).
Despite the ungrateful place, it was Vittozzi’s best career result in an individual race, and also the second-best career and best World Championship result for Sanfilippo in fifth place (+31.9).
“I am a little bit disappointed, because yes of course I dreamed about the medal,” Sanfilippo told the IBU in an interview. “But today with my fifth place I have to be happy. And in any case, we will see what happens in the next days.”
All of the top six, including Dahlmeier’s teammate Vanessa Hinz (+37.9), shot clean in both stages.
“I think it was a very clever decision by our coaches,” Koukalová told the IBU when asked about her late start group. “I think it helped me a lot, because I was feeling that my skis [were] faster and faster every loop … And I heard a lot of information about Laura, that she was just 10 seconds behind me [in the split times]. I did not believe it [would be] enough because I know her very well, and I realized she was very fast mainly on the last part of the track.”
“When I saw four seconds [lead] in the finish I thought that I am sleeping, but I hope it is real,” Koukalová said at the press conference. “Is it real?”
Yes it is. And it is the fifth gold medal for the Czech Republic at IBU World Championships. The women’s relay team won the first title in 1993, then Kateřina Holubcová won a title in the women’s 15 k individual race in 2003, Roman Dostal in the men’s 20 k individual in 2005, and Koukalová herself won the mixed relay title in 2015 in Kontiolahti with Veronika Vitková, Michal Šlesingr and Ondrej Moravec.
Dahlmeier, the current overall World Cup leader ahead of Koukalová, was pleased with her result, following up her gold medal in the mixed relay a day before with another silver on Friday.
“This was the perfect race for me,” Dahlmeier told German TV broadcaster ZDF. “I shot clean, I felt great on the shooting range, and I was able to execute on the course what I had set out to do. This was my best race and I gave it everything I had. Today, Gabby was just stronger, that’s how you have to look at it… The second medal is a dream.”
“In the last part of the track, she is amazing and she is able to run fast like a horse,” a smiling Koukalová said at the press conference, drawing a big laugh from the attending media as well as Dahlmeier.
At last year’s World Championships in Oslo, Dahlmeier finished third in the sprint before winning the following pursuit race.
“I will enjoy today’s success, and then I am already excited like crazy for the pursuit,” Dahlmeier told ZDF. “I think that is just my type of race. Four shooting stages, 10 kilometer, and then I will attack the very top again.”
For Chevalier, it was her first individual medal at IBU World Championships and her third medal overall. Similar to Dahlmeier, she instantly followed up on her silver medal with the French mixed relay from the previous day, and previously earned silver with the women’s relay in Oslo a year ago.
“I am really happy because I did not expect to have an individual medal,” Chevalier stated in the press conference, also echoing Dahlmeier’s comments. “I did a perfect race today, and two of the girls were better than me. So I have no regrets.”
Chevalier is going to celebrate her 24th birthday on Sunday, the day of the pursuit race.
Four North Americans Qualify for Pursuit
The second-best North American starter on Friday was Biathlon Canada’s Rosanna Crawford in 26th place with one penalty (+1:23.2).
Despite some tricky wind conditions, Crawford shot fast (with the 10th-ranked shooting time overall) and stayed clean in her prone stage, before incurring a penalty in standing.
“I struggled in zero [pre-race target practice] today, so am really happy to have cleaned my prone,” Crawford wrote in an email. “It was quite windy during zero and I had to make a big correction, but once the race started it was a much more manageable wind.”
Initially posting one of the best times after starting early in bib 12, she was pushed down in the standings as more and more athletes finished the race ahead of her, partly due to her middle-of-the-pack, 45th-ranked overall course time.
“This is one of my better ski ranks of the year,” Crawford commented. “I felt more normal out there today, we had good skis and the course held up well. I had a few people to chase down on my last loop, but for the most part skied the race alone. I skied better than the mixed relay.”
It was Crawford’s second-best result in a sprint this season, following her 21st place last month in Oberhof, Germany.
Three positions behind her, US Biathlon’s Susan Dunklee finished 29th (+1:27.4) with three penalties.
Dunklee started very early in bib 3, getting some time on the TV broadcast. Just like the other early starters, the American had to deal with a bit more challenging wind conditions, though according to her they were consistent with the zeroing target practice and the course remained fair throughout the race.
“Every team had a different idea about when the track would be fastest,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “I have no complaints about my start position. I think the spectators enjoyed having the favorites spread out.”
On the range Dunklee took the opposite approach to Egan, shooting very fast (tied for the eighth-ranked shooting and fifth-ranked range time), yet unlike her teammate she missed one shot in her prone shooting stage and two more in standing, having to ski 450 extra meters.
Thanks to skiing the 11th-ranked course time overall and even faster on the last loop where she could ski behind Finland’s Mäkäräinen (who had the second-best course time of the day), Dunklee improved by 18 positions on the last loop to finish 29th.
“Kaisa was a great ride for my last loop and I enjoyed the opportunity to ski together with her and Julia [Ransom of Canada, who started a loop later],” Dunklee wrote. “It helped me dig into a deeper gear for my finishing push.”
“I was psyched to see Clare and Rosanna throw down strong performances when it counts the most,” Dunklee commented regarding the performances of Egan and Crawford. “Biathlon is one of the most mentally challenging sports out there because of the extreme ups and downs, and they have proved their resilience this season.”
In her first start at IBU World Championships, Joanne Reid finished 49th (+1:57.6) with a penalty in each of her shooting stages (1+1). With this result, Reid qualified for the pursuit with the third-best individual World Cup result of her career, the best being a 29th place from a 15 k individual race in Östersund, Sweden, earlier this season. The former standout cross-country skier switched to biathlon a little over a year ago.
“I absolutely love this course and had a great time,” Reid commented on her race, according to US Biathlon. “I can’t wait for the pursuit.”
For Canada, Megan Tandy finished 64th with one penalty (1+0), 2:20 minutes behind the winner.
“What can I say?” Tandy posted on her Facebook page. “I am satisfied with 9/10 shooting. I did my job today and while I am sad and frustrated with 64th place, I am also at peace knowing I did everything possible: every detail of training, sleeping, eating, activation, warmup, etc. but my body was just not able to deliver. I fought my hardest but felt empty. Whatever is going on with me, I am not in the shape I expected [this] season and my best is simply not enough. Tough.”
Her teammate Julia Ransom was one position behind in 65th with two penalties in her standing stage (+2:24.7, 0+2).
“Unfortunately the race today didn’t play out as I’d hoped, but I skied my heart out, soaked up some sunshine, and enjoyed those incredible fans!” Ransom wrote after on Instagram.
Starting late in the field in her first start at senior World Championships, US Biathlon’s 21-year-old Maddie Phaneuf shot clean in her prone stage, then missed two targets in standing to finish in 78th place (+2:56.6, 0+2).
“Well…frustrated with today’s results,” Phaneuf commented on her Facebook page after the race. “I was happy with my skiing on the first two loops and my prone shooting but not psyched on my standing shooting… hoping for better days here at World Champs. On the other hand, this is my second best result on the World Cup (out of the 5 individual races I’ve done). So happy to see my teammates doing well, all three placing in the top 50…Clare with clean shooting and getting her second best result ever in 20th!”
Also competing in her first senior World Championships race, like Reid and Phaneuf, Canada’s fourth woman Emma Lunder missed qualifying for the pursuit in 84th, after incurring three penalties in her prone shooting stage before shooting clean in standing (+3:10.1, 3+0).
The IBU World Championships continue on Saturday with the men’s 10-kilometer sprint, followed by pursuits for both the women and men on Sunday.
The races can be streamed live for free on Eurovisionsports.tv.