Gabriela Koukalová achieved the closest equivalent to a start-to-finish victory possible in a race against the clock in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint on Friday at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Oberhof, Germany.
Starting and finishing the race as the very first athlete of the day in bib 1, the star biathlete of the Czech Republic managed to shoot clean in both stages, and because she also skied the second-fastest course time, no other athlete starting behind her in a field of 90 was able to beat her time of 22:28.5 minutes.
“I was a little bit afraid of the track profile,” Koukalová explained her race tactic for the difficult course during the press conference. “I had lots of experiences here where I was full of energy during the first loop, but it was missing on the last loop. […] I try to enjoy these races, and maybe it was easier to imagine that I was racing pursuit.”
Starting just one position behind Koukalová was Canada’s Rosanna Crawford.
“An early bib number is nice, I feel like I can do a better warm up and have less time sitting around,” Crawford wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
Like Koukalová, she also managed to shoot clean in both stages, but was slower on the course to finish the day in 21st (+1:32.3). Crawford skied the 52nd-ranked overall course time, losing over 30 seconds to the leader on the final lap. It was her best result of the season in an individual race and a steady improvement from venue to venue, but not quite what she regularly achieved in the previous two seasons.
“It was great to have good shooting today, but the ski speed is still way off,” Crawford explained. “The coaches and my self are still scratching our head as to where the ski speed is. Hopefully things will turn around in time for World Champs, but who knows. I am happy that my position on the finish list is getting better, but when you look at the analysis the ski speed is similar to what it was in December. We had good skis today and the techs did a great job.”
Skiing the fastest course time by almost 25 seconds over Koukalová, Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen placed second, 21.3 seconds back, despite two misses in the standing shooting (0+2). She bumped France’s Marie Dorin Habert, who started two bibs ahead and only had one penalty (0+1), down to third place (+24.0).
“I really like the course here, this is absolutely one of my favorite courses,” Mäkäräinen said at the press conference. “I felt quite confident before the standing [stage], but I think that I maybe tried shooting a little bit too fast. And I was a little bit confused when the first mistake came. After the second I thought, ‘OK, here we go again, I have to go to the penalty loop and let’s see [what happens]’. But with two penalties it’s really cool to be this high in the result list.”
“For the Christmas break my daughter made me a gift, a big stomach flu,” Dorin Habert joked in the press conference when asked about her time off. “So I had a big break during the preparation. But I had a lot of recovery, a lot of time in bed and on the toilet.”
Dorin Habert was just ahead of her 23-year-old teammate Anaïs Chevalier (0+0, +30.6), who achieved another top result following her two podium finishes in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, before the holiday break.
“I think the French team is very young, except me,” Dorin Habert, 30, said of the recent success of her team. “And they all want to be at the top of the race. They have a lot of ambitions. […] and they are very fast, and I am sure the shooting will follow very soon. It’s nice to have a French [athlete] every time at the top of the race.”
With Germany’s overall World Cup leader Laura Dahlmeier deciding to skip the sprint and pursuit in Oberhof (she plans to compete again in the mass start on Sunday), the podium finishers Koukalová and Mäkäräinen ranked directly behind her used their opportunity to make up points on Dahlmeier, and could overtake her in the pursuit on Saturday.
“I can understand Laura,” Koukalová said. “When you are a little bit tired, sometimes it’s better to just stay home and relax to find new energy, because you know we are going to have a lot of races during the season.”
But the home crowd in Oberhof still had something to cheer for when Dahlmeier’s teammate Maren Hammerschmidt shot clean in both stages. With a fifth place (0+0, +35.9) she achieved the third-best result of her career, and a direct qualification for Germany’s World Championship team.
“Going out of the range in standing with a zero [misses], with this audience, I am surprised about that myself and overjoyed I managed to do it,” Hammerschmidt told German broadcaster ZDF after the race. “I trained well before Christmas because I had a lot of ambitions to improve. And thank God that paid off today. […] It’s always great to shoot 0+0. That requires a bit of luck, but I was firmly determined to finally achieve that again, and that was just super, wicked cool.”
“It was a dream today out there, with conditions more like Canmore than Oberhof,” Crawford commented on the course and range conditions on Friday, after the men’s sprint race the day before had been drowned out in a snowstorm. “Who knew that my first clean shooting since the 2013/2014 season would come in Oberhof!”
Many athletes consider the shooting range in Oberhof one of the trickiest on the World Cup circuit, due to a long climb into the arena lined by rows of screaming spectators as well as frequently foggy conditions and changing winds.
“It’s my first World Cup in Oberhof,” Hammerschmidt told ZDF with a laugh. “And it’s crazy skiing up the Birxsteig [climb]. I unfortunately didn’t hear at all what [assistant coach] Andy told me, only what the spectators were telling me. But that was an insane feeling.”
“It is a little bit easier for me to race here than at home [in Nove Mesto],” Koukalová explained in the press conference. “It’s usually a bit harder to race against a home public. I can imagine that for German athletes it has to be very hard to race here.”
Three North Americans Qualify for Pursuit
American Susan Dunklee could not quite pick up where she left off before the holiday break when she had achieved three top-five results, including the third World Cup podium of her career (all in sprints) in Nove Mesto. On Friday, she incurred two penalties in the prone stage and added two misses in standing to finish 50th (+2:36.3).
“Oberhof was the most beautiful I have ever seen it with great snow, almost no wind and plenty of sunshine,” Dunklee stated according to a US Biathlon press release. “I felt a little rusty after the break, particularly on the shooting range. I don’t think the jet lag helped matters either. Missing two in prone is already more mistakes than I want in a race.”
Her teammate Clare Egan landed in the top 60 to qualify for Saturday’s pursuit as well, finishing just behind Dunklee in 52nd place (+2:40.5) with two misses in her prone stage (2+0).
“I for one am just happy to clean in standing,” Egan explained in the press release. “I changed my whole standing position before Christmas break and had only two weeks to practice it. Today my prone was off and my skiing a bit sluggish, but the work I put in on my new standing position is already paying off and that’s what I needed to see.
“Today was cold, calm and sunny with a stadium full of fans — a great day for biathlon,” Egan added. “Unfortunately, it was not a great day for our team as Joanne [Reid] is sick and neither Susan nor I achieved the results we came for. We have another chance tomorrow in the pursuit and will be out for redemption.”
Crawford was the lone Canadian to qualify as her Biathlon Canada teammate Megan Tandy missed the cutoff in 65th place (+3:17.1) with two penalties (0+2), as did Sarah Beaudry in 85th (+5:02.9) with three penalties (0+3) and Emma Lunder in 87th (+5:28.0) with five misses (4+1).
Also for Canada, Julia Ransom is skipping the races in Oberhof for a longer training block at home and planned to join her team next week for the World Cup in Ruhpolding, also in Germany.
Three Months After Baby, Domracheva is Back
Friday also saw the comeback of a veritable biathlon star: Belarus’ Darya Domracheva, the three-time 2014 Olympic gold medalist with two more gold medals at World Championships.
Last summer Domracheva married Norway’s biathlon veteran Ole Einar Bjørndalen, but that was not the only news of her offseason. She stood at the start line in Oberhof just three months after giving birth to their daughter Xenia on Oct. 1. That is not completely unheard of in biathlon or cross-country skiing, but even faster than Dorin Habert managed to do during the 2014/2015 season. Domracheva had also missed the prior year of races because of mononucleosis, with German broadcaster ZDF calculating that it had been 656 days since she last competed in a World Cup race. While she wasn’t quite back to her normal standards, shooting just one miss in each stage (1+1) and skiing the 15th-fastest overall course time, she qualified for the pursuit in 37th (+2:02.8).
“From one side it’s of course really nice and I am happy to be here,” Domracheva told German broadcaster ZDF after the race in an English interview. “On the other side it felt a little bit tough today. You know it’s the first race, and it’s super like that.”
Asked about her goals for the season, potentially even trying to win another medal at the upcoming World Championships, she added: “It is important for me to have a goal for all this season, to get back the competition feelings, and try to be better and better from race to race. I will just go on and do my job and work race to race. Then we will see how I feel at the end of the season. I don’t expect so much.”