For races and ski jumpings at the famous Holmenkollen arena on a hillside above Oslo, a frequent visitor in the audience is the King Harald V of Norway, a passionate and knowledgeable fan of all nordic sports. And usually the winners of the competition get the honor of being invited up to the royal suite overlooking the arena.
On Friday in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint at the Interntional Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup final in Oslo, American Susan Dunklee was on pace to maybe get that much-vaunted meeting with the king and his family, setting the best time after the prone shooting that no other athlete starting behind her could get close to anymore, with the next-best competitor more than 20 seconds behind at this point.
But perhaps she started out a little too fast, and high winds posed an additional challenge on the shooting range for all the athletes.
“Normally I am good at executing a smart controlled pacing plan but today I hammered straight out of the start and tried to hold on,” Dunklee wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “It made for a very painful second half of the race.”
“I felt like I had rammed into a wall during the final two loops,” she added, according to a US Biathlon press release.
In the end, a victory was no longer in the cards for Dunklee after she shot two misses in her standing stage, and the king instead got to meet Finland’s Mari Laukkanen after her first World Cup win in a time of 20:33.5 minutes, and later in the day with Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø, who won the men’s race and was one of his subjects he was already familiar with.
Dunklee initially finished sixth, before later being pushed down one more position to seventh place (+56.7). It was her sixth top-10 finish in her last seven individual races at the end of a remarkably consistent season.
“On a windy day, half the battle is deciding the best correction to take; the other half is feeling confident in whatever decision you make,” Dunklee said of shooting. “Today I felt confident in prone. During my standing stage the wind wasn’t that bad, I just made a couple bad shots … I love racing in Holmenkollen. The crowd has a positive energy and the stadium is steeped in so much tradition.”
Despite a tough end to her own race day, Dunklee was also happy about the first World Cup victory of Laukkanen.
“Mari has always been nice and easy to talk to,” she added. “During my first year on the World Cup she invited our team to her family’s cabin near Kontiolahti for sauna-ing. I am happy to see her win.”
On Friday, all three women on the podium shot clean in both stages despite the difficult conditions.
Laukkanen started early in the field with bib 7, and combined with the third-best course time of the day set a time in the finish that would not be matched by anyone in the field of 103 starters.
Starting just three bibs behind her, France’s Justine Braisaz came closest, leaving the range after the standing shooting just 14.4 seconds behind and continuously closing the gap on the final loop by skiing the fastest course time of the day, but it was not enough to catch up to Laukkanen anymore finishing 7.9 seconds behind.
Braisaz’s teammate Anais Bescond started in the second group with bib 41, and her clean shooting and solid performance on the course with the 15th-ranked course time were enough to grab the third position on the podium (+23.1).
“It feels good to shoot 0-0, the last time I shot that I was also on the podium, I should do it more often it seems,” a smiling Laukkenen said during the press conference. “I had a full crisis with myself yesterday, I was looking at my statistics and I could see that I am running stable and strong to make higher results, but I am constantly missing one or two too much. So it feels good today to make it.”
Asked about the conditions in her shooting stages, she added, “It was not an easy day for sure, and I didn’t expect it to happen. I was a little bit lucky on the standing stage. It hasn’t been easy (for me) to clean it even without wind. So I am just happy to do it, and that it was enough to win today.”
The 29-year-old Finn said she had to take a longer break after a disappointing last season, before she decided to continue with her athletic career. Earlier in the 2016/2017 season, Laukkanen had also taken time away from biathlon in order to qualify for and compete in the cross-country World Championships at home in Lahti, Finland, where she reached the semifinal in the women’s sprint. At the IBU World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, she narrowly missed a medal in the 15 k individual finishing fourth.
“I was a little bit nervous,” Laukkanen said about meeting the king on Friday. “For a Finn, it’s always special to win here in Holmenkollen. It’s a legendary place, mostly because of the cross-country history. It feels good.”
For Braisaz, it was the second podium of the season, and with the second place she tied her career-best.
“I really enjoy Oslo and Holmenkollen,” Braisaz said in the press conference. “I hoped to stay concentrated and to stay focused until the end of the season. But I was not very confident about my shooting. Especially in January and February, I was not very successful on the shooting range. So I decided to work for the future, for the next years, and to just enjoy it even though it was very windy today… I don’t think the conditions changed too much today (throughout the field), but some athletes probably were not fortunate and had no chance to clean.”
For her teammate Bescond, it was her third podium of the season. Despite her good form, she had only received one start in the individual race at the World Championships in Hochfilzen, and also was not nominated for France’s relay teams.
“I feel full of energy because I didn’t compete much in February,” Bescond stated in the press conference. “Now I feel good while a lot of girls here are probably tired now… It was my goal after Hochfilzen to be good in March. I am really happy with my result… My three medals from the (2016) World Championships in Oslo were a really good memory, and when I come back here I always have a lot of good things in my mind.”
Koukalová Takes Sprint Title
Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier had gone into the last sprint race of the season with a 28-point lead over Gabriela Koukalová of the Czech Republic — a lead that looked fairly secure for the recently very consistent winner of the overall World Cup.
But in Friday’s race, Dahlmeier struggled with the tricky wind conditions, incurring three penalties in the prone shooting which set her back all the way to a 93rd place, before she could move up again with a clean standing shooting, but in the end her time in the finish was only sufficient for the 31st place this time.
That was not enough to match Koukalová, who only shot one penalty (0+1) and initially finished third, before Bescond bumped her to fourth (+37.4). Dahlmeier would have needed at least one more athlete to finish ahead of the Czech, who made up 33 points to finish ahead still claiming the “small globe” in that discipline.
“Today’s race somehow was jinxed,” a disappointed Dahlmeier later told German broadcaster ARD. “That started last night with the bib draw when I got unlucky with the last position in the first group, and I think I picked the wrong skis today, in terms of waxing we were not competitive with the very best, I didn’t feel so fit anymore, and then in prone a giant screw-up happened to me. There was quite some wind, I have to analyze it again but if I remember correctly I clicked in the wrong direction [adjusting the sights]. That moved the shots left, and then the race was all but over.“
“Of course life goes on, it was still a crazy season,” she added. “I only would have liked to show another good race in the fight for the sprint globe … Today I wouldn’t even have needed a perfect race, just a good one, that would have been sufficient.”
After the race, Dahlmeier still received her “crystal globe” for the season’s winner of the 15 k individual discipline as a consolation. Two days of racing remain on the schedule: Saturday’s pursuit and Sunday’s mass start.
Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen placed third in the overall sprint ranking, after finishing 27th on Friday with four penalties (+1:44.6).
Three North Americans in Pursuit
Dunklee will be joined in Saturday’s 10 k pursuit by teammate Clare Egan, who finished 34th with one penalty (+2:03.7). The third American, Joanne Reid placed 80th with five penalties (4+1), 3:32.2 out of first.
One Canadian qualified as well, with Julia Ransom fininishing 52nd with two penalties in her standing stage (0+2), 2:28.9 back, after having been ranked as high as ninth after prone.
In her second World Cup weekend, Canada’s 19-year-old Megan Bankes finished 64th (+2:53.0) with two penalties (1+1), missing the qualification for the pursuit by 12 seconds.
Sarah Beaudry was 75th (+3:20.5) with three penalties (2+1), while the fourth Canadian Emma Lunder in 84th with the same shooting result (+3:46.7).
“We have an incredible team of ski service technicians and coaching staff who plan to give 110 percent until the last race is done,” Dunklee said, according to the press release. “I have two tremendous opportunities still in front of me with these last races and I don’t plan on wasting them.”
Dunklee will be in a very good position for the pursuit, starting 33 seconds behind the podium and less than a minute behind Laukkanen. Only reportedly the schedule of the King of Norway won’t permit him to attend the biathlon races on Saturday and Sunday, so there likely will be no meeting should she be successful there.
In the Women’s Nation Cup Score, which is its own World Cup award category but also determines the starter quota spots for the following season, Germany’s women’s team secured the victory and the crystal globe with 7951 points, ahead of France (7646) and Ukraine (6605).
The U.S. finished 14th with 4743 points (despite not starting a relay in Pokljuka, Slovenia, earlier this season), while Canada tied Finland for 15th with 4619 points. Both North American teams will retain the four guaranteed World Cup starter spots for sprints and individual races they already had this season, which enables them to travel the World Cup circuit with a full team.
Bø Wins Men’s Sprint; U.S. Men 10th in Nation Cup
Later on Friday, Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø got to meet King Harald V after winning the men’s 10 k sprint, shooting clean in much calmer wind conditions than during the women’s race to finish in a time of 24:53.3.
“That’s always nice,” Bø said in the press conference when asked about meeting the king. “It’s my second time, and that’s the most memorable thing for this season I think.”
It was the second win of the season for the Norwegian and the 13th of his career. After starting early in bib 15, Bø had to wait a long time to see if anyone could still beat his time.
“Of course I was happy about my race, but since I lost some seconds on the last lap I was not sure if it would hold for the win,” Bø commented in the press conference. “It was a long wait, but in the end it was worth it and I am very happy to get a win here.”
“It’s quite nice to be back at Holmenkollen,” Bø added. “Today was quite hard conditions … I think a lot of athletes started hard but got really tired. We had very good skis today, that helped me a lot… In shooting when the people cheer for you between the shots, I feel that helps and makes it more easy to hit the next target. That is the biggest advantage, but of course there is also the pressure.”
France’s Martin Fourcade, the dominant male biathlete of the season who reached the podium in all but three individual races, finished second (+13.6) after missing a shot in his standing shooting and having to ski a penalty lap, and only being able to make up 10 seconds on the final loop.
“I am angry about my miss for sure,” Fourcade said at the press conference. “I think I had the power to clean it, but I am not angry about my competition. Johannes was really good today, he was at 100 percent and I can just congratulate him to his victory. I am really satisfied with my second place.”
Fourcade had already secured himself the “small crystal globe” title in the sprint discipline, and is anxiously awaiting the birth of his second child any day now.
“I think my biggest challenge was to be ready for this race in spite of the challenging preparation,” he explained. “I went back to France on Sunday, and then I had a long travel to Oslo again on Wednesday missing my connection. I had only one little training yesterday to be ready for this competition. So I am really satisfied about the job I did today, and my team helped me a lot to be ready.”
Starting very late in bib 106 out of 108 starters, Russia’s Anton Shipulin (+21.3) shot clean and bested Austria’s Dominik Landertinger, who had a penalty in standing, off the podium by just 0.2 seconds (+21.5).
“Of course I am satisfied to be on the podium, because the guys were very strong today and I fought until the end,” Shipulin said via a translator in the press conference. “I was very well informed (about my position) during the race. I am thankful to all the staff and the fans who kept me informed and motivated.”
“I think it was an advantage to start early today because the tracks were not that firm anymore in the end,” he added. “I had to move from left to right all the time especially in the downhills and it was quite challenging.”
“In principle I had a perfect race today,” Landertinger told Austrian broadcaster ORF after narrowly missing out on the podium. “If you want to be in the mix in front, you have to take some risk on the shooting range. Usually one miss is too much for a podium position in sprint, although of course it was damn close today.”
For the U.S, Sean Doherty was the top finisher in 35th with two penalties (0+2). He had been in 18th after the prone shooting stage, and after skiing 300 extra meters due to his penalties in standing he was still able to make up a few positions on the final loop with the 24th-ranked course time (29th-fastest overall). A week ago in the pursuit in Kontiolahti, Finland, Doherty achieved his best individual result of the season in 18th place after shooting clean in the four-stage race.
Lowell Bailey, who had a recent series of strong shooting performances on his road to a gold medal in the individual race at World Championships and two second-place finishes in the sprint in PyeongChang, South Korea, and the single mixed relay (with teammate Dunklee) in Kontiolahti, initially shot clean in prone on Friday and left the range in 11th position. In standing, he had three penalties, which set him back to 50th position and Bailey ultimately finished 44th (+1:51.6).
The three starters for Biathlon Canada missed qualifying in the top 60 for the pursuit.
Christian Gow shot clean, but skied the 91st-ranked course time to finish 61st (+2:25.8), just one position and less than two seconds behind Bulgaria’s Dimitar Gerdzhikov in 60th (+2:24.5). Brendan Green had a penalty in each stage (1+1) to finish 85th (+2:58.6), while Scott Gow was 95th (+3:25.1) with one penalty (0+1).
Also missing the pursuit were the final two American starters Paul Schommer in 98th (+3:41.9) and Leif Nordgren in 100th (+4:07.9), each with three penalties (2+1).
Despite not making many points in the final race of the season counting to the Nation Cup Score, the U.S. men finished in 10th place in those standings with 5290 points, thereby also securing an additional fifth quota spot for next season’s regular-season World Cups (the top five teams get six, sixth to 10th get five, 11th to 17th get four, and so on). Canada finished 13th with 4625 points, and will keep the four spots they had this season. Just like the women, Germany secured the World Cup win in this category with 7448 points, narrowly ahead of France with 7416 points, and Russia in third (7192) just ahead of Norway (7181).
“Germany has a great team, and they deserve this victory in the Nations Score,” Fourcade said during the press conference. “France never won it, so of course it was a really big goal and we are disappointed about not winning it. But that’s the game of sport, and we will try to win it next season.”