Slovakia’s Anastasiya Kuzmina made her intentions pretty clear early on at these Olympics.
“I am missing my brother,” she said when asked of her younger brother, Anton Shipulin, who was one of the Russian athletes banned from competing at the 2018 Games in PyeongChang. “I hoped to the last moment that he will be able to compete here … I am really sorry about what happened and that my brother is not here. I am here to fight for medals for my entire family. I won the one medal, and I want to win another medal for my brother.”
That was after she placed second in the women’s 10-kilometer pursuit on Monday. Two days before that, she had finished outside the medals, 13th, in the Olympics’ opening biathlon sprint.
But Kuzmina, who was born in Tyumen, Russia, and started racing for Slovakia in 2008, has been an all-around threat in the sport for some time. At her first Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Kuzmina won her first Olympic gold in the sprint and took silver in the pursuit.
Four years later, at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia — the Games that would later lead to her brother and multiple other top Russians being sanctioned for their alleged involvement in a systematic nationwide doping scandal — Kuzmina, still racing for Slovakia, racked up her second Olympic gold in the sprint.
She had a child after each Olympics yet came back, Olympic cycle after Olympic cycle, to dominate at the highest level of the sport.
Now 33 and in her third Olympics, Kuzmina raced to second in both the pursuit and 15 k individual on Thursday in PyeongChang. Then, on Saturday, in the last non-relay event of the championships and on yet another windy evening, she captured her third-career Olympic gold — winning the women’s 12.5 k mass start by 18.8 seconds in 35:23.0 minutes.
At a post-race press conference, she dedicated that medal to her adopted nation.
“I got my third medal here,” Kuzmina stated though a translator. “The first medal was conquered for me. The second one was conquered for my brother because I was sad that he is missing here and he was supporting me, was able to support me. And now the third medal is for entire Slovakia, for my team, and for many people which were supporting me in the hard times.”
While Kuzmina’s win was resounding — she led from the first loop to the finish — it didn’t come without a blip. After cleaning three consecutive stages in the prone-prone-standing-standing mass-start format, she missed one in the final shooting bout. But even after a penalty lap, Kuzmina was still 24.7 seconds clear of Domracheva in second.
Leading into the range for each bout, Kuzmina generally cleaned quickly (shooting the fastest time on the first prone), slowing down slightly to hit the last shot of her second prone and a little bit more so on the third stage (17th-fastest shooting time) to ensure she stayed out of the penalty lap. Her last time in the range without anyone around her, Kuzmina posted the 30th-ranked shooting time and lost at least 20 seconds with her miss, but the win was still hers.
With her third gold, she became the first female biathlete to win at three consecutive Olympics. At Saturday’s press conference, she explained that she had thought her best chance for that medal would be in the sprint.
“When that didn’t happen I was really sad and nervous before the next races,” Kuzmina said. “But it happened here and the race was mass start, a different event than in Vancouver and Sochi, and it’s an incredible feeling. Nine years ago at the 2009 World Championships here in PyeongChang I won the first-ever medal for the Slovak Republic, for my homeland, and it was a silver medal and the race was mass start. I wanted to repeat it and to be again with a medal here in the same event in the same place, just nine years later.”
She’s not sure if she’ll have another kid over the next four years, or if she’ll be at the 2022 Olympics to try to win golds in four different Games.
“The next Olympics, at the moment I don’t know if I will quit my career or not or how long I will compete, how many years,” she said. “But I am not sure that I will be able to survive the next four years and compete in the next Winter Olympics.”
For Belarus, Domracheva claimed her first medal of the Games in second, after placing ninth in the sprint, then 37th in the pursuit and 27th in the 15 k individual. The silver was her fifth-career Olympic medal after she won three races in Sochi (pursuit, individual and mass start) and took bronze in 2010 in the 15 k individual.
Like Kuzmina, Domracheva has also been raising a small child in the leadup to PyeongChang. She and her Norwegian husband Ole Einar Bjørndalen, the most decorated Winter Olympian of all time with 13 medals, welcomed the birth of their first child, Xenia Bjørndalen, on Oct. 1, 2016.
Domracheva, 31, put herself in second on Saturday by the second stage, after cleaning both prone stages. She chased Kuzmina on the third loop, skiing less than 10 seconds behind her and at least 15 seconds ahead of Germany’s Denise Herrmann and Italy’s Dorothea Wierer in third and fourth. On the third shooting stage that followed, Domracheva shot a miss and had to ski a penalty lap, putting her in fifth and 44 seconds behind Kuzmina in first.
Wierer moved into second with clean shooting, setting out on the fourth loop 28 seconds behind Kuzmina.
On the final shooting, Wierer had her costly miss of the day, which dropped her to seventh and 39 seconds back. While several of the top contenders incurred penalties on that last standing, Domracheva cleaned to reclaim second, and Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff cleaned when it counted to leave the range in third, 9.3 seconds behind Domracheva.
While Kuzmina skied the overall fastest course time, her final loop only needed to be third fastest to secure the win. Heading into the final downhill that rounded into the stadium, she grabbed a Slovakian flag from one of her team’s staff members running beside her. The wind blew it directly into her face as she tried to wave it in front of the crowd, but it didn’t derail her nor erase the huge smile on Kuzmina’s face as she finished nearly 19 seconds clear of second place.
Domracheva skied the second-fastest last loop (and third-fastest course time overall) to claim second, a result she was pleased with.
“It was a tough race … because it was so high pressure during all races before,” Domracheva said at the press conference after. “The toughest was understanding that it was my last chance for an individual medal in these Games. And it was so important to keep this focus and continue to believe in yourself and I am very very happy that I have done that so well and took this silver medal.”
She acknowledged that several of her competitors were in a similar position of seeking a medal at these Games, including but not limited to Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen (who finished 10th on Saturday with two penalties) and Eckhoff, who’s previous best result this week was ninth in the pursuit (Eckhoff is a two-time bronze medalist from 2014, in the mass start and relay).
“I knew that I was in some company of the girls who are quite strong, but who were so unlucky from the beginning of the Games,” Domracheva said. “And what kind of pressure … understanding that you try to do the best that you can, but something went wrong in the previous races, and this understanding of course gave me some kind of pressure. It was important to overcome this situation and start this mass start from zero.”
Eckhoff, 27, who overcame two penalties (1+0+1+0) en route to bronze (+27.7), attributed her result to some luck.
“I was lucky today and took a medal, but all year I trained for this, and I guess Kaisa did the same,” Eckhoff said at the press conference. “I was lucky, she was not. It’s hard for everyone I think, because of the conditions. And I know, Darya said it as well, it’s really tough when you don’t succeed here. And I am very happy that I managed it today.”
While the medalists skied into the finish separately and without any close competition, the race for fourth was a close one with Italy’s Lisa Vittozzi edging Sweden’s Hanna Öberg, Wierer and Belarus’s Nadezhda Skardino. She claimed fourth (+45.6). Öberg placed fifth (+46.5), Wierer sixth (+47.3), and Skardino seventh (+47.9), ahead of Norway’s Marte Olsbu in eighth (+51.6), France’s Marie Dorin Habert in ninth (+57.9) and Mäkäräinen in 10th (+1:00.9).
Only two out of 30 cleaned on Saturday, Skardino and Poland’s Monika Hojnisz in 15th (+1:36.2).
Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier finished 16th (+1:47.1) after two early penalties (1+1+0+0). She started the race by keeping pace with Kuzmina on the first loop as the two of them slightly gapped the field before the first prone. There, Dahlmeier missed one to drop to 22nd and about 35 seconds back. She missed one more on the second prone, which put her in 21st and 1:12.4 out of first. Previously, Dahlmeier had won two races this week (sprint and pursuit) and finished third in the 15 k individual.
No North Americans qualified for either of the mass starts. The men’s 15 k mass start is scheduled for Sunday at 6:15 a.m. EST.
— Harald Zimmer, Jason Albert and Gabby Naranja contributed