For athletes who finished 2017 on a high note, the first race of 2018 can be a couple of two things. One is a continuation of the good competitions right like they left off. Another is a downgrade leaving them wondering if they’ve lost their mojo.
For some women in Thursday’s 7.5 k World Cup sprint in Oberhof, Germany, it was the former. Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia started in the yellow bib denoting the leader of the overall biathlon World Cup, and she wore it all the way to the top of the podium after a 35.4-second victory over Kaisa Makarainen of Finland.
Despite being a double Olympic champion – she won gold in the sprints in 2010 and 2014 – Kuzmina had never worn the yellow jersey until this season. But she’s continuing to show why she deserves it.
“It’s my first win here in Oberhof, and it’s always a really good feeling,” she said in a post-race press conference. “I’m really happy that I had fast and good skiing, and I just enjoyed the race.”
Both Kuzmina and Makarainen was well as third-place Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic (+40.1 seconds) had one penalty, as storms lingered over Germany after having caused the cancelation of World Cup ski races the previous day. The women dealt with large gusts on the shooting range, as well as slow ski trails from the rain that continued falling.
“I was lucky at the shooting range,” said fourth-place Franziska Hildebrand of Germany (+47.0 seconds), who also had one penalty. “If you were lucky enough to catch a calm phase then you could have a good race.”
“It was not easy weather conditions, I think for everyone,” Kuzmina said. “Today in zeroing I saw that it was not easy to shoot clean. I understood that I needed to be really concentrated on the shooting range. After one mistake in the prone position I was just thinking, ‘okay, it’s still good, it’s still good.’ For everyone the conditions on the shooting range were changing. So I knew that with one you still have a chance.”
Only three women managed to shoot a perfect 10-for-10, and two of them were Canadian. Julia Ransom rode that shooting to ninth place (+1:13.6), and Sarah Beaudry to 23rd (+1:39.0) in her first World Cup start of the season.
“I didn’t have any crazy expectations going into this week, but I am happy to see that the level of performance is still there,” Ransom wrote in an email. “Today definitely felt like a bit of a blow out for the legs, so I am excited to see what the pursuit will bring!”
For Ransom, a winter break spent in Europe – unusually, as the Canadian “A” team usually returns home for Christmas and even skips the Oberhof weekend to get in more home-turf training – was the perfect thing keep up her level of performance. Ransom had started out the season with a ninth-place finish in the 15 k individual in Östersund, Sweden.
“My winter break was exactly what I needed,” she wrote. “My brother and nephew had come out to Le Grand-Bornand [for the last World Cup weekend] and then later spent a week with me in Annecy [France]. We went into full tourist mode, eating lots of cheese and drinking lots of wine. Even got some beautiful powder turns in Chamonix. I then went to Zurich for the Christmas weekend to visit one of my childhood best friends before joining the team again in Obertilliach for a week of training. Safe to say, a week completely free of biathlon followed by a week of training paradise made for some good race prep.”
Shooting was the key to good results for Ransom and Beaudry; their ski splits ranked 44th and 63rd, respectively. But Canadian women’s coach and High Performance Director Roddy Ward downplayed the conditions in discussing his team’s excellent shooting.
“Overall the shooting conditions were tricky but not too bad actually,” he wrote in an email. “I’d even say quite good for Oberhof! It was actually quite fair for everyone, which is nice. No big gusts then calm, wind was always present and a bit swirly. I’m actually not surprised they cleaned but more surprised there were so few in total that cleaned.”
That’s quite a difference from the assessment of some of the other athletes. For instance: “I’m really really happy that I had only one penalty today, because it was difficult conditions and changing all the time,” said second-place Makarainen. “In standing I really felt the wind. It was not easy. But shot by shot I managed with only one [penalty], and I was really, really satisfied with that.”
But Beaudry agreed with her coach’s assessment.
“Personally I didn’t find the wind to affect my shooting much today,” she wrote in an email. “Both times when I came in it wasn’t too windy, and I just tried to shoot confidently and have solid hits. I did for sure give my last shot an extra second because that one can be a little stressful, but I hit it and that’s what matters.”
As for Ransom, she simply approached the day’s shooting with intention, and it brought her success.
“I was mentally prepared for hellish race conditions, so when I got to the site and didn’t see v-boards flying away or five inches of slush, I was pleasantly surprised,” she wrote. “It was a little blustery in both prone and standing, so all I could do was focus on making good shots. In the standing, I aimed to shoot in lanes 28-30 because it is a little bit more sheltered, but other than that, there wasn’t any special trick! After a break from racing, I was glad to come back with solid shooting.”
Beaudry was coming off of IBU Cup finishes of 23rd in Sjujøen, Norway; 36th in Lenzerheide, Switzerland; and tenth and 24th in Obertilliach, Austria. Along with Megan Tandy, she got pulled up to the World Cup with just two weeks of Olympic qualifying possibilities to go.
“Megan and Sarah both performed well on the IBU Cup in trimester 1,” Ward explained. “Therefore, they were given a chance at [Oberhof]. I didn’t really have any expectations, but felt if we gave them a chance we could see a good performance. Sarah produced a great performance.”
In fact, it was the best result of her career. Her previous top World Cup finish was 38th in the sprint in Canmore, Alberta, in 2016, with a somewhat reduced depth of field. Before that, she had finished 54th in a pursuit in Ruhpolding, Germany.
But since her sprint qualifies her for the pursuit on Saturday, where she is guaranteed to be in the top 60 if she finishes, she is fast-tracked to meeting one of Biathlon Canada’s Olympic criteria and could be either the fourth or fifth member of the team.
That’s not what she’s thinking about, though.
“Like I have said before, this season I just really wanted to race well and show what I never was really able to show last season,” she wrote. “I was hoping for a solid result, but definitely not expecting the result I got today. The Olympic qualification definitely adds extra pressure but I know I race best when I am having fun. So I was trying to blast the dance tunes and just smile.”
The pressure came off in an unexpected way, too.
“In my warm-up I was trying out the big corner, as they had changed it from yesterday,” Beaudry explained. “I went a little hard and crashed and broke my ski — which weirdly had me laughing my entire warm-up.”
Joining the pair in the pursuit will be Tandy, who finished 59th (+2:37.5) with two penalties. Emma Lunder did not start for Canada, as she is recovering from a stomach illness that earned her a trip to the hospital, but Ward said that she should be ready to race in Sunday’s relay.
For the U.S., Susan Dunklee finished 62nd (+2:46.6) and Clare Egan 86th (+4:23.0), each with four penalties.
Although quite a number of competitors shot the same score or worse, it was nearly impossible to qualify for the 60-woman pursuit doing so: the only women to make it with four penalties were Germany’s Denise Herrmann (45th, +2:13.3), Switzerland’s Selina Gasparin (47th, +2:16.0), and Norway’s Hilde Fenne (56th, +2:29.0).