Breaking two bones in your hand a month before the Olympic Games doesn’t sound like good preparation. But it sure didn’t hurt Anastasia Kuzmina.
Shaking off an early miss, as well as the injury she suffered in early January, the Russian-turned-Slovakian won her country’s first Olympic medal in biathlon—and its first-ever gold in the Winter Games—on Saturday in the women’s 7.5k sprint.
The announcers characterized Kuzmina’s win as a surprise, but her win comes after a silver medal in last year’s World Championships, affirming her ability to compete at the highest level after giving birth to her first child in 2007.
An early starter—bib 19 of 88—she faced a long wait after finishing to see if she’d won. But instead of standing around in the steady drizzle that fell all afternoon, Kuzmina said that she went inside to change, preferring to minimize the suspense. When she emerged, she found that she was the winner by a second and a half over Germany’s Magdalena Neuner. Marie Dorin (FRA) took the bronze.
Ivor Lehotan, the Vice President for Information of the International Biathlon Union—and a Slovakian—said that Kuzmina moved to the country two years ago to be with her husband and coach, Daniel Kuzmin.
While Slovakia had been knocking on the door with a number of fourth- and fifth-place finishes at various championships, Lehotan said that it took someone with Kuzmina’s combination of Slovakian calm, and Russian strength and passion—an ideal mix for biathlon—to take the program to the next level.
She missed her first shot of the day, in the prone stage, but then went on to hit the next four in that round, and all five in the standing. Kuzmina and Neuner, with one penalty each, were the only athletes in the top-nine who were able to overcome even a single miss—everyone else shot clean.
With the rain, and with temperatures above freezing, race officials applied fertilizer to the course to firm it up—making “a huge difference from yesterday,” according to American Laura Spector, who finished 77th.
“It was really nice actually—it wasn’t deep or slushy or anything,” she said. “It was actually quite fast.”
Saturday’s race was the first-ever Olympic experience for the whole American team, with the exception of Lanny Barnes, and none of the women were able to crack the top half of the field. Sara Studebaker was the closest, in 45th—just one spot away. Barnes was another place behind Spector, in 78th, while Haley Johnson was 80th.
Spector, Studebaker, and Barnes each had only one miss—a poised performance from the first two, given that they had never competed on such a big stage.
“I was really nervous this morning,” Spector said. “I just had to tell myself I know how to prepare for a race…and I think that really helped calm me down.
The stands were packed with boisterous fans in the stands near the range, with hundreds standing shoulder to shoulder on a small hill that sat just off to one side. Different countries had their own fan sections, each decked out in national colors and waving flags. But very few fans ventured beyond
the stadium, making for some quiet race trails and an odd contrast, Spector said.
The American team raced in some sharp new spandex—American flag-themed, with stars and stripes on the shoulders. Studebaker said that they were an improvement on the old, solid blue suits.
“You can actually tell who we are, which is great,” she said. “The dark blue suits—they tend to get blended in with everybody else.”
The Canadians women had an off day, led by Megan Tandy, who shot clean to finish in 46th. Zina Kocher, who regularly had been in the top-20 this season, missed three shots and finished 65th, while Rosanna Crawford and Megan Imrie were 72nd and 76th, respectively.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.