For Kaisa Makarainen, 112 is the magic number.
That’s how many starts it took for the 27-year-old Finnish biathlete to win her first World Cup race, which she did Friday on a freezing course in Ostersund, Sweden.
Using clean shooting, and skiing that was as hot as the weather was cold—temperatures on the trails were as low as negative 19.2 Celsius, .8 degrees above the legal limit—Makarainen won the women’s 7.5 k sprint, 19 seconds ahead of 20-year-old German upstart Miriam Goessner. Darya Domracheva (BLR) edged Tina Bachmann (GER) by a second and a half for third place.
Megan Imrie (CAN) led the North American contingent on a tough day, taking three penalties and finishing 69th. For the second straight race, Laura Spector was the top finisher for the U.S. squad—she was 80th, also with three penalties.
Before Friday, Makarainen had made the World Cup podium five times, but never managed to climb to the top step.
New U.S. women’s biathlon coach Janne Kahkonen worked with Makarainen in his previous job as the head of the Finnish squad. He said that when he started with that team four years ago, Makarainen “was already close to the top, and basically had all the pieces of the puzzle, but just could not put them all together on the same day.”
Makarainen had strong seasons in 2008 and 2009, finishing 13th and 14th, respectively, in the overall World Cup, but last year, she took a dip to 22nd. She only cracked the podium once, after doing so four times in the two preceding years, and she faltered at the Vancouver Olympics, failing to finish higher than 45th.
She clearly is no slouch on course: in Wednesday’s individual race, Makarainen had the fastest ski time. But four penalties knocked her down to 11th place, nearly two and a half minutes out of the lead. On Friday, though, she made no mistakes.
“Today, she had the skis, the ski speed and the shooting, all together to make it a good biathlon race,” Kahkonen wrote in an e-mail.
Makarainen’s accuracy was indeed flawless, but in the sprint, with just two trips to the range, it was not enough for her simply to shoot clean. Thirteen others did, including the winner of Wednesday’s race, Sweden’s Anna Carin Zidek.
But while her aim could be matched, Makarainen was nearly untouchable out on the trails. She had the fastest ski time on two out of three 2.5-kilometer loops, and by the finish, nobody besides Goessner was close to matching her—third-placed Domracheva was more than 45 seconds back.
Goessner, whose nickname is “Speedy Gonzales,” is the latest addition to a deep German women’s team. She spent most of last season racing cross-country, winning a silver medal at the Vancouver Olympics as part of her country’s relay squad.
Despite collecting a smattering of top-10 finishes, she elected to return to the biathlon circuit this year, with the retirement of stars Simone Hauswald, Martina Beck, and Kati Wilhelm making room on the German team. It only took two competitions for Goessner’s decision to pay off.
She shot clean on Friday, which she said was the first time she had done so, and she also had the fastest ski time—two seconds quicker than Makarainen. While her accuracy came at a cost—Goessner’s deliberate shooting was 20 ticks slower than Makarainen’s on their first trip to the range—it was clear that she was content with second place, her first-ever podium.
“I wanted to show everyone that I’m a good shooter, and…today succeeded,” she was quoted as saying by Der Spiegel. “It was bitterly cold, but on the track I have not even noticed.”
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.