For most of Thursday’s 15 k individual race in Poklujuka, Slovenia, it looked like Kaisa Makarainen of Finland was firmly in control and would ski – rather easily – to her third World Cup win of the season.
In the last shooting stage, Makarainen missed one target, but thanks to her superior skiing, she still had a jump on the field. When she crossed the finish line, she led the race by an astonishing margin of nearly two minutes.
But Makarainen was bib 21, and Tora Berger of Norway, starting six places behind her, had other plans. It took every ounce of energy she had, and clean shooting, but Berger put her head down and skied. With 700 meters to go, she was still 2.1 seconds behind Makarainen. After an impressive finishing sprint, Berger came out on top – by just 1.8 seconds.
“Kaisa was going really fast,” she told IBU News. “I knew that I would have to do a very good last loop in order to catch her.”
After a disastrous race for the Norwegian men, Berger said that she felt she had “saved the day” with her first win of the season.
Makarainen, who won two races in Ostersund, Sweden, was disappointed with her finish. She told IBU News that she felt she could have won if the trails hadn’t been so crowded.
“I am a bit sad, because I lost some time on the final uphill,” she said. “There were many other skiers on the tracks and I could not pass, but had to stay behind them and that slowed me down some.”
Marie Laure Brunet of France finished third, and will wear the red bib as the leader of the individual race format in Rupholding, Germany, in January.
Sara Studebaker of the United States had a personal-best finish for the second weekend in a row, this time finishing 21st with only one penalty.
“The race was really good, and of course I’m psyched about the result,” she told FasterSkier in an interview. “It was not quite as tough wind conditions for the women, but it really depended on when you came into the range, since there was definitely some gusting.”
So far, Studebaker’s top-30 results have all come from clean or nearly clean shooting, and even with her excellent finish today, she only had the 52nd-fastest ski time. But she said that she felt her skiing was improving.
“The skiing felt really good today, especially compared to the last individual! Getting to ski in the top group near lots of the best women on the World Cup was very exciting. It was a good chance for me to see the level and motivating to see where I can get with a little more work.”
The other U.S. starters didn’t match Studebaker’s performance. Laura Spector finished 60th and missed three shots in her final shooting stage.
For the first time this season, there was a third American woman in the race. Based on her excellent IBU Cup results last weekend, Tracy Barnes got the nod to start today. Barnes, now competing independently, had been a member of the U.S. national team for many years, and had a pair of 25th-place World Cup finishes here in Pokljuka six years ago.
Today, the Slovenian track was not so kind to her. In a USBA press release, she said that she hit a rock on one of the downhills and fell, wrecking the base of her ski. Traditionally a strong shooter, Barnes also missed three shots – it just wasn’t her best day, and she ended up 64th.
Still, having Barnes racing was at least a psychological victory for the women’s team.
“It was great having a third woman on our team!” Studebaker said. “Laura and I are psyched to have had Tracy around for the individual and to have Annelies coming for the sprint race. It will be beneficial to our Nations Cup standings as well as giving more women a chance to race the top level. It’s very exciting to see how much progress we as a team have made this season already.”
Megan Imrie led the Canadian team with a 43rd-place finish, followed by Zina Kocher in 84th. Rosanna Crawford did not start.
The World Cup continues in Pokljuka on Saturday with sprint races.