Last weekend, if you had asked which country had the best female biathletes, the answer probably would have been Sweden. Anna Carin Zidek and Helena Ekholm both graced the podium multiple times at the World Cup openers in Ostersund, Sweden.
But last weekend, Magdalena Neuner wasn’t racing.
In Hochfilzen, Austria, things are different. In Saturday’s 4 x 6 k relay, Neuner was Germany’s second skier. She took the tag in third place, twenty seconds behind Svetlana Sleptsova of Russia, and only used one spare round in two shooting stages to clean and tag off to Sabrina Buchholz with the lead.
Germany never looked back. By the time their fourth skier, Andrea Henkel, entered the stadium for the last time, she had a lead of over a minute. Henkel took a German flag from a spectator and skied with it into the finish, all smiles, to meet her teamates.
The team, consisting of Kathrin Hitzer, Neuner, Buchholz, and Henkl, had been the subject of some speculation. Could this new team – minus the now-retired trio of Martina Beck, Simone Hauswald, and Kati Wilhelm – possibly be as successful as the old German team?
The answer was a resounding “yes.”
Henkel told IBU News that the Germans had never doubted their abilities.
“Everyone kept asking if our new team would do as well as the old team,” she said. “All of the time we said that we were still a strong team and no one believed us. Today we could finally show how good we are.”
Still, what unfolded behind the Germans was almost more interesting. After controlling the early portion of the race, Russia watched their medal chances all but disappear as third-leg skier Ekaterina Yurlova, who was sitting in second position, used all of her spare rounds in the standing stage and still left one target black. While she was shooting, the French and Ukranian teams came into the range, cleaned with no extra rounds, and skied away without her. Russia never recovered and had to muster a strong effort just to secure fourth place.
Beginning the final leg, Marie Laure Brunet of France and the Valj Semerenko of Ukraine were skiing together about a minute behind Henkel, followed by Olga Zaitseva of Russia and Tora Berger of Norway. At the exchange, it seemed inevitable that France and Ukraine would round out the podium.
But there was more drama about to unfold. While all four athletes cleaned in prone, with only Semerenko using a spare round, Brunet faltered in standing, using all three extra bullets and still missing one target. Semerenko disappeared ahead of her, second place secure, while Brunet had to head to the penalty loop.
And meanwhile, Berger was showing why she was an Olympic gold medalist in Vancouver. She quickly cleaned standing and set out on the final lap at a pace that could not be matched by either Zaitseva or Brunet, who left the range ten seconds behind her. Berger had visibly more power and zip, and rescued her Norwegian team’s hopes for a medal. By the time she reached the finishing stretch, she was able to ease up and celebrate as she crossed the line. And with a team that included two World Cup rookies, Norway did have reason to be proud.
But while the Norwegians were pleased, it was the Ukrainians who seemed most excited by today’s result. It had been nearly two years since they last stood on a World Cup relay podium. In January 2009, Ukraine won a relay in Oberhof, Germany, and since then their women have finished fourth several times. Today, they mobbed Semerenko as she crossed the finish line nine seconds ahead of Berger.
Sweden raced to an uninspired and distant sixth-place finish.
The Americans did not enter a team, as they have only two women on the World Cup right now. The Canadian team of Megan Imrie, Zina Kocher, Rosanna Crawford, and Melanie Schulz finished 11th, using twelve extra rounds and tallying one missed target.
“11th is a decent result for us,” she told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “However, with less spare rounds and without the penalty lap, the result could have been better. Megan started off strong shooting clean in prone, but then struggled in standing, needing all three spares to clean. My skiing felt much stronger today and was able to pull off a great ski race, but then my shooting was a disaster needing 2 spares in prone and ending up with a penalty lap in standing. Rosanna shot much better with 2 spares in prone.”
The Canadians were the last team not to be lapped by the Germans, and Kocher said that it was an issue the whole team felt during the race. Everyone wanted to be able to finish the race.
“[Rosanna] tagged off to Melanie, who needed to push hard to make it to standing shooting before the winning team finished the race,” Kocher sad. “Otherwise our team would have been pulled from finishing the race. Melanie needed spares in standing and said she strongly felt the stress of the top teams finishing.
“Many teams struggled in the first prone in leg one,” she continued, “and therefore, Megan’s clean prone really helped us stay in the game. Room for improvement, but not bad for the first relay, faster skiing and clean shooting is the ticket.”
The World Cup continues on Sunday with a men’s relay and a women’s pursuit.
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