In the World Cup sprints in Pokljuka, Slovenia on Saturday, two athletes took their first wins of the season. But while they hadn’t been atop the podium in Ostersund, Sweden, or in Hochfilzen, Austria, their strong performances weren’t entirely surprising: both Bjorn Ferry (SWE) and Magdalena Neuner (GER) were gold medalists at the Vancouver Olympics last year.
Canadians led the North American contingent in both the men’s and women’s races.
When FasterSkier talked to Swedish biathlete Bjorn Ferry in Muonio, Finland, earlier this season, he said that one of his goals was to win the overall World Cup.
So far this season, it had seemed like that goal was pretty far out of reach. On Thursday, he finished 61st in the individual race in Pokljuka, Slovenia, which was his worst result so far; he was 11th in the sprint in Hochfilzen, Austria, and moved up to tenth in the pursuit. Those were the only races in which he even cracked the top 20.
Not so good for an overall World Cup contender.
But in Pokljuka on Saturday, Ferry reminded the biathlon world that he was, in fact, a reigning Olympic champion, and eked out a five second victory over Tarjei Boe of Norway in the 10 k sprint race.
Ferry told IBU News that he knew he was fit, but had struggled this season nonetheless.
“This week, it was like I took another step,” he said. “One level better. It is now fluid and I do not have to push so hard. The individual was actually my best skiing performance of the year. I just missed eight targets; it was bad shooting. But today I held it together and hit the targets. It was a bit slow, but clean.”
While shooting clean definitely helped, ten other athletes hit all the targets in the two-stage sprint race, so it was his skiing that guaranteed him the win. Ferry had the fifth-fastest course time, and all of the faster skiers missed at least one target.
It was a close race for the podium, with Boe only five seconds behind Ferry, and Michael Greiss of Germany another three seconds behind Boe. Greiss led after the standing stage, but Ferry’s skiing moved him into the win three kilometers later.
For Boe, a second-place finish was almost as sweet as a win. When the World Cup continues after the Christmas break, he will wear the overall yellow leader bib.
“I never thought before the season that I would have the yellow bib,” he told IBU News. “I thought there was a good chance that I would win a race or two, but this is something else.”
For the North Americans, a pair of Canadians led the way. Brendan Green and Scott Perras finished 29th and 30th – excellent results for each of them.
“In the end the result was good, but I am slightly disappointed with my final shooting,” Perras told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “I managed to shoot clean in prone which is always the way to start a race. And I was prepared for the standing stage – there was not too much physiological stress. I didn’t even think it was good race so I wasn’t even nervous. I just got on my trigger too quickly and missed my first shot… so there was some mistakes that cost me some serious positions. I have to get comfortable with being in a good position so that I can capitalize.”
Tim Burke led the way for the U.S. team in 35th place, followed by Lowell Bailey and Leif Nordgren in 68th and 69th.
Neuner, last year’s overall World Cup champion, hasn’t shown her typical dominance so far this season. After skipping the Ostersund World Cups, she helped the Germans to a relay victory in Hochfilzen, but didn’t hit the podium in any of the individual races.
Today, though, was a different story. Neuner missed two shots in standing, but was skiing so fast that it didn’t matter. Her teammate Miriam Gossner had the second-fastest ski time of the day – just over three seconds back – but missed three shots. So despite her shooting errors, Neuner was able to ski to a solid eleven second victory over Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia.
“It was a great day for me,” Neuner told IBU News. “I had two mistakes on the shooting range and did not think about winning. It is a very nice Christmas present for me.”
Unlike Ferry, Neuner isn’t focusing on the overall World Cup. Because of the races she missed in Ostersund and her lack of podium finishes in Hochfilzen, she says it is out of the realm of possibility.
“I think Kaisa [Makarainen, of Finland] is very, very good this year,” she said. “I lost three races and now it will be very difficult for me. I am looking forward to the battle for the title a little bit, but more about the World Championships. It is important and after that we will see.”
Makarainen finished in a tie for third today. She and Olga Zaitseva of Russia had identical times, exactly 17 seconds behind Neuner. Ties are not uncommon in biathlon, but a tie at the top of the field is less common than one further down the results sheet, where racers are packed in more closely.
Makarainen will keep the yellow overall leader’s bib moving into the next weekend of World Cups, and has the position locked down after having two wins, two second-place finishes, and two third-place finishes in the first three weekends of racing.
For the North Americans, Zina Kocher of Canada finally raced to her potential today, finishing 17th. So far, she had only finished in the top 60 once, racing to 49th place in the very first race of the season in Ostersund. Kocher finished last season ranked 31st in the overall World Cup standings, and owns one of Canada’s only World Cup medals in the last decade, so for her the result meant getting back on track.
Sara Studebaker led the Americans in 58th place.
“Today was a little rough on skis for me,” she told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “I didn’t feel great right from the start and knew it was going to be a tough race to get into. I was really happy with my shooting though – it wasn’t too tough on the range for me today and I was happy to come away with only two penalties.
“I think I’m still figuring some things out with my training and this much racing right now,” she continued. “This is only my second year on the World Cup circuit, and it takes some time to figure out how best to prepare. So while today wasn’t my best day, I’m learning a lot from just being here and that’s invaluable.”
Annelies Cook, in her very first World Cup race, was just 0.4 seconds behind Studebaker in 59th place.
“It was really special for me to finally race a World Cup,” she told FasterSkier. “The race was solid. I was happy to hit a few more targets and did my best on the tracks. It was a tough course, especially because of new snow that made things slower. It’s a totally different ball game from the IBU Cup – the amount of people, staff, racers, and the organization. But I guess in the end, it is still just racing, so that stays the same.”
If there had been a pursuit after the sprint, Cook would have made the cutoff (only the top 60 from a sprint start the pursuit), no small feat for her first World Cup.
“It would have been really sweet to do a pursuit. I felt a little stiff skiing and maybe a second day of racing would have helped that!”
Racing continues on Sunday with a mixed relay.