The biathlon World Cup opened in parasite-infested Ostersund, Sweden on Wednesday, with the country’s own Anna Carin Zidek riding clean shooting through four stages to a nine-second win over France’s Marie Laure Brunet in the 15 k individual competition. Hometown favorite Helena Ekholm finished third.
Further down the results sheet, but not too much further, Laura Spector led the U.S. with a 25th-place finish. It was the best race of her career, and the best U.S. World Cup finish since Haley Johnson’s 21st-place effort in Pokljuka, Slovenia, in December of 2009.
Zidek told IBU News that she hadn’t expected to win the race.
“I did not have much in the way of expectations today,” she said. “My shape has not felt the best, nor has my shooting been very good. So I went into the race to do what I could – do my best. My shooting felt incredibly good today, though.”
And indeed it was; Zidek was one of only three women in the entire 95-racer field to shoot clean.
Brunet, who missed one shot in the first prone stage and one shot in the last standing stage, had the fastest ski time on the day. In an individual race, one minute is added to a competitor’s time for each missed shot – much longer than it takes to ski a penalty loop in other race formats. It was this penalty system that kept Brunet out of the win.
However, she wasn’t entirely disappointed, telling IBU News that she was “very, very happy to finish second.”
Spector was similarly pleased with her efforts. It was largely her shooting that got her into the top 30. Her ski time was only the 65th-fastest on the day, but she only missed one shot out of twenty. Only six of the women above her in the results shot as well or better.
“It was not only my best race when it comes to shooting, it also was my best race ever,” she told the U.S. Biathlon Association in a press release. “So, of course I feel great about that.”
Spector’s result is perhaps all the more impressive because she is currently enrolled at Dartmouth College and will be taking her final exams for the term later this week in Ostersund.
Previously, Spector’s best results were a pair of 58th-place finishes at World Championships in Pyeong Chang, Korea in 2009.
And for the U.S. women, there have only been a handful of top-thirty results since before the last Olympic cycle began. Johnson had one top-30 World Cup finish in early 2009, and one at the World Championships in Korea. Lanny Barnes finished 23rd at the Vancouver Olympics and 15th in a World Cup in Oestersund in 2006, and Sarah Konrad finished 30th at a World Cup in Oslo, Norway, in 2006.
In short, Spector’s performance in Sweden on Wednesday was something that the U.S. women have, in the past, only had the chance to enjoy once or twice a year, if at all. The last banner year was 2004, when Rachel Steer had four top-20 performances and Tracy Barnes was top-30 in a pair of World Cups in Slovenia.
The other U.S. woman in the race was Sara Studebaker, the only woman to have pre-qualified for the first period of World Cups. She suffered from an infection of the parasite cryptosporidium last weekend, as did many biathletes and residents of Oestersund, which affected her performance today. Studebaker finished 72nd, with three missed shots and the 78th-fastest ski time.
“Today I woke up feeling much better, but still pretty tired,” she told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “During the race, my stomach was a little upset, but the main issue was my energy level. I was definitely running on empty the last couple laps. The worst is definitely over, and I’ve been feeling better each day since Monday, so I’m optimistic about [Friday’s] sprint.”
“My race today was good, given my feeling,” Studebaker continued. “I am glad I started; it feels good to have one race out of the way. I am happy with my shooting, though I wish I would have shot a little better in my last stage [where she missed two shots]! My misses were close though, and I know my shooting is solid right now, so that’s a great confidence builder going into the season. I am very positive about my skiing right now, also. I feel like I’m in good shape, and when I’m able to give 100 percent, I know I will be able to have some good results.”
Zina Kocher led the Canadians with a 49th-place finish. For Kocher, who finished just outside of the top 30 in the overall World Cup last year, it wasn’t the best start to the season. She was followed by Rosanna Crawford in 69th and Megan Imrie in 83rd. Imrie struggled on the range, missing six shots.
The men’s World Cup season kicks off Thursday, and racing continues in Oestersund through Sunday.