After going six years without qualifying a woman for a World Cup mass start, U.S. biathlon finally had its day in the spotlight in Oberhof, Germany on Sunday.
“During warmup, I think people were surprised to see an American out there,” said Laura Spector, the first American woman since Rachel Steer to compete in a mass start. “But I saw a few American flags on the side of the course, and it was really motivating to have that kind of support.”
The mass start is the most prestigious competition on the World Cup circuit, and there are only a few each season. Because athletes shoot simultaneously, field size is limited to the number of spots at the range. Out of 30 possible starting positions, 25 are pre-selected based on World Cup rankings, while five are chosen based on the results of the previous sprint.
In Saturday’s sprint, Spector finished a career-best 19th. It earned her one of those five spots, and a unique opportunity – only one North American woman currently competing has mass start experience. Zina Kocher of Canada has raced in eleven World Cup mass starts, including four last year.
But Spector had none of that to draw on, only the excitement of toeing the line with the best 29 biathletes in the world.
“The mass start was an incredible experience,” she told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “It was such a rush to race in front of the biggest crowd on the circuit, in a group with the best biathletes in the world, that I didn’t even notice I was tired until the final loop, even though I was hammering around the course on every prior loop.”
Spector cleaned the first two shooting stages, which were prone, and was sitting in 16th place, just outside the top half of the field.
But standing proved to be more of a challenge. She missed two shots in each of the last two stages, and quickly slipped to 25th, where she stayed for the rest of the race, finishing just over four minutes behind Helena Ekholm of Sweden, the winner on the day.
“I felt really comfortable during the prone stages but simply lacked enough confidence in standing to shoot quickly like I do in training,” Spector said. “Having the opportunity to shoot alongside the best biathletes also opened my eyes to how efficient they are, and just where I am losing time on the range, since that seems to be my weakest point.”
Overall, her performance represented a big step for the U.S. women, who have recently been overshadowed by their male counterparts. This year, the U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) has placed more of a focus on the women, and it seems to be paying off.
“USBA has come a long way in terms of funding and staff and it’s satisfying to be able to provide them with the results they deserve in return for the support they give us,” Spector said.
At the front of the field, there was plenty of excitement. Ekholm, Andrea Henkel of Germany, and Svetlana Sleptsova of Russia entered the final loop separated by less than three second.
But in the end, it was Ekholm whose tactics proved superior.
“I tried to stay back, shoot well, and then attack,” Ekholm told IBU News. “Andrea and Svetlana were skiing well in the final loop, and I just stayed behind them. When we came up the final hill before the finishing straight, I felt that I had more power, attacked at that point, and it worked out.”
Henkel didn’t seem too upset about losing out on the victory, telling IBU News that she was happy with two podium finishes this weekend.
“I had two penalties today and still was second,” she said. “I know now that I can make a few mistakes and still be on the podium. Maybe it is my age showing, but I am not stressed and very relaxed right now.
“I know that I am not a great sprinter, so I tried to get away in the last loop. I wanted to save the podium. I did not see it coming that Helena would pass me, but I was not surprised.”