To say that it was raining in Rupholding, Germany, on Thursday would be an understatement.
“It was pouring rain, perhaps the worst rain I’ve ever skied in, winter or summer,” said U.S. biathlete Sara Studebaker. “It was tough out there… today was all about fighting through the conditions.”
For most of the women’s World Cup field, it was a tough fight as the tracks slowed to a cement-like consistency and the downhills became rutted and treacherous.
But three women set themselves above the fray in the 15 k individual race. In fact, even if fourth-place Valj Semerenko of Ukraine had shot clean and avoided a one-minute penalty, she still wouldn’t have been able to move up a single spot on the results sheet.
Veterans Olga Zaitseva of Russia and Helena Ekholm of Sweden were the fifth and sixth starters, and they set a high standard for the rest of the field. In fact, they had already passed a few of the skiers ahead of them by the time they entered the first shooting stage.
But the ante was upped again when Andrea Henkel of Germany set off wearing bib 30. She immediately moved into the lead with clean shooting and even faster skiiing than Zaitseva or Ekholm were able to muster.
After three shooting stages, Henkel was still atop the leaderboard, followed by Zaitseva and Semerenko. But as the race wore on, the women tired, and skied each loop slower than the one before. In addition, Semerenko missed a shot in the final shooting, removing herself from contention.
Only Zaitseva had the legs to push on, and her last loop was actually faster than her three middle loops. Her perseverance earned her a 14-second victory over Henkel – who had led for most of the race – with Ekholm rounding out the podium.
When asked in a press conference whether she had been aware of Henkel’s position just ahead of her throughout the race, Zaitseva simply answered, “nyet.”
She also said that nothing about her training had changed over the holiday break, and that the Russians were focused on skiing their fastest at World Championships.
“I felt very good today had a good performance today both on the shooting range and skiing,” she told IBU News. “Starting early was a big help. It maybe was a little bit easier for me than some of the athletes who started later. I also had good skis for this kind of weather.”
The drop to the rest of the field was severe. This was partly because only one other biathlete shot clean, and each miss is assigned a one-minute penalty. However, tenth-place Iana Romanova of Russia was almost three and a half minutes behind her winning teammate despite having only one penalty, and fifteenth-place Katja Haller of Italy, who also missed only a single shot, was more than four minutes back.
It wasn’t the best day for the North Americans, but Megan Imrie of Canada had what could be considered a breakout race, finishing 35th with one penalty. She has only had two better results in four years of World Cup racing.
“The race yesterday went well on the shooting range,” Imrie told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “With torrents of rain coming down, extreme conditions and a white-knuckle course, the range was my only place of calm. I have been playing around with my standing shooting tactics for a long time now. I seem to finally come across something that works. And with the way the day was going, I knew shooting was the ‘IT’ thing. My skiing was not quite as stellar, but World Champ’s is still a while from now, so I think it will pick up for March.”
The other Canucks struggled, with Melanie Schulz and Zina Kocher finishing 70th and 82nd.
The Americans also had a rough day: Studebaker led the team by tying for 55th place.
“I was not feeling great skiing today,” she told FasterSkier. “It was a tough one mentally in the rain. Missing three shots also was not great – in my first standing I nearly fell on the downhill into the range and as a result my legs were super shaky. I just wasn’t able to recover and feel good in time for shooting.”
Haley Johnson finished 62nd in her first World Cup start of the season, accumulating four penalties over the course of the day, while Laura Spector, fresh off of a career-best weekend in Oberhof, was 67th with five penalties.
“We are all looking forward to the sprint race,” Studebaker said. “Saturday’s forecast looks much better, so hopefully we can improve on today’s results.”
Competition continues in Rupholding on Friday with a men’s sprint.