Northern Maine is best known for its ties to Scandinavia—both New Sweden and Stockhom are within striking distance of the biathlon venues in Fort Kent and Presque Isle.
But in the raw conditions for Friday’s 7.5 k World Cup sprint, it was the German women who felt more at home in Fort Kent. Battling through frigid temperatures and a swirling breeze, Andrea Henkel led her country to a sweep of the top three, with Miriam Goessner in second and Magdalena Neuner in third.
“It’s cold, it’s windy—I think it’s the German conditions today,” Neuner told FasterSkier afterwards.
American Sara Studebaker put together clean shooting for her second straight sprint race, and with serviceable skiing, finished 17th, for the second-best result of her career. Claude Godbout was the top Canadian finisher, in 48th.
Temperatures on Friday were a bit warmer than on Thursday—the mercury hit nine degrees F during the women’s race—but the gusty wind made up for it. It was a tough day for biathlon, and just as tough for the spectators—Studebaker said that she probably wouldn’t have come out to watch.
Consequently, the crowd in Fort Kent wasn’t much larger than Thursday’s, which numbered no more than 500. But with some area schools cancelled for the day, there was a smattering of fervent, flag-waving supporters.
The Fort Kent community is heavily invested in the races here—volunteers have taken full weeks off work—and at least one business owner, Carl Theriault, sent up a half-dozen workers from his car dealership to watch, on the clock.
All three of the medal-winning Germans opted to start in the first seed, and they went out within in eight-minute span. (Like on Thursday, Friday’s start interval was 40 seconds, to help turn the racing from small Fort Kent fields into a full television program.)
Neuner, in bib one, and Goessner, in bib four, each missed two shots, but made up for the errant bullets with fast skiing.
Henkel, at 33 the elder stateswoman of the German team, had been recovering from illness over the last week, and she was still missing a gear on Friday. But she made up for it by shooting clean, and ultimately finished 11 seconds up on Goessner, and 16 ahead of Neuner.
As the girlfriend of American biathlete Tim Burke, Henkel has spent some time training in the U.S. over the past few years. The travel is undoubtedly long, but according to Neuner, crossing the Atlantic is like taking a vacation,
since in America, the Germans don’t have to contend with their country’s rabid fans and press.
“It’s really relaxed here,” Neuner said. “In Germany, we have a lot of people, and a lot of media.”
Neuner, 24, and Goessner, 20, are of a different generation from Henkel, and Goessner, especially, is a relative newcomer to the German squad.
An erratic shooter, Goessner didn’t qualify for the nation’s Olympic team for biathlon last year. But she’s so fast on her skis—on Friday, she had the best course time by 14 seconds—that she ended up going to Vancouver with the German cross-country skiers.
She has a silver medal in her closet from the relay to show for it, but returned to the biathlon circuit this season and promptly racked up two podiums in the opening World Cups in Sweden.
Her accuracy deserted her through January—a month in which Goessner finished no higher than 17th—but it was sufficient again on Friday.
In the press conference, Goessner said that she benefits from training with Neuner and Henkel, “because they shoot faster and better.”
But Jan Wuestenfeld, the German team doctor, said that the German women also benefited from good conditions on course—unlike Norway’s Tora Berger, the fourth-place finisher, who had to contend with snow flurries that blew in towards the end of the race and slowed the course.
According to reporters from NRK, the Norwegian national broadcaster, the conditions cost Berger some 10 seconds on her last of three 2.5-kilometer loops, which would have pushed her down from second place.
“Obviously, we were lucky,” Wuestenfeld said. “Tora, she had absolutely no chance on her last lap.”
Studebaker, on the other hand, started in the middle of the field. She, along with her teammate Laura Spector, was sporting glove liners to keep her hands warm, but other than that, she had nothing special to say about the weather.
For Studebaker, the 17th place was another example that she’s stepped her racing up a notch. Prior to this season, she’d never finished higher than 34th; this year, she already has five top-30s.
“It has definitely been a breakthrough,” she said. “A little bit shocking, but at the same time, it didn’t feel like anything unattainable when we were training this summer and fall.”
With a month to go until the 2011 World Championships in Siberia, Studebaker’s shooting can’t get much better than it was on Friday—she shot clean, and was 29th-fastest getting into and out of the range.
She said that her skiing still has a little bit of room to improve, and her coach, Jonne Kahkonen, said that on a perfect day, Studebaker could break into the top 10 in Russia. The real target, though, is the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, he said.
“For sure, it’s not realistic for a medal right now,” said Kahkonen. “We have to remember where we started from, in the beginning of the season…Sochi—that should be the goal.”
Women’s racing continues on Saturday with a pursuit. All six North Americans who started Friday’s sprint qualified, in part thanks to a field that was a mere 56 athletes. (The top 60 athletes in sprints make the cut for the ensuing pursuit.)
With her eighth-place finish, Finland’s Kaisa Makarainen retook the yellow bib of overall World Cup leader from Sweden’s Helena Ekholm, who had wrested it away after last week’s races in Fort Kent. Makarainen now leads by eight points over Ekholm, but Henkel’s finish on Friday helped her creep back into contention–she now has 639 points to Makarainen’s 664. Berger is fourth, with 609.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.