Germany’s biathlon team is deep enough that most other countries have their hands full even when they field their best athletes. But in Saturday’s mixed relay, many only put forth their second string—and the result was predictable.
With a crowd of up to five million watching a rare prime-time broadcast back home, the German squad of Kathrin Hitzer, Magdalena Neuner, Alexander Wolf and Daniel Boehm raced to a convincing 30-second win in Presque Isle, ME, topping France and Russia.
The U.S. team was seventh—a decent result, but one that could have been better without a late collapse in the range by the anchor, Jeremy Teela. Canada was 12th of 12 teams, after struggling to overcome some lethargic skiing.
The mixed relay is a relative rarity on the World Cup—Saturday’s was only the second of the year for the circuit. Every country starts two men, then two women, with each taking two trips to the shooting range: prone, then standing.
To make the race more competitive, the athletes are allowed to use up to three extra rounds per shooting bout—in effect, giving them eight chances to hit five targets. Any targets still standing after eight shots, though, result in penalty loops, which don’t happen often.
With three races in three days in Presque Isle, a number of top athletes opted to skip the mixed relay, to stay fresh for Sunday’s pursuit. Out of the top five men’s and women’s finishers from Friday’s sprint, only two—Russia’s Ivan Tcherezov and Italy’s Michela Ponza—started on Saturday.
In Neuner and Hitzer, however, Germany ran two of its very best women. While the relay roster is ultimately a coach’s decision, Hitzer said, both she and Neuner wanted to race.
“I think tomorrow, on the track, I’ll think, ‘oh no, I feel the competition from yesterday!’ But the relay is always a cool race,” she said. “We traveled around half the world, and some are still having a little bit of a problem with jet lag. For me, it’s okay.”
As for Neuner, according to German team doctor Jan Wuestenfeld, “Magdalena wants to run every race.”
“She’s so strong, she can do it,” he said.
Wolf and Boehm are not exactly the cream of the crop of German men, but they’re both still decent; each has a World Cup podium to his name. As Wuestenfeld put it, “when you are in Germany, in the national team, you are a world-class biathlete.”
Combined with their female partners, Wolf and Boehm surely served as an appealing draw for the country’s biathlon-mad television audience.
Biathlon is rarely shown in prime time in Europe: during the race, U.S. Biathlon CEO Max Cobb told FasterSkier that “sports has its place, and it’s not now.” But according to Cobb, the Presque Isle schedule was shifted to move the mixed relay to Saturday, when the European Broadcast Union convinced its member stations to show the race in the evening. German television channels were hoping to draw as many as five million viewers; they had correspondents conducting trailside interviews with the team’s athletes even before the mixed relay had concluded.
“This is huge,” Cobb said.
From the start of the race, the Germans didn’t disappoint, with Hitzer going back and forth with France’s Marie Laure Brunet at the front. The two women each used just two spare rounds total, and finished their legs together, with Hitzer tagging to Neuner and Brunet tagging off to Sophie Boilley.
Neuner is among the very best biathletes on her skis, and she’s tough enough to beat even when she’s not shooting well. On Saturday, she was. Like Hitzer, she used just two spare rounds total, and when Boilley needed three on
the first stage alone, Neuner was gone. She skied into the transition alone, almost a full minute in front of all the chasers, and by that point, the Germans appeared to be set up either for a dominating win, or a devastating collapse.
As it happened, neither of those outcomes transpired. As France made a late push with some strong shooting—they needed just one spare round combined for third leg Vincent Jay and anchor Alexis Boeuf—both German men turned in serviceable performances to hold a lead that dwindled just enough to make things interesting.
Heading into the final shooting stage, Boehm was still roughly half a minute up on Boeuf, and hit four targets with his first five shots. When Boehm missed with his first extra round, he had the crowd—and likely the entire German nation—holding its breath. But everyone exhaled when he knocked over the final target with his next bullet.
“He can shoot very good, and very fast, and clean, but it was a lot of pressure for him, I think,” Hitzer said afterwards. “I know how it is to feel that.”
France skied in for a clear second place, thanks to the solid showings by Jay and Boeuf; Russia’s Maxim Tchoudov just bested Italy’s Christian de Lorenzi in a sprint to the finish.
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.