Sara Studebaker could not have picked a better day for it all to come together.
Thanks to clean shooting and a strong day on her skis, the 26-year-old American raced to a career-best 14th place in front of a home crowd in northern Maine, for what U.S. Biathlon staff called the top women’s World Cup result for an American in at least five years, if not a decade.
In the 7.5 k sprint in Presque Isle on Friday, Studebaker ended up exactly one minute down to Helena Ekholm, who won the race with clean shooting in front of Norway’s Tora Berger and Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko.
Studebaker had shot clean in two other races this year, but took her skiing up a notch on Friday to best her previous top finish by seven places.
“I knew I was capable of it,” she said of her performance in the range. “It’s just nice to do it on a home field…I feel like there’s still a few weeks until World Championships, and I still have a little bit more to gain there, but it’s great—I feel like it’s coming on.”
Studebaker led a five-strong contingent of North Americans in the sprint, with Haley Johnson (USA) in 42nd, Rosanna Crawford (CAN) in 46th, Laura Spector (USA) in 52nd, and Claude Godbout in 54th.
Both Studebaker and Spector were enthusiastic about the opportunity to race in the U.S. front of a home crowd, which included hundreds of schoolchildren with flags and signs.
“All these little kids out here screaming our names, and screaming for USA—it’s awesome,” Studebaker said. “It’s a little bit distracting when you come into the shooting range—you definitely have to focus and take a breath and block it all out—but I think I did a really good job of that today, and I’m really happy with the performance.”
Crawford, however, wasn’t as excited—she said it took longer for her to get to northern Maine than it would have to get to Europe, thanks to a six-hour delay trying to fly out of Alberta.
The Europeans, meanwhile, simply took what they were given. While the Presque Isle venue is not as “crazy with the spectators,” Ekholm said that it’s nice to experience both frenetic and lower-key venues. And in the end, it’s still racing.
“Shooting range feels like the same, and tracks are almost the same,” she said.
Berger, in her typical blunt fashion, put it a little differently.
“Everything is really fine here, but it feels like a Norwegian championships,” she said.
With the victory, Ekholm moved past Finland’s Kaisa Makarainen in the overall World Cup standings, with two months to go before the end of the season. Like the men, women will compete next on Saturday, in a mixed relay that features two athletes from each sex on a team for each country.
Then, individual racing continues with a pursuit on Sunday, when Studebaker will have a chance to continue her run—she starts one minute behind Ekholm, based on results from Friday.
“It’s really exciting for the pursuit, because it’s tight…she can move up,” said Per Nilsson, one of the American coaches.
He noted that Studebaker’s performance was especially impressive given that almost all of the top female biathletes on the World Cup circuit were present—not like on the men’s side, “where you have some of the strongest resting and preparing.”
“Today, you had…all the best women here,” he said.
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.