And The Most Improbable Comeback Award Goes To… The German Women

Chelsea LittleMarch 14, 2011
Sara Studebaker (USA) en route to tagging off in eighth place after the first leg of the women's 4 x 6 k relay in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. Photo: courtesy of USBA.

Going into Sunday’s women’s 4 x 6 k relay, there had been plenty of excitement already in this year’s biathlon World Championships.

What could top Emil Hegle Svendsen’s furious attack in the last few hundred meters of the previous day’s mass start? Or how could there be a performance more dominating than Helena Ekholm’s two-minute victory in the individual race?

Well. The fans in Khanty-Mansiysk didn’t realize it, but they were about to see something that was both as exciting and as dominating all rolled into one, and it was set to come from Magdalena Neuner, the 24-year-old German who had already won two gold medals from this Championships and five from previous years.

The women’s relay started out like any other race this week: with the Russian flags held by spectators in the stadium blowing sideways in the strong, gusty wind. The competitors took note – but they still suffered in the first prone shooting stage, when a surprise group consisting of Slovakia, Ukraine, and Russia left in the lead.

The trio worked together for the next loop, then all missed targets in standing, sometimes disastrously so. Ekaterina Yurlova of Russia, for instance, used three spare rounds and still skied three penalty loops. The lead was now taken over by Italy and the Czech Republic, who had cleaned their targets with no difficulty.

Valj Semerenko of Ukraine and Andrea Henkel of Germany, however, weren’t content to let things sit – they both passed Veronica Vitkova of the Czech Republic and made a move on Michela Ponza of Italy. But the Italian veteran showed a feistiness that her competitors might not have been expecting. When Semerenko drew alongside her to pass, she took off, and had a small three-second lead going into the tag.

Karin Oberhofer couldn’t carry on Ponza’s good work, and was immediately passed by Vita Semerenko (Valj’s twin sister) and Miriam Gössner of Germany. Gössner led alone into the range, but her work on skis turned out to be for naught, as she used two spare rounds and watched Semerenko leave without her.

Also in trouble on the range? Home team Russia, whose Anna Bogaliy-Titovets matched Yurlova’s errors and hit the penalty loop three times, dropping the squad to a humiliating 19th place.

The second Semerenko led into the range for standing, and while she only used one spare round, she took 42 seconds to shoot – one of the slowest times of the entire field. As a result, her accuracy was overshadowed and she slipped to second place behind Darya Domracheva of Belarus.

The Olympic bronze medalist was not going to give up the lead – she turned in the second-fastest last-loop time and handed her teammate Nadzeya Pisareva an 18-second lead of Ukraine.

By the next handoff, the two Eastern European teams had widened their lead to nearly a minute over France and Germany. It seemed like the race was turning into a yawn, with the only potential battle set for bronze.

But it slowly became clear that there was plenty of action still to come.

Oksana Khvostenko cleaned her prone stage, leaving the Ukrainian with a clear lead over Liudmila Kalinchik of Belarus. Marie Dorin of France and Magdalena Neuner of Germany both also missed a target, and were still a minute behind.

In the next kilometer, the pair worked together to cut twenty seconds out of Khvostenko’s lead. By the time the entered the standing shooting stage, they had made up another 20 seconds and shot side by side with Kalinchik, who crumbled under the pressure, used all three spare rounds, and still headed to the penalty loop. Belarus, which had appeared to have a medal wrapped up just four kilometers earlier, now had no chance.

When Neuner and Dorin left the range for the last time with two kilometers of racing remaining, the German upped her game even more. The pair had worked together to great effect, but Neuner now struck out on her own, clearly on the warpath with Khvostenko in her sights.

The 33-year-old Ukrainian had been part of two medal-winning relay teams at previous World Championships events, but appeared slow and ungainly compared to Neuner. Perhaps she was not at her best; earlier this week, she sat out the individual race due to illness. For whatever the reason, she was not able to stay ahead of Neuner’s charge.

The pass came on a long, awkward downhill, which was gradual enough to require the women to free-skate for quite some time. Neuner later said that her skis were faster than the Ukrainian’s, and she sailed by, passing the Khvostenko in one easy go and coming into the finishing stretch with a 100-meter lead. She began smiling far before that, seemingly unable to believe that she had erased more than a deficit of over a minute and passed three teams en route to her third gold medal of the Championships.

“At first I did not think about the gold medal,” Neuner said in a press conference.

“I thought, ‘okay it is a silver medal.’ Then the Ukraine was just before me and I knew it was not very far to get the gold medal. I had very good skis and on the downhill I came nearer and then I knew I could get the gold medal. It was a great feeling.”

Despite losing what seemed like an insurmountable lead, Khvostenko stopped to grab a Ukrainian flag from the crowd and carried it across the finish line 24 seconds later, much to the delight of her teammates who, while disappointed to lose the gold, still seemed elated to repeat their silver-medal performance from 2008.

And 23 seconds after that, an exhausted Dorin coasted across the line to capture bronze, repeating her French team’s performance from the 2009 World Championships.

While Neuner’s will be the performance that everyone remembers from the relay, the glory could have belonged to Ukraine – while the team faltered on skis in the last leg, they had an astonishingly good day on the range, using only four spare rounds over eight shooting stages.

After a strong scramble leg from Sara Studebaker, who tagged off in eighth, the U.S. women began a downhill slide. Laura Spector dropped the team to 12th, more than two minutes back. Then Annelies Cook used all of her spare rounds in both stages and still hit the penalty loop twice, moving back to 15th. Haley Johnson, who also suffered on the range and visited the penalty loop once, was quick on her skis, posting the seventh-fastest anchor leg time, but still only gained a single spot in the rankings.

“I don’t think any of us are satisfied with the end result, but we all did what we could today and it was a really solid effort,” Studebaker told FasterSkier. “At the Olympics, we were 17th, so this is a step in the right direction.  he wind was getting stronger too as the race went on, and I think some of the later legs really struggled with that.”

As for her own performance, Studebaker was pleased.

“I feel really good about my relay leg today. I felt pretty strong skiing and was happy to use only two extra rounds. It was also a lot of fun out there- in my last loop I was able to pass two or three girls and move us up a little more, so it was great to see that my skiing is still strong after a long couple weeks here. It was a really good way for me to end the Championships.”

Chelsea Little

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