Despite coming off of a successful World Championships in which they led the count with eight medals (including two relay golds), the Norwegian team was unable to keep their hot streak going when the World Cup landed on home turf in Oslo.
At Holmenkollen Stadium on Thursday, the best the team could muster was a second-place finish by Tora Berger in the women’s 7.5 k sprint. She finished over 30 seconds behind Magdalena Neuner of Germany, even though both racers had a single shooting penalty.
“I would like to have a win here at Holmenkollen, but Neuner is in really good shape now so it will be hard,” Berger said in a press conference after the race.
On the men’s side, overall World Cup leader Tarjei Boe missed four targets in the standing stage, much to the crowd’s dismay. He spent almost a minute and a half in the penalty loop – and when the top four finishers all shoot clean, that’s hard to overcome. He finished 44th overall, and didn’t accumulate a single World Cup point.
His teammate, veteran Ole Einar Bjorndalen, skied uncharacteristically slowly, notching only the 20th-best ski time of the day. He finished 13th overall. Only Emil Hegle Svendsen and Lars Berger were able to crack the top ten, finishing sixth and tenth with one and two penalties respectively.
Instead, the Germans owned the podium, with Andreas Birnbacher collecting his first World Cup win and Alexander Wolf finishing third. Birnbacher did not met the press after the race, but Wolf did, saying that the podium held particular meaning to him as it has come at the end of a rough season.
“It has not been my best year,” he said. “I did not make the team for the World Championships, so I stayed at home and trained. After that, it is great to be on the podium.”
While the Germans are a biathlon powerhouse and won only one fewer medal than the Norwegians last week, it was perhaps more of a slap in the face that the Swedes placed two men in the top five, both ahead of the home team’s top finisher. Bjorn Ferry finished second, just ten seconds behind Birnbacher, and 21-year-old Fredrik Lindstrom finished fifth.
For the Americans, results today were a mixed bag. Three athletes made the top 30, which is one of the better team results recently – especially considering that at the recent World Championships, the best teams were only allowed to start four athletes, rather than the five or six allowed in World Cup competition. But the other four racers didn’t make the top 60, and as a result won’t get to race again in Oslo.
Tim Burke led the team in 21st. He had two penalties and skied the 21st-fastest course time, ending up just over a minute and a half behind Birnbacher. However, with large time gaps at the top of the results sheet – Wolf was over forty seconds behind his winning teammate – Burke is still in a good position for Saturday’s pursuit. He sits only 25 seconds behind tenth-place Berger, or just over a penalty loop back.
“It was a really hard race on a tough course today,” Burke said in a USBA press release, echoing the sentiments of so many skiers two weeks ago. “The snow was quite slow, so skiing was tough. But I am really motivated now to show some great last races so I’ll continue to give everything!”
Haley Johnson and Sara Studebaker finished 22nd and 23rd, one of the best days for the women’s team in recent history. They each had one penalty, and will start the pursuit separated by approximately one second.
“Today’s race definitely was my best result of the season, and the best in over a year,” Johnson told FasterSkier.
For Studebaker, 23rd wasn’t a season-best – she finished 17th in the individual at World Championships last week – but nonetheless exciting.
“I definitely felt a bit tired from all the racing and travel of the past few weeks, but I was really happy with my effort,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Again I was able to have a really solid last loop, and with only one penalty I’m very pleased with my shooting. This is a tough course and the wind was tricky today. I feel much better now than I did last year at this time and that makes me feel really good about my overall fitness.”
For the women, today’s results had added significance: it was the last race scored for Nations Cup points, and the U.S. locked up 15th place.
“I am able to be [in Oslo] because of a discretionary decision to bring three women instead of just two to the final World Cup to secure our 15th team position,” Johnson explained. “This international ranking will guarantee us four start spots on the World Cup next year, instead of three… This is a great accomplishment for the women of USBA. I am very grateful for this opportunity and I am glad I have been able to make the most of it.”
The U.S. women started the season off ranked 20th, which was unfortunate given a rules change over the summer. In an effort to reduce field sizes, the IBU changed quota sizes and divided countries into six classes instead of five. As a result, the U.S. lost a start spot – but over the course of the 2010-2011 season, the women have pulled themselves up to 15th, the lowest ranking in the next tier up.
“[The] women now have four starts in the World Cup for next year – that is great news!” wrote U.S. Biathlon Association President and CEO Max Cobb.
It’s an especially impressive accomplishment because in the beginning of the season, USBA only sent two women to the World Cup – so they didn’t even have three women to score points. At the time, it seemed like this would hinder the acquisition of a fourth starting position, but with Studebaker and Laura Spector each notching top-30 finishes, starting a mass start, and generally having the best seasons of their careers, they were able to do it anyway.
Spector struggled today, missing six shots and finishing 72nd. On the whole, the U.S. athletes were separated by a wide gulf: three had good or even exceptional races, and the rest failed to finish in the top 60, the cutoff for Saturday’s pursuit. For the men, Leif Nordgren finished an agonizing 61st, only 0.1 seconds away from a spot in the pursuit. Lowell Bailey finished 74th and Jay Hakkinen 84th.
The Canadians had a frustrating day with the only two starters, Brendan Green and Scott Perras finishing 62nd and 64th, one and six seconds away from qualifying for the pursuit.