Part of every biathlete’s job is to manage conditions on the range, which includes making adjustments for the wind.
But there are days when the wind makes that all but impossible and the weather seems to be laughing in the face of the world’s best shooters. Wednesday in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, was just such a day, with only a single woman in the World Championships field shooting clean, and most shooting quite far from it.
“Today was one of those luck of the draw type races because of strong gusts of wind that were sometimes left, sometimes right and sometimes from behind,” said Canadian biathlete Zina Kocher.
Even the best women struggled: overall World Cup leader Kaisa Makarainen of Finland missed seven shots and Ann Kristin Flatland of Norway, who won a World Cup earlier this season, ten, or half of her opportunities.
And in an individual race, each missed shot is penalized with a minute of added time, so that’s not such great news. Makarainen finished 28th and Flatland 82nd.
Helena Ekholm of Sweden, on the other hand, was that one lucky woman who didn’t let the wind boss her around. Besides being the best shooter on the day, she had the fifth-fastest ski time, and as a result won the 15 k race by a whopping two minutes and fifteen seconds.
Going into today’s race, Ekholm was cautious about the conditions, which had included a violent snowstorm earlier in the morning.
“It made me a little bit nervous, because I thought today was going to be hard to shoot and be a little bit like a lottery,” she said in a press conference. “I tried to focus on the competition and made my best.”
Luckily, Ekholm has plenty of experience focusing on the competition. It was the third World Championships gold medal of her career, and especially meaningful after a disappointing Olympics last season.
But even for a woman who is clearly one of the world’s best, today’s performance was impressive.
“It was a perfect race,” Swedish head coach Wolfgang Pichler told the Expressen newspaper. “She was so focused on the shooting range. She waited and shot well. It was so difficult to shoot today. Four zeros are great.”
Behind her, the rest of the women fought it out to fill the podium. But they were fighting the wind more than each other: tenth place was two and a half minutes behind second place, with times spreading due both to the unusual number of penalties and the longer shooting times as the women tried to wait out the wind. (Ekholm told Expressen that she had “bone pain” from standing in the shooting position for so long, waiting for the wind to give her a decent shot.)
Tina Bachman of Germany finished second; it was her first World Championships race at the senior level, and she received a medal. Vita Semerenko of Ukraine rounded out the podium in third.
Sara Studebaker used patience to achieve the best U.S. result of the Championships, finishing 17th with two penalties.
“From the beginning I knew shooting well could really give you an advantage, as is true in any individual because of the time penalty, but especially today because the conditions were so tricky,” she told FasterSkier. “I spent quite a bit of time in the range waiting for the wind gusts to die down, and in the end my patience paid off.”
In her first shooting stage, she spent 48 seconds – an eternity in biathlon – hitting all five targets. But while that was 22 more seconds than the fastest shooter, it was still a good move, since she avoided the minute of penalty time each missed shot would have cost her. In the next stage, she took 51 seconds to shoot, but still missed a shot.
Studebaker’s skiing helped her too; she had the 22nd-fastest finishing loop.
“Skiing was okay for me, definitely not my best though,” she said. “It took me a few loops to get into a good rhythm and find my pace, but once I did I was able to have a solid last couple loops. There were a lot of girls out there, and it was good for me to be able to try and stick with some of the better ones. I haven’t yet had a 15 k where I’ve felt my pacing and skiing were really good, but I’m working on it and I think each race I do I learn a little more about how I can improve.”
The other Americans were not so lucky; Laura Spector missed 6 shots to finish 44th, while Annelies Cook and Haley Johnson had seven and eight penalties to finish four seconds apart in 67th and 68th. While today’s results were in part simply bad luck, as winds were gustier at some times than others, it was emblematic of a less-than-satisfying week for the U.S. women.
“I think overall the women haven’t been too psyched with our World Championships performance, but we are all really looking forward to the relay,” Studebaker said. “We have proven our strength already this year and the coaches and athletes all see that… It’s very exciting for all of us and I know the coaches are pleased with the season, even if this week hasn’t exactly been representative for us!”
For herself, though, Studebaker said that it “definitely felt good” to hit the top twenty after disappointing results earlier in the series.
Kocher, the only Canadian women competing in Khanty-Mansiysk, “did what [she] could” and finished 43rd with seven penalties.
“I Focused on skiing as fast as I could and when shooting, not stopping for a tea party and wasting time but just going for it with whatever I was given,” she told FasterSkier.
“I had a good ski time especially on my last lap, but seven misses is too many even on a day like today. Obviously I felt very disappointed with the result, but to be honest when I looked at the scoreboard I was relieved to see that even the previous day’s medalists had six to ten misses too… that’s biathlon, it’s not straightforward day after day. It’s a wonderful sport but it can definitely tie you in a knot of frustration with its complexity.”
Like the U.S. women, Kocher has been disappointed with her results at World Championships so far. But she was able to see a silver lining in the fact that her skiing has improved from earlier in the season. On Wednesday, she had the 22nd-fastest ski time in the field.
“I changed a lot of my original training plan since Christmas in order try to pick up my physical ski speed by March and this was successful,” she said. “My skiing has been much faster these races than any other time this season and I feel the best I’ve felt all season. So this is a success. That’s what I was aiming for, a peak! I haven’t been able to say I’ve actually peaked in a long time.”
Women’s racing continues on Saturday with a mass start, although no North American women qualified to compete in it. The U.S. team will contest the relay on Sunday.