Was U.S. biathlon head coach Per Nilsson enthusiastic about his team’s relay finish at World Championships on today?
“BEST EVER!” he wrote in an e-mail on Friday evening. “[It’s] fun to show that we have a team that can fight on the highest level in the world.”
While the entire team had a strong performance in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, on Friday – leadoff skier Lowell Bailey tagged off in fifth place – Leif Nordgren was again the hero, skiing the fastest anchor leg and passing Olympic medalists Michael Greis of Germany and Christoph Sumann of Austria en route to a photo finish for fifth place.
In the end, Nordgren came up short – he finished just two hundredths of a second behind Markus Windisch of Italy, and the U.S. had to be content with sixth.
Not that they had a hard time doing that.
“We have had better World Cup finishes, but it’s the best World Championships finish ever for the men’s relay!” wrote an ecstatic Max Cobb, President and CEO of the U.S. Biathlon Association.
In addition to finishing higher than any other U.S. team in history, the Americans were a mere ten seconds away from the podium, surely the closest they’ve ever come to earning a team medal.
Lowell Bailey started out the historic day for the U.S. It was a hectic mass start, with at least three crashes or tangles in the first kilometer. Then on the second loop, Bailey broke a pole.
Despite using three spare rounds – a number which in most relays would have been hugely detrimental – Bailey handed off in fifth place. His success was in part thanks to his third-fastest ski time of all the scramble skiers, but also because a number of other teams struggled on the range as well – of the twenty-two teams which finished, only eight used fewer than three spare rounds on the first leg.
When Jay Hakkinen took over, he used three spare rounds in prone. Once again, this would usually be the death knell for a U.S. (or any other) relay, but today, the team only dropped to eighth. Over the rest of the leg, Hakkinen was able to claw his way back into seventh, only forty seconds behind the leader.
Next up for the U.S., Tim Burke turned in the fourth-fastest last loop; in combination with his two spare rounds in standing, the team dropped back to eighth, just over a minute behind Norway and Germany.
Nordgren was the U.S. anchor, and all eyes were on the 21-year-old, who had been having an exceptional World Championships so far. With two top-thirty finishes, he was the only American qualified for the mass start the next day.
After the prone shooting, Nordgren had used two spares – a painful pair, after missing his one remaining target with the first spare and having to try again. The same thing happened in standing, and the U.S. was sitting in eighth place still.
“I missed my first extra in both prone and standing,” Nordgren told FasterSkier. “Of course it’s a bummer, and a little frustrating, but you just have to put that behind you and focus on the next shot. There’s really no time to think about it.”
Instead of thinking, he put in a furious charge over the last 2.5 kilometers.
“Leaving the range, I was in eighth place, right behind Austria and a few seconds down from Germany,” he said. “Italy was about 18 seconds ahead. I wasn’t quite sure what to do, I didn’t even know what place I was in so I just pushed a little and caught up to Germany and decided to wait. I skied with him for almost the entire last loop.”
Nilsson was proud of his youngest athlete.
“Leif took down Greis and Sumann on the last loop and was amazing,” he said.
But Nordgren wasn’t done yet.
“Going into the final uphill was the first time I even saw the Italian. He looked like he was hurting, so I went for it. I made a big push and caught him about 100 meters before the finish. But I made my sprint for the line just a little late, and it came a little faster than I anticipated.”
In the end, he was two hundredths of a second behind Windisch, in what Cobb said was the closest finish on the World Cup this season.
“We actually finished sixth, [but] they put us in fifth for a couple of minutes after the finish,” Nordgren said. “Then I guess they took a closer look at the photo and bumped us back. That’s alright though, we’ll survive. I’ve never been in a photo finish before so that was really cool! To come up on the losing side is a bummer of course, but its just a race, there will be more.”
While Nordgren’s performance was the highlight of the day, it took four solid legs to get him to where he finished: the best U.S. result at World Championships, ever.
The U.S. also placed sixth in the relay at the 1972 Olympics.
Canadians Solid in 11th
While the Canadians have had better races, their eleventh-place finish was still deemed a success.
“As a whole, this was a very good performance,” said third-leg skier Jean-Phillipe Leguellec. “It was a very tight relay today and each of our legs were in the heat of the action. We ended up using only six spare rounds, and finished 1:36 behind the leading team… Even the relay where we came in seventh, two years ago, we were 4:30 back and did a penalty loop! I guess that just shows exactly how different one race can be to another and how much shooting can change everything.”
The team put in a steady effort, with Brendan Green, Scott Perras, and Leguellec handing off after each of the first three legs in ninth place.
Green in particular had some excitement on the trails, as he scrambled in the hectic mass start.
“That seems to be how the relay starts more or less typically are,” he told FasterSkier of the chaos. “I think because the bigger climbs weren’t until the last third of the loop, the pack was able to stay a little tighter than normal which resulted in more broken poles and mix ups than usual.”
Green had one of the slowest shooting times in the prone stage, but said that it was all part of the plan.
“The two previous races of the Championships for myself did not go well at all, so I was really focused on today and wanted to finish the week off with a solid performance,” he explained. “I’ve been struggling in the range lately with my prone shooting, so today I needed to take my time in the range for the first bout of shooting and be sure of my shots. My slow prone meant I had to play catch up, but I was confident in my standing and was able to shoot clean and catch back up.”
Perras used two spare rounds in prone, but then cleaned standing with no extra shots.
“We were the closest we had ever been to the leaders in a World Cup relay so to do this at a World Championships is great,” he said in a Biathlon Canada press release. “Being 10th at the Olympics and 11th at Worlds shows we can be with the best on a good day.”
Leguellec used one spare round and Nathan Smith two, dropping the team to 11th place.
Overall, the Canadians tied for the fewest number of spare rounds of any team in the field, something that everyone was proud of.
“As a team we shot very well which was exactly what we needed to do as a couple of the guys on the team aren’t feeling 100% at the moment,” Green said. “This way we were able to stay in the game the whole race. It was an exciting race from start to finish for us, with the time gap being tight for a relay, so all in all I think the team had fun out there and we are satisfied where we finished.”
“All in all we’re very happy with how our World Championships ended. It was a very satisfying team effort today and we can now move on to finishing the season.”