Youth Reigns Supreme As Germans Take World Championship Gold in Khanty-Mansiysk Sprints

Chelsea LittleMarch 5, 2011
Leif Nordgren leading the U.S. team with a 26th-place finish. Photo: courtesy of USBA.

In Thursday’s World Championship mixed relay in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, the Germans held a twenty-second lead going into the fourth leg. While the Norwegians weren’t going to go down without a fight – overall World Cup leader Tarjei Boe was anchoring the team – it seemed that veteran anchor Michael Greis had a good shot at giving his countrymen the first gold medal of the series.

Then he missed three shots, and the victory slipped away in just a matter of seconds.

But in the races today, Germany got its revenge, with Arnd Pfeiffer winning the men’s sprint and Magdalena Neuner the women’s.

“I think it is a really good day for Germany,” Neuner told IBU News. “Arnd and I are [born in 1987]. We are both very young and it is a great feeling. All of the men were in the top ten, and we said that would be hard to be as good as that. We are really happy and the Germans at home are happy!”

Neuner’s win came thanks to clean shooting. It is her sixth World Championships gold, and she said she was “lucky” to beat a similarly clean-shooting Kaisa Makarainen of Finland by 12 seconds; it was Makarainen’s first medal, which she called “cool.” Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia finished third.

Pfeiffer missed a single shot and led the race at every point. He also mentioned his age in a press conference.

“I am actually the oldest guy on the podium today I think something is changing in biathlon,” he said. “This is all unbelievable… I told someone that it would be nice if I could be in the top eight today that would be a nice race for me. But today, I had a good ski today and a good feeling and now I am World Champion. It is still hard to believe.”

Martin Fourcade of France and Boe of Norway finished second and third. It was the first individual World Championship medal for all three, although Fourcade won silver in the mass start at the Vancouver Olympics.

On the U.S. team, too, youth seemed to be a benefit. The Americans were led by 21-year-old Leif Nordgren, who after racing a strong leg in the mixed relay on Thursday kept his momentum going by collecting only a single penalty and skiing to 26th place – his first top-30 finish at the senior level.

When asked whether he had ever imagined that he would be leading the U.S. team, he still seemed to be wrapping his head around things.

“It feels pretty cool I guess,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I haven’t really thought about that part a whole lot. I’m just happy that I finally put a good race together. I’ve been struggling a lot in the sprint races all year, so this was really exciting to finally do it here at World Championships!”

Nordgren has been skiing faster and faster as of late – he had some of the top ski times in the relay at U26 Open European Championships and the fourth-fastest second-lap split among all anchor legs in the mixed relay. Today, he got off to a slow start in comparison – but it was all part of a plan.

“I think in the previous sprint races, I’ve been a little frantic in the shooting range,” he said. “So today I made sure to pace myself better for the first and seconds loops, and then go full gas on the last one. It payed off I’d say, I had a pretty good ski time, and a good last loop time too.

“The shooting I just took nice and slow and easy. It’s been very windy here, so it’s easy to shoot badly… I knew that if I wanted to to shoot well, slowing down would be a good idea.”

Nordgren was the top North American, but not by much. Teammates Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey placed 31st and 32nd, twelve and thirteen seconds behind. And Canadian Scott Perras was only a bit further back, finishing 34th.

Burke also had fast ski times, but was hampered by three penalties. While the performance wasn’t all that he was hoping for, he was able to pick out a few positives.

“Today was a good step for me after being sick for a long time,” he told FasterSkier. “Of course this is not the type of result that I am looking for, but it’s nice to at least be back in the game with ski speed.”

Burke was the third starter on the day, and didn’t have much feedback on his own performance. And while Pfeiffer said that he was lucky to come into the range when the wind was calm, Burke didn’t have the same experience.

“I ran into a lot of trouble in prone with the wind,” he explained. “It was super gusty and it was just an unfortunate time to come into the range. This is just how biathlon is sometimes. I have had plenty of days when the wind favored me and I’m sure I will have many more. The shooting conditions are very tricky here with high winds so I expect this to make things pretty interesting tomorrow.”

With Jay Hakkinen finishing 42nd, the Americans had a good day as a team, qualifying all four of their starters for Sunday’s pursuit. While Nordgren is the only one who had a standout race compared to expectations, each of the men left the door open for major improvements the next day. Nordgren will start a minute and a half behind Pfeiffer and Hakkinen only 45 seconds behind him.

For Perras, Khanty-Mansiysk is the third World Championships and so far the best. In 2008, his top finish was 75th; in 2009, it was 82nd.

Today was fun and it was good to start off World Championships with a bang,” he said. “I hope to build momentum with this result. Doing that would allow World Championships to be a success. [It] is a long event and it takes the right balance to be able to focus and relax at the right times. I am happy with the result and am excited for the Pursuit.”

The North American women didn’t find much success on the trail, with Sara Studebaker leading the U.S. in 48th place; Annelies Cook, in her World Championships debut, finished 57th, Haley Johnson 72nd, and Laura Spector 79th. Of the group, none collected fewer than two penalties. Zina Kocher, the lone Canadian, struggled mightily as well, missing five shots and placing 61st.

Cook was excited to be racing at World Championships.

“Today’s sprint race was my first World Championships race and just for that it was fantastic!” she wrote in an e-mail. “I hoped to do my best for everyone here and not here, and was definitely a bit apprehensive after not having raced anything big for quite some time. For me, the strategy was to not get too excited by the crowd and the atmosphere and just ski smooth and relaxed and I am happy because I did that. I would have liked to have a little more fire in my skiing, but I hope that I can get that with some racing under my belt.”

Full results: men / women

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Chelsea Little

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