Sunday’s 10 k pursuit in Ostersund, Sweden was set up to be a barnburner from the moment the previous day’s sprint ended.
With Olympic and World Champions Tora Berger and Magdalena Neuner separated by just 0.2 seconds and last year’s overall World Cup winner Kaisa Makarainen lurking 15 seconds behind, there was no doubt that things would get exciting.
Germany’s Neuner and Norway’s Berger skied the first lap together, a study in contrasting styles. Berger’s short, choppy aggression and high tempo were matched by Neuner’s smooth, powerful strides, and by pushing each other the pair notched the fastest opening laps on the day.
All three women shot clean in prone, and Makarainen of Finland soon skied her way up to the two leaders. By the middle of the second lap, the trio was working together at a furious pace which nobody else in the field could match.
But in the second prone stage, Berger was the only one of the three to clean. She headed out onto the course while the German and the Finn hit the penalty loop – and proceeded to have the fastest third loop in the entire field even though she already held a roughly 30-second lead.
From then on, the question of who might win wasn’t very interesting. Berger dominated, skiing faster than any other woman in the field . Out of her two standing shooting stages, she only missed a single shot. Berger is known for her skiing – she recently finished in the top five in a cross country World Cup race – so when she shoots that well, it’s game over.
Behind her, Neuner, who had won her 25th World Cup just a day before, was quietly imploding.
By cleaning the first standing stage while Neuner missed two shots, Makarainen took the lead and headed out onto the trails by herself. She, too, was never again in doubt of her position – despite missing a shot in her last stage, she still finished over 50 seconds ahead of Neuner.
After the two penalties, it appeared that Neuner might be out of the race. On the next lap she looked tired and appeared to be uncharacteristically dragging. But the champion managed to pull it together for her last stage, in which she only missed one shot, and then proceeded to turn on the afterburners.
“I was a little tired today,” Neuner admitted in a press conference after the race. “I need a little break, so I will go home for a day and see my family.”
For a period during the last two kilometer loop, Neuner was battling Valj Semerenko of Ukraine and Svetlana Sleptsova of Russia. Coaches ran along the side of the trail screaming; the women churned at the loose, fresh now in the trail, trying for all they were worth to break away from one another.
“It was very hard on the tracks,” Berger said in a press conference. “The uphills were deep and the rest was very slow.”
And even though Neuner had looked like toast before, she was the one who managed to do it. By the finish she had put several seconds into Semerenko, while Sleptsova brought in fifth place.
Most of the North American women moved down in the pursuit, not up, foiled by shooting woes. Zina Kocher of Canada started in 15th position, within striking distance of the top ten, but she missed six shots and wound up 24th instead.
“Frustrating day,” she wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “I wanted more today. Unfortunately, my first prone the whole group was high… and then my first standing, all the misses were splits. So all very close, just bad luck! I definitely was a bit nervous today and that could have cost me those precious shots!”
Overall, Kocher is off to a strong start and is currently ranked 24th in the overall World Cup standings. Two teammates also competed in the pursuit: Megan Imrie, who dropped from 33rd to 43rd, and Rosanna Crawford, who improved from 55th to 51st.
On the American side, Susan Dunklee again led the team, although she slipped from 28th to 32nd thanks to five missed shots.
“I skied first lap with [Tina] Bachmann, as she started immediately ahead of me,” Dunklee told FasterSkier. “Three quarters of way through first lap, I realized I was really tired and that the rest of the race was going to hurt.”
It was Dunklee’s first pursuit at the World Cup level and she thought she adjusted well to the pressure.
“I’ve always struggled with shooting in pursuits in the past- entering the range in a big pack is very exciting and distracting,” she said. “Cleaning the first stage was a huge confidence boost for me, especially because I had pushed hard on the skis.”
While Dunklee was doing penalty loops after her third shooting stage, she found teammate Sara Studebaker, who was quietly skiing from 46th up to 39th.
“I was so tired at that point, I struggled to focus on the targets,” Dunklee said. “Skiing around her helped me get back into my rhythm.”
Studebaker was pleased to have moved up in the pursuit and scored her first World Cup points of the season.
“My shooting was right on,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I’ve been feeling good on the range all week, so it was nice to actually put it together in the race. The skiing was tough today. There was a huge snowstorm right after the men’s race that laid down a bunch of fresh, slow snow. Everyone was struggling with the skiing conditions, I think.”
Studebaker, who had a breakout season last year and finished ranked 34th in the overall World Cup, has had a slow start in Ostersund. But she wasn’t worried.
“I’ve had a couple solid weeks of training leading into these World Cups, which didn’t make me super fresh and fast for this weekend, but laid a good base for later in the season,” she explained. “Now I’m just focusing on the coming weeks and going by my feel more for training to get where I want to be ski wise. Being patient is sometimes very hard for us athletes, but I learned a long time ago that you have to believe in the plan!”