Is it possible that Magdalena Neuner has checked out of biathlon?
The German biathlete – who recently announced that she would retire at the end of the season at the young age of 24, and held a huge press conference to discuss her decision – slipped from first to third in Saturday’s World Cup pursuit. True, she had two penalties, but so did winner Darya Domracheva of Belarus. And true, she only lost by three seconds, but the Neuner of old would have outsprinted her competitors.
Neuner, however, explained her performance in a different way. She has said that she is focusing on World Championships, which will be held in Ruhpolding in March.
“The power was not there today, but as I have previously said, I am not quite in top form yet,” Neuner said in a press conference today. “However, I am headed in that direction and in a good place now. My running was good today, I finished third and being so close to Darya is not so bad.”
She has a point. It was the fifth World Cup win for the Belorussian, and the second this season. Domracheva had the fastest ski time of the day.
“The other girls are very strong and that made last loop very hard for me,” she said in the press conference. “Most importantly, sometimes the power of your mind is as important as the power in your body. That is what carried me to the finish.”
Olga Zaitseva of Russia moved from third up to second, just 0.3 seconds behind Domracheva.
Zina Kocher of Canada, who has had a strong start to the 2012 season, started the pursuit with bib 33. After missing a shot in each prone stage, she cleaned in standing and skied up to 23rd place.
“I’m really happy with my shooting today,” Kocher told FasterSkier. “Shooting well is really crucial to moving up in a pursuit. And cleaning standing and skipping the penalty lap is such a great feeling!”
Only one woman, Anna Bogaliy-Titovets of Russia, cleaned all four stages and six women had a single penalty, meaning that Kocher’s shooting was among the best in the field. But despite the lack of clean sheets, the Canadian said that conditions were perfect.
“Pursuits are a difficult mental game, because you are around so many athletes skiing, and so many are shooting all at once that it is easy to be caught up in the excitement,” Kocher said to explain the stats.
“First you want to keep up and pass others around you and ski fast, but if you have gone too hard, you may find shooting incredibly difficult with a high heart rate and high lactate, and be distracted by someone shooting faster or cleaner than you…. It is very important to stay in control.”
Kocher did just that, and continued to produce vastly improved results over last season. She is currently ranked 24th in the overall World Cup.
“What is most important is that today gave me a lot of confidence and a reminder that, oh yah, I do know how to flip the targets to white when it matters most,” she said.
Kocher was the only Canadian who qualified for the pursuit, but tomorrow the Canucks will field a full relay team with Kocher, Rosanna Crawford, Megan Imrie, and Megan Heinicke.
Two Americans competed in the pursuit, and despite wildly different start numbers, Susan Dunklee (bib 37) and Sara Studebaker (bib 58) finished just under five seconds apart in 43rd and 44th places.
Dunklee had a rough time on the shooting range, missing three shots in each of the prone stages. By the time she had finished two loops, she had dropped to 54th.
“In prone I never found my rhythm or my focus,” Dunklee wrote in an e-mail. “I wasted a lot of time on the mat and had slow shooting times compared to normal. I’ve had plenty of races in the past where I’ve gotten off to a rough start in the range but pulled it together for a strong finish, and I was confident I could turn things around in standing today.”
She did – after collecting a single penalty in her first standing stage and cleaning the second, Dunklee was able to move up to 43rd.
She also had some added motivation at the end of the race.
“Coming out of the penalty loops after the second lap, I saw the race leaders coming into the range for their third shooting and I realized I was battling just to finish the race,” Dunklee said. “I really don’t like the idea of getting pulled from a race.”
Rather than getting lapped and consequently pulled from the race, Dunklee turned on the afterburners. It also helped that she caught up to Studebaker, who had passed her during the first loop.
“We connected at the start of the last lap and worked together to past three women together before the finish,” Dunklee wrote.
Just like last weekend in Sweden, Studebaker was able to improve in the pursuit after a frustrating sprint. She felt like she was missing the form that brought her top-20 finishes and a 34th-place overall ranking.
“The race today was a definite step in the right direction for me,” Studebaker told FasterSkier. “Today the skiing was much better; having so many people so close together made it easy to catch rides with other skiers, which certainly helped. I know there’s still another level for me to reach, though, so being patient in making that happen is my focus for now.”
The American women are looking forward to tomorrow’s relay, where Dunklee and Studebaker will be joined by Laura Spector and Tracy Barnes. Barnes was originally nominated to the IBU Cup team for this period of racing, but with sister Lanny, who was named to the World Cup squad, falling ill, Tracy was pulled up for the relay.
“The relay tomorrow will be fun,” Studebaker said. “We didn’t have the chance to do many last year, so we’re all really excited to get a relay start so early. I think if we all have a solid day on the range we can have a good result, but either way it will just be fun to do a race as a team!”