Remember all those Russian shenanigans about firing coaches, during which Olympic biathlon gold medalist Olga Zaitseva abruptly announced her retirement in disgust?
It’s a good thing that Zaitseva returned to biathlon, because recently she’s been on a tear. The 33-year-old Moscow native picked up her first win of the season on Friday in a 10 k sprint in Hochfilzen, Austria, to go along with two podium finishes from last weekend.
She’s now finished on the podium four times in seven starts, and that’s the way she likes it.
“I would like to be on the podium in all races,” she said in a press conference.
Wouldn’t everyone? But part of Zaitseva’s confidence comes from working with the new coach, Wolfgang Pichler, who came in to head up the women’s team after a fairly disastrous 2010-11 season. Pichler had worked with the Swedes for over a decade, and launched the careers of Magdalena Forsberg, Anna Carin Zidek, and Helena Ekholm.
“With the training schedule of our coach, we know that anything is possible,” Zaitseva said. “We have seen what he has done with his athletes before.”
While many athletes her age would not necessarily jump on the chance to completely reconsider their training, Zaitseva, who won her first World Junior Championships medal in 1998 in Jericho, Vermont, seems enthusiastic.
The feeling was mutual: Pichler has said that he believes the Russian women are more talented than the Swedes, and likes Zaitseva in particular.
“Olga had a very good race,” he commented in a Russian Biathlon Union press release. “She demonstrated her professional level once again. Today was a great day! This result is a consequence of long and systematic work, which we did in the summer.”
Zaitseva missed a single shot, which was an accomplishment on a particularly windy day when only three women shot clean.
Behind her, two familiar faces rounded out the podium: Darya Domracheva of Belarus and Helena Ekholm of Sweden. But while neither was a surprise, it was for completely different reasons.
Domracheva has already won two World Cup races this season, and has consistently racked up some of the fastest ski times in the field. Today, she was twenty seconds faster than Zaitseva on her skis, but missed one more shot and finished fourteen seconds back. In the press conference, she stated that she is aiming for the overall World Cup title; she currently trails Germany’s Magdalena Neuner by 28 points.
Ekholm is no slouch on her skis, but more frequently shoots her way to the top. So far this season, she hadn’t been her usual sharpshooting self, but the Hochfilzen race was an improvement: like Zaitseva, she missed a single shot. Today was her first podium of the year.
“I have been very frustrated, especially last week when I was so close,” Ekholm said in the press conference. “[Today] I finally felt normal in standing. I have been struggling with my shooting this year; that is not a usual situation for me. This week, I worked really hard on my shooting.”
The 2009 overall World Cup champion finished thirty seconds down on Zaitseva. She was followed by the 2010 overall champion, Neuner, who had two penalties.
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Out of all the North Americans, it could really only be said that one was thrilled with her performance. That honor went to Canada’s Megan Imrie, who despite windy conditions notched a career-best 25th place finish.
“Today was my best result ever, which is always exciting,” she told FasterSkier. “I commented before the race that these were my favorite conditions: challenging wind for shooting, and fast, warm, skiing conditions.”
While skiers might not find warm conditions to be the best, Imrie pointed to another consideration for biathletes: “When the temp’s above zero, my hands are the happiest of all- I can wear normal-person gloves, not massive insulated alpine ones, making shooting easier.”
Imrie missed only two shots, which was one of the things separating her from the rest of the North Americans.
“Hit targets were valuable today,” she said. “I made an error in my prone wind correction which resulted in two penalty loops. My standing was great- I was fully in control, and made a good lane choice (avoiding some high wind gusts) and just worked on one shot at a time.”
Imrie finished 1:41 behind Zaitseva, but only 35 seconds out of the top ten thanks to large gaps in the top finishers. As such, she’ll be right in the thick of things for Saturday’s pursuit, and she’s excited for the possibilities.
The 25-year-old said that her approach to racing this season was to keep things fun, and that seemed to have made a difference in her results so far.
“I have been focusing on fully enjoying each race, like just being the goofball I am in the start pen,” Imrie explained. “It relaxes me, and I’m able to have more clarity during the race.
“I’m easy to spot,” she joked. “I’ll be the one dancing around with huge mittens on.”
Imrie’s teammate Zina Kocher had a more disappointing race, missing four shots. Luckily, her usual quick skiing helped her to 50th place, and she will join Imrie in the pursuit tomorrow. Despite starting two and a half minutes behind Zaitseva, with clean shooting Kocher could make a splash – she had the eighth-fastest ski time today.
Rosanna Crawford, the final Canadian, missed three shots to place 73rd, and will sit out the rest of the weekend.
“Not a great day for me,” she tweeted following the race.
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If the Canadians had a single bright spot on the result sheet, then the Americans had none – or at least none that shone so strong.
The team qualified a single athlete, Annelies Cook, for Saturday’s pursuit, which takes the top 60 finishers. Cook was the last qualifier.
“I made it by the skin on my teeth,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I actually think it may have been my fast skis that got me into the pursuit! The course starts out rolling and then goes up a big climb and then is downhill with a small uphill before the finish. I think my split at the top of the uphill was out of the pursuit, so I am thankful for our good techs!”
It was Cook’s first World Cup race of the season; she spent the first two weekends on the IBU Cup circuit before getting exchanged for Lanny Barnes and Laura Spector.
“We want to have the athletes that perform to have a chance to show what they can also in the World Cup,” women’s coach Jonne Kahkonen told FasterSkier to explain the roster changes. “And also if the World Cup level is not there, the IBU Cup provides really good quality racing, so the train goes both directions.
“With this we also want to have the bar high enough for the athletes, so that they have to push hard to get there – even though we don’t have huge numbers, we want to create a competitive situation.”
Cook appreciated the strategy, and though she would have liked to have started the season on the World Cup, agreed that the progression was a smart decision.
“The first IBU Cup went poorly and I had to get my confidence back up,” she said. “My goals were not to be on the IBU cup but I also didn’t want to be racing at the World Cup and doing awful either. Last weekend [in Ridnaun, Italy] was awesome for me as far as skiing confidence went… that kind of feeling will keep you racing for another year.”
In the sprint, Cook missed three shots and had the 53rd fastest ski time; considering how great she felt, she said that she was disappointed not to have skied faster.
“But I really love pursuits and being in a race with people around me,” she said, looking towards Saturday.
Another inspiring thought? The only thing she can do is move up.
Susan Dunklee and Sara Studebaker, the two other Americans, struggled on the range and placed 71st and 72nd with seven and five penalties.
“The race for sure was not quite what we would’ve wanted today in the World Cup, but that’s biathlon,” Kahkonen said. “At the same time, I was pleased to see that both Susan and Sara are picking it up on the skis; Susan was less than a minute behind the fastest and Sara less than two minutes, for the first time this year. So, it is taking a bit longer but happening for sure.”
Dunklee had the 18th-fastest course time of the day, and beat 23 starters even though some spent literally minutes less time in the penalty loop than she did.