With three men who have placed in the top twenty so far this World Cup season and one more who was the hero of last year’s World Championships relay, the U.S. had high hopes for Sunday’s 4 x 7.5 k relay, the first of the season.
The team chose Lowell Bailey, who has finished as high as fifth in these first two weeks of racing, as their leadoff leg.
And in some ways, he lived up to the hopes: Bailey had the fastest course time of all the leadoff racers in Hochfilzen, Austria.
But unfortunately, he was less steady on the range, missing one shot in prone and three in standing. With the use of spare rounds, which is allowed only in relay races, Bailey did not have to hit the penalty loop, but the time needed to load the spare rounds and finally drop the targets added up. Despite his quick skiing, he tagged off in 11th.
“A bit of a bummer with the shooting today,” Bailey lamented in an e-mail. “I felt great on the skis but just couldn’t get the standing going!”
Luckily, his teammates were able to bring the team back up towards the top, even despite some shooting woes of their own.
The second leg belonged to Jay Hakkinen, who quickly cleaned his prone stage and moved the team up to eighth, less than 20 seconds out of the top five. But in standing, Hakkinen, too, needed three spare rounds to drop all the targets. Despite a hard charge to the finish, the U.S. was still in tenth when Hakkinen tagged to Tim Burke.
Burke has had an up-and-down start to the season – he’s been in the top twenty and even the top ten, but has had even more races that didn’t go quite as planned.
Today, things didn’t go as planned either, but as in his ninth-place pursuit finish in Ostersund last weekend, there were glimmers of brilliance. Like Hakkinen, Burke cleaned his prone stage with no difficulty. But also like his teammates, he struggled in standing, using all three rounds and this time still leaving one target standing. Burke had to ski a penalty loop before he could head for the exchange zone.
But Burke skied the second-fastest closing loop, and had the fourth-fastest third leg of all the teams; thanks to his hard work on the trails, the team moved up to eighth.
And then it was time for Leif Nordgren, the skier who had so deftly anchored the U.S. to a sixth-place finish at 2011 World Championships.
Where his teammates had struggled on the range, Nordgren capitalized, cleaning both stages with perfect ten-for-ten shooting.
“It was nice to finally get my shit together shooting,” said Nordgren, who has had a rough start to his 2012 campaign. “I’ve made a few changes in the last couple days, not something you usually want to do during the season, but I didn’t really have much choice!”
While Nordgren’s ski times weren’t the best – “it’s still early but [the skiing] will be getting better and better”, he said – Nordgren still put in an impressive leg, leaving the U.S. in ninth place at the end of the day, two and a half minutes behind the winning Norwegian team (Russia was second and France third).
U.S. Biathlon President and CEO Max Cobb said in a press release that the athletes found the result “frustrating”, but that there were high points in the men’s racing as well.
In Bailey’s mind, one of those high points was the youngest team member’s performance.
“Leif came back with a great last leg – clean shooting and good skiing,” he told FasterSkier.
After adding up the successes and disappointments from the day’s race, the U.S. team was left wondering what might have been.
“As far as the team goes, for sure we know we have more to give and we expect more,” Nordgren told FasterSkier. “This was an okay place to start for now.”
Bailey had also hoped for more, but he was able to look at the ninth-place finish with the team’s history in mind and come away feeling positive.
“I think we definitely hoped for a better result as a team but it’s nice to see that with a mediocre day, we were in the top ten,” Bailey said. “Just a few years ago, that would have been a great day for us! It’s a long season and this is the just the first relay of the year.”
A variety of U.S. Biathlon Association staff had similar reactions, including Cobb.
“Watching today’s men’s relay, I was struck by how much potential the team has to be top-six now and to fight for the podium if we improve a little,” Cobb told FasterSkier. “It did not come together that way for us today, but the ski speed and range times are there for these four guys.”
Cobb pointed to the spare rounds as the major culprit in the team’s performance.
“Today, several times, a single missed target took three extra rounds to hit,” he explained. “So instead of that one miss costing ten seconds, it cost 20. We need to be better at getting every missed shot with just one extra round and then we’ll be on the podium.
“it is a sign of great progress from years past when we come up with a ninth place, and say, ‘There was so much potential to do better today.’”
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The Canadian men raced to 15th place. Leadoff racer Brendan Green had an incredible start, cleaning both stages and tagging off in sixth place, less than 15 seconds off the leaders. But over the next three legs, Jean-Phillipe Leguellec, Scott Perras, and Marc-Andre Bedard used ten spare rounds and hit the penalty loop once, and the team dropped down as low as 18th before climbing a few places to the finish.
In the women’s 4 x 6 k relay, the Canadian team of Megan Imrie, Zina Kocher, Rosanna Crawford, and Megan Heinicke put together a strong showing, placing ninth with ten spare rounds and no penalty loops. Imrie and Kocher each used several spare rounds to start the team off, but after skiing the sixth and fifth fastest times of their legs, the team was in good position.
“It was definitely one of our better races,” Crawford said in a Biathlon Canada press release. “We tied with our result at [2009 World Championships] in Korea and know that we still have room for improvement. Hopefully by World Championships this year we will be making top-eight or better!”
Crawford has not had much individual success so far this season, but today she cleaned both of her stages and moved the Canadians from ninth up to eighth.
With Canada only receiving three quota spots for individual racing, Heinicke had not yet competed on the World Cup this year, but she made a strong debut, using three spare rounds in prone and none in standing and keeping the team in ninth place.
The Canadians finished 3:14 behind the winning Norwegian team.
The American women faltered after a strong start, where Sara Studebaker used two spare rounds to tag in 11th place and then Susan Dunklee turned in the second-fastest second leg time and after using five spare rounds tagged in tenth. After four spare rounds from Laura Spector and two penalty loops by Tracy Barnes, however, the team was lapped and pulled from the race in 14th place.