Of all the nordic disciplines, biathlon is perhaps the one where small errors make the biggest difference. A centimeter here, a millimeter there – missing a target by that much, or little, can have drastic impacts on an athlete’s results.
On Sunday, however, Magdalena Neuner didn’t make a small error. She made what is perhaps the worse mistake in biathlon: cross-firing.
Coming into the third shooting stage of the 10 k pursuit with a sizeable lead, the German skied onto the mat in lane one, settled into a stable standing position, took a deep breath, and began shooting. She hit a target and kept going.
The first sign of trouble was that the fans filling the stadium in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, were silent instead of cheering for her hits. After four shots, Neuner realized that she was shooting at the targets in lane two, not lane one. She picked up her rifle, refocused, and hit the remaining shots on her own target – then had to go ski four penalty loops.
“It’s very annoying because [the four shots] were in a very tight group,” German women’s coach Gerald Hönig told the press.
In other words, Neuner shot perfectly – just in the wrong place. Coaches are not allowed to have contact with athletes during the race (for several reasons including the obvious ones of gun safety), so Hönig was left to watch, more or less powerless, from several meters away.
Cross-firing isn’t common, but it does happen. U.S. biathlete Carolyn Treacy Bramante crossfired in the sprint at 2007 World Championships. And at almost the same time that Neuner made her mistake on Sunday, so did someone else; Canadian Danielle Vrielink had to adjust after another athlete fired into her lane at the Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck.
Neuner lost over a minute and a half while stuck on the penalty loop, and the rest of her race was wrecked. While she skied the fastest overall time, she paid for it: out of physical and psychological exhaustion, the 28-time World Cup winner missed three shots in her final standing stage as well, and was left with seventh place after leaving it all on the course in a blistering-fast last loop.
Neuner was in tears after crossing the finish line.
“I have to admit I had to cry,” she told the press after the race. “I was so focused and just didn’t look at the number on the stand. That’s never happened to me and I am really angry.”
“After penalty loops I always have more and more rage in my belly and only want to ski as fast as I can, and I at least was able to do that,” Neuner told German newspaper Welt.
It might seem like eventual winner Tora Berger of Norway benefitted immensely from Neuner’s errors, but that would be an oversimplification because Berger also suffered the ramifications of the cross-firing disaster. She was in second place when she entered the range, arriving just as Neuner was leaving and owning only a slight lead on Russia’s Olga Zaitseva.
Berger, who was not surprisingly oblivious of the situation, skied into lane two and Zaitseva into lane three. But while Zaitseva settled in and started shooting, Berger suffered a jolt: her targets were already white, dropped erroneously by Neuner. After frantically calling and gesturing to officials, she had to scoot behind Zaitseva and into lane four. Then, Berger missed two shots.
“I tried to talk to the official, but he was not watching and it took him a while to see what was happening,” Berger said in the postrace press conference. “I was a little disturbed about that, and it was probably the reason I had the two penalties.”
After the finish, officials subtracted six seconds from Berger’s time to make up for the confusion on the range.
Zaitseva also missed two shots, and the pair hit the penalty loop together. They saw Neuner, but then left her to finish her 600-meter series of left-hand turns.
When the dust had settled, sharpshooters Helena Ekholm of Sweden and Marie Laure Brunet of France had taken the lead. While so many of their competitors – including Darya Domracheva of Belarus – were stuck in the penalty loop, the pair had cleaned all their targets.
Domracheva, Berger, and Zaitseva, however, are the better skiers, and formed an intimidating chase pack. They closed the 14-second gap to Ekholm and Brunet in about a kilometer and a half, and the five entered the range together to face one final test.
There, Berger showed her true capabilities and dropped all five targets in quick succession; she was the first athlete to finish the group, and left before the others. Brunet and Ekholm cleaned as well, but Zaitseva and Domracheva missed a shot each.
At this point it was obvious that Berger – who is matched perhaps only by Neuner and Zaitseva in her ability to both ski and shoot impeccably – would take the win. She attacked the final loop with her signature fast tempo.
Ekholm, who is one of the circuit’s best shooters but used strong skiing as well to win the overall World Cup title in 2009, caught and passed Brunet and finished second. Despite at one point glancing nervously over her shoulder to see whether Domracheva would make up the 20 seconds and overtake her, Brunet hung on for third.
Ekholm, who had started the pursuit over a minute and 20 seconds behind Neuner in bib 9, had said before the race that she could be happy with a top-five finish.
“I knew that I could never reach the top three, because everyone in front of me were not making any mistakes,” she explained in the press conference, as surprised as everyone else at the turn the race had taken.
Both Ekholm and Brunet shot perfectly, hitting all 20 targets.
“I was ‘focused,’ as the Americans would say,” Brunet wrote on her blog, before noting that she had celebrated her first podium of the season with a trip to McDonald’s.
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Canada’s Zina Kocher started the pursuit in 23rd place, and saw the potential to move into the top ten. Things didn’t play out as she had planned, however, starting with subpar skiing.
“Skiing has felt okay this week but lacking punch, and today was similar,” Kocher told FasterSkier. The Canadian has had ski times among the top ten in several races this season, but on Sunday only managed the 22nd-fastest split.
Then, she missed three shots in the final stage.
“The race was going decently well for me until the last standing, as I was maintaining between 16th and 20th,” she said. “But I came into the last standing and struggled with the wind and shaking legs.”
To top it all off, she followed her penalties up with a crash.
“Adding to the frustration of my last standing, leaving the penalty loop I collided with a Ukrainian who was going into the loop,” explained Kocher. “I took the penalty sign between my legs with me and we both landed in a heap outside of the loop.”
Although the week in Nove Mesto didn’t live up to expectations, Kocher is still ranked 29th in the overall World Cup standings, which is something she can be happy about.
“It’s been a difficult week with the conditions, so I’m stoked to be leaving for Italy,” Kocher said of moving on. “Antholz is alway sunny and beautiful with amazing food, so spirits will rise.”
Teammate Megan Imrie started with bin 44 and moved up a single place to 43rd after missing six shots, including four in the final stage; until that point she had been in the top 30.
For the Americans, Sara Studebaker and Annelies Cook were the only starters, and they had a somewhat unusual challeng on their hands.
Because Friday’s sprint race took place in conditions that significantly deteriorated over the course of the afternoon, times from the competition were spread out more than usual. Cook started with bib 51 out of 60 possible starters, and Studebaker with bib 54; both were over three minutes behind Neuner. But with a two kilometer loop, which took top racers as few as five minutes, and athletes being pulled from the course if they were lapped before the leaders completed the final shooting, the Americans needed to stay focused and avoid errors if they wanted to finish.
It was “serious motivation,” said Cook.
“The course was much easier and faster today, and I was a little nervous to get caught,” she wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier.
Initially, the motivation was productive. Cook cleaned her first stage and moved into 38th. But after that, things took a turn for the worse.
“I just did not have a good day after that on the range and I ended up missing eight, which is really bad,” Cook said. “It’s almost like I shot so much this week that by the time I went today the focus just wasn’t good enough to deal with the windy conditions. Plus, my fingers were totally frozen and it was hard to feel the trigger.”
Cook was probably helped by the cross-firing debacle that took place at the front of the field. If Neuner had dropped all five tagets, the race would have played out differently, and much more quickly; Cook may have been lapped. As it was, the American finished eight minutes behind Berger.
“It is too bad I shot so poorly because there was a lot of opportunity to have a good day. But it is what it is. I feel like my ski form is getting there and I am more able to tolerate the pain of racing now and less afraid of hurting.”
Studebaker, on the other hand, was able to conquer some of her shooting demons. She missed only three shots and leapfrogged 12 places into 42nd, narrowly missing out on the World Cup points which are awarded to the first 40 finishers.
“Today was much better for me,” Studebaker told FasterSkier. “I felt much better on skis and was happy with how things went on the range. It’s always tough to be almost in the points, but I was able to move up despite starting pretty far back. It was a good race for me and I’m looking forward to Antholz.”
Both Americans agreed with Kocher, and said they would be relieved when they made it to Italy.
“Hopefully Antholz will bring some more relaxing weather for us all,” Cook said. “It’s mentally tiring to have to battle tricky conditions all of the time.”