The Swedish biathlon team has had to adjust to several surprise announcements in the last year. In the spring star coach Wolfgang Pichler left to lead the Russians. In the summer, 2006 Olympic gold medalist Anna Carin Zidek decided to retire. In the fall, Mattias Nilsson was forced to leave competitive sports after being diagnosed with a leaky heart valve.
None of it was good news – but as soon as the started, the tide turned. Nilsson’s sister, Anna Maria, made the World Cup podium for the first time. Carl Johan Bergman won his first World Cup, and then won another.
On Friday, the team had another nice surprise: 22-year-old Fredrik Lindstrom won the 10 k sprint in Antholz-Anterselva, Italy. The lanky Swede is in the midst of just his third full season on the World Cup; he has already finished in the top ten several times and turned in strong relay performances, including fourth place in both the Olympics and 2011 World Championships.
But today was different.
“I had a great feeling today!” he exclaimed in a press conference. “My shape was very good and I performed well on the shooting range. It was an amazing feeling.”
Lindstrom credited his success in part to training with Bergman and Olympic gold medalist Bjorn Ferry, saying that “they challenge you every day.”
His win came in impressive fashion. With good conditions, most of the top men cleaned the prone shooting stage, and the excitement happened in the second half of the race. While his splits had been close to the lead the whole race, in the beginning he had trailed Arnd Peiffer of Germany. Both started with late bibs, Lindstrom 75 and Peiffer 81. They each cleaned in prone, and Peiffer held an 11-second lead.
Lindstrom cleaned standing as well and sped to the finish. It was too much for Peiffer to match, however, and the German bonked, turning in the 33rd-fastest closing lap and eventually finishing 27 seconds behind the Swede, good for fifth place.
Second went to Evgeniy Garanichev of Russia, who did the opposite of Peiffer and moved from fourth to second after skiing the fastest closing lap in the field. Earlier this season, Garanichev was racing on the IBU Cup circuit, and despite his success in Antholz didn’t seem certain that he’d stay on the Russian “A” team.
“I have not had a World Cup start very often because we have many good athletes on our team,” he told the press. “I am not a star. I just do my job.”
Martin Fourcade of France finished third and took the yellow overall leader’s bib from Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway, who had a rare bad day on both the range and the trails and finished 23rd.
American Tim Burke continued the “up” part of his up-and-down season, placing 12th with two penalties. He had the 11th-fastest ski time, and with two penalties in standing ended up just three seconds out of the top ten.
It’s the second 12th-place finish for Burke this season, and he has also finished 9th and 11th. Despite these performances, his bad days have been out of the World Cup points, and today’s result brought his World Cup ranking up to 30th. It also earned him a spot in Saturday’s mass start.
The 30 positions in a mass start are divvyed up in two ways: the first 25 go to the top athletes in the World Cup rankings. Then, the final five are allotted to the next best performers in the preceding sprint.
Burke’s teammate Lowell Bailey, who finished 36th today, made mass start through the first option. Based on top-ten performances earlier this season, he’s ranked 15th in the overall standings. Burke, however, was left to make the race the second way.
“Earning points the hard way today in Antholz,” Burke tweeted after the race. “I would give a lot to get those last two shots back.”
Jay Hakkinen also scored World Cup points, cleaning both shooting stages to finish 22nd.
“It was important for me to return to solid shooting after having some standing misses in the past races, and I fought hard for every shot, especially the last one where my legs where shaking,” he told FasterSkier. “It was a bit heartbreaking to be just 5 seconds away from directly qualifying for the Mass Start, but that is biathlon.”
Hakkinen is an alternate for the mass start. The final American, Russell Currier, placed 43rd with two penalties.
The Canadians also put three men in the World Cup points. Jean-Phillipe Le Guellec, Scott Perras, and Brendan Green finished 27th, 29th, and 34th.
For Le Guellec and Green, who have finished in the top ten and twenty this season, the results were run-of-the-mill; they racked up two and three penalties, respectively. But for Perras, the top-30 finish was a career best – and by far the strongest result of the season.
“Finally is right,” he wrote in response to an e-mail from FasterSkier. “If I was to sum it up in one word that would be it.”
In the pre-Christmas campaign, Perras had failed to break into the top 60, which was frustrating because he had made good progress the year before.
“For one reason or another I struggled,” he said. “It was tough. there was a point when I didn’t know if I needed rest or training, but I chose training.”
His gamble worked.
“I came back to Europe feeling like a new man,” he said.
In last weekend’s races in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, Perras finished in the mid-40s – an improvement, but still not what he had been hoping for. Then, he suffered another setback when his rifle stock broke. U.S. shooting coach Armin Auchentaller, however, was able to find a cabinetmaker to repair the stock, which Perras tested out in official training. Luckily, both he and the rifle are back in action.
With multiple top-30 performances on Friday, both the U.S. and Canada could put together strong relays this weekend, although the North American squads haven’t had stellar results in team events so far this season.
Perras and his teammates were excited – in their own way.
“I think we are psyched for the relay, but we aren’t really a group that gets psyched,” he said. “We just enjoy the moment.”