Kontiolahti, Finland, didn’t seem like a logical place for either Canada’s Zina Kocher or U.S. biathlete Sara Studebaker to excel on Saturday. Kocher is traveling on her own, without the support of the Canadian team staff, while Studebaker raced in Friday’s mixed relay, unlike most of the top female competitors.
And in fact, on Saturday morning, it almost seemed like none of the women would get a chance to do their best.
“There was so much traffic with spectators on the road to the venue that [the athletes’] bus was completely stuck and not going anywhere,” Studebaker explained. “All the athletes on that bus ended up jumping out and walking almost two kilometers to the stadium in order to make it there in time for zero.”
With the temperature hovering around five degrees Fahrenheit, the extended warm-up wasn’t so warm, and the women were forced to hurry their way down the road.
“It was a bit chaotic and hectic, but also a little funny,” Studebaker said.
“Today was a far from ordinary day,” teammate Susan Dunklee agreed. “Due to the cold, the courses [also] got changed last minute and many people weren’t aware of it until they went to warm up. It was a day to roll with the punches.”
Unsurprisingly, World Cup leader Magdalena Neuner of Germany rolled with the punches, picking up the 32nd victory of her career. But Kocher and Studebaker adapted as well, each notching their best result of the season in the 7.5 k sprint: 12th place for Kocher, and 15th for Studebaker.
Kocher, On Her Own, Holds Her Own
For Kocher, the result was not only a recent best, but also came because she dodged what she has called the “3-miss curse”, in which shooting errors pile up on the range during these shortest of biathlon races. Today, she knocked that number down to two misses.
“This week I’ve been focusing on a few technical aspects in shooting, and my goal today was focused on perfecting these technical aspects,” Kocher told FasterSkier. “I’ve been struggling with shooting in the sprint competition this year, and today I left with a higher level of confidence.”
In fact, Kocher was very close to having just one penalty, which would have placed her in the top eight. Her last shot of the competition landed on the edge of the target and “split.”
“[It] went halfway up and fell back down to black… a very close split!” Kocher said. “I was probably just slightly too fast in squeezing the trigger before the sight picture was perfect.”
While the rest of the Canadian team is at home in Canada preparing for World Championships, Kocher decided to stay in Europe and contest this eighth weekend of World Cup racing. Since she is no longer a member of the national team, she had the flexibility to do so; personal coach Richard Boruta, who heads the Biathlon Alberta Regional Training Center, has been on hand to work with her one-on-one. [Biathlon Canada later clarified that they are, in fact, still paying for Kocher and Boruta to be in Kontiolahti.] She’s still getting wax help from Jarkko Siltakorpi, who helps the Canadian team and happens to be the fiancé of Finnish biathlete Kaisa Makarainen.
“The goal of the next few weeks is to be in the best possible form for World Championships, and Richard and I decided that staying in Europe was the better option,” Kocher said of her decision. “I don’t have to deal with jetlag back and forth, the risk of getting sick is lower, and I can focus on recovery after this weekend and then recharge with some training before Ruhpolding, without dealing with all this travel.”
The rest of the Canadian team has also been enjoying having time for family and friends, a rare commodity for North America’s elite racers, and Kocher didn’t deny that it was tough to see them all head for home.
“I’m definitely missing my team and the energy,” she said. “It’s a really long time to be away from home, but so far I’ve been managing this well. The internet and skype are amazing inventions!”
Studebaker Perfect on Range to Net Second-Best Career Result
After the fireworks put on by the American men earlier in the morning, the U.S. women had a tough act to follow.
Studebaker said that her teammates’ performances hadn’t “really sunk in” until after her own race, due to the logistical problems with arrival at the venue.
But Annelies Cook, who had a later bib and was less affected by the walk in, had plenty of time to digest the news.
“It was pretty inspiring to go out after all of the guys came in with awesome results!” she wrote in an e-mail.
Studebaker, who said that she seems to do well in chilly conditions, had her first clean sheet of the season, which netted her a 15th-place finish. That represented her best result of the season and the second-best of her career.
“I was really excited to finally have a clean race, since I know I am capable of that but just haven’t quite been able to put it together this year,” she said.
On the trails, the American told FasterSkier that she actually didn’t feel like she was in top form, which was another reason to be glad for perfect shooting.
“I think the result is especially great for me, because I didn’t feel 100 % in my skiing today,” she said. “I was definitely a bit tired from yesterday’s race, and the uphill here is really tough… It was nice to do well today already having raced in tough conditions yesterday when some athletes sat out. In fact, despite being tired I think it helped me to have a hard effort yesterday. I felt more prepared mentally to race today, and I think that definitely helped on the range!”
Cook, who had also raced in the relay, collected the second-best World Cup result of her career, placing 39th with one penalty. Only in Oslo last week did she do better, placing 33rd in the sprint. Like Studebaker, she said the relay had done a number on her body.
“I felt okay racing, but I was surprised at how sore and tired I was,” she wrote in an e-mail.
The last American, Susan Dunklee, struggled on the range and missed five shots, or half of those taken.
“I’d been feeling caged at the hotel all week (sore throat and cold) and it was wonderful to finally get on skis again and shoot for the first time at this venue,” Dunklee said, determined to look at the positives from her race.