In the first four days of racing in Kontiolahti, Finland, American hopes for its biathletes just hadn’t panned out. In race after race at the World Youth and Junior Championships, the U.S. racers were held back by one thing after another. They notched a few finishes in the high 20’s and 30’s – and mostly placed far lower on the results sheet.
On Friday, two Americans broke out of the slump and raced into the top-twenty, collecting the best results of their careers so far.
“Just got back from the venue and definitely with more of a smile on my face,” U.S. coach Algis Shalna told FasterSkier after the race.
Sean Doherty of Conway, New Hampshire placed 13th in the youth men’s 7.5 k sprint and Tara Geraghty-Moates of West Fairlee, Vermont placed 18th in the youth women’s 6 k sprint.
“I’m stoked,” Geraghty-Moates told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “Everything has been going smoothly: the coaching staff here has been completely on their game, the wax has been fast, the weather is warmer than we predicted… I’ve just been having a stellar week so far, and I’m hoping to keep the trend going.”
Doherty, who could not be reached for comment, missed a single shot and finished 1:48 behind winner Johannes Thingnes Bø of Norway. Bø, whose older brother Tarjei won the overall World Cup last season, raced to a colossal 50-second victory. Behind him, the field was tightly packed; Doherty was 56 seconds from the podium and eight from the top ten.
“Great shooting and fast skiing put him in a competitive position for pursuit race,” Shalna said of Doherty’s performance. “The pursuit will be very challenging for all of them and will require a lot of effort to control the emotions on the range and speed control on the skiing course.”
The result was reminiscent of Doherty’s other successes this year, including 12th– and 14th-place finishes and a strong relay leg at the Youth Olympic Games.
For Geraghty-Moates, the 18th-place finish is a big improvement. She had placed 44th in Monday’s individual race, and her top finish at 2011 World Youth Championships was 57th. In those races, she had been plagued by poor shooting, but on Friday she only missed two of ten targets.
“I’ve been pretty happy with my shooting so far,” Geraghty-Moates wrote. “All my races are consistent with the results I’ve been having so far this year – all way better than last year.”
A former standout nordic combined athlete who has a cross-country background, Geraghty-Moates picked up biathlon in 2010. Shalna, who is one of the Vermonter’s coaches back in the States, was impressed with how far she’d come in a short period of time.
“Tara had an excellent performance that exceeded my expectations,” he said. “Most importantly her shooting performance was beyond my goals for this race. Considering the level of competition and being only her second year in biathlon, 80 % shooting is a very solid performance.”
Predictably, Geraghty-Moates, who has a history of top-five finishes at cross country junior national championships, was quick on her skis.
“She had 9th-fastest course skiing time, and it was only 54 seconds from the winner and nine seconds from the [second-fastest skier],” Shalna said. “This is a pretty good example how a competitive former skier can get among the best in the world in biathlon if you have skiing speed, even with the the short amount of time for shooting.”
Of course, things didn’t go perfectly. After being thrilled to clean her prone stage, Geraghty-Moates succumbed to pressure in standing.
“I was in sixth coming in to the standing, but I made the mistake of looking at the result board coming into the range before standing and realizing that if I cleaned I had a shoot at the medals,” she wrote. “Of course then I proceeded to miss two shots, but that was predictable.”
Both Doherty and Geraghty-Moates have had to get creative with their training this year, given the lack of snow in New England (as with many other parts of the U.S.). While competing against the best biathletes in the world might be intimidating when on-snow training has been scarce, Geraghty-Moates said that in a way, it had prepared her well.
“I think the shitty conditions we’ve had back east actually ended up helping me because I’ve been skiing up Storrs Hill [alpine] ski area for a lot of my training,” she explained. “This means that the hills here don’t look über huge even when they’re half a kilometer long.”
Geraghty-Moates had said after the relay that the course suited her, and that the hills “kept me on my toes.” Friday’s conditions made her even happier.
“Today it was warm and a little icy which made the fast course even faster, a plus in my book,” she said.
The rest of the U.S. team struggled to keep up with Doherty and Geraghty-Moats. Anna Kubek, who had led the U.S. women in the individual with a 30th-place result, missed half of her shots and placed 67th, missing the 60th-place cutoff for Sunday’s pursuit. The result was an unexpected blow to the American squad.
“The race did not go well for Anna, who is a great young athlete,” Shalna lamented. “Her shooting was not as good what she is capable of, but biathlon can be a roller coaster and the less experienced you are, the more roller coaster rides you get.”
Mikaela Paluczek and Melissa Manning will be joining Kubek as spectators on Sunday after placing 65th and 71st. Both are first-time international competitors.
“None of the last three girls made the pursuit race on Sunday, but for all of them the races over the last week were a priceless experience for becoming better biathletes in the future,” Shalna said.
On the men’s side, Sam Dougherty and Nick Proell placed 35th and 40th after missing two and one shots respectively. They are separated by just 12 seconds – less than the time it takes to ski a penalty loop – and Dougherty is just 13 seconds from the top thirty and less than a minute from the top fifteen going into Sunday’s pursuit.
Jake Prince rounded out the squad, placing 80th with five penalties.