As the clock ticked down in Sunday’s 10 k pursuit race in Kontiolahti, Finland, the home crowd became more and more tense. Their star, Kaisa Makarainen, sat in second place – which was good. But it looked increasingly as if the win was out of reach, as World Cup leader Magdalena Neuner of Germany was skiing faster and making no more errors than the Finn.
Then, halfway through the race, Makarainen caught a break. As she pulled into the range for the first of two standing stages, Makarainen watched Neuner miss a shot – and then promptly cleaned all five of her own targets to take the lead.
Makarainen’s face probably wouldn’t have betrayed any emotion even if it wasn’t covered in pink physio tape to ward off frostbite in the frigid conditions, but she must have felt like she had won a tiny victory already. After starting the pursuit 12 seconds behind Neuner, she was finally in front for the first time.
“I knew that Magdalena would be tough to beat, but I had to concentrate on what I was doing,” the Finn said in a press conference after the race. “I could not do anything that would affect what she did.”
Makarainen didn’t hold her lead for long; she left the range just four seconds ahead of the German, and was quickly caught. Neuner had a slight edge coming into the final, seminal standing stage, and it looked as though it might be over for the hometown fans.
But then Makarainen caught an even bigger, and more unexpected break, as Neuner missed two shots and headed to the penalty loop.
“Today there were two mistakes too many,” Neuner told the press.
While Makarainen seized the opportunity to hit her targets and skate to a 35-second victory, Finnish flag in hand, Neuner had a harder task. She left the penalty loop one second ahead of Olga Zaitseva of Russia and six ahead of Darya Domracheva of Belarus.
Zaitseva was not a threat on the trails, but Domracheva?
“I am glad to at least held off Dasha, because that means something,” Neuner said. “I’m kind of proud of that.”
Neuner herself is one of the fastest skiers on the circuit, but the Belorussian is often even faster. Today, she made up the gap to Neuner just as she reached the finish line; after both put in a furious, but exhausted, charge, Neuner emerged in second place, just 1.1 seconds ahead of Domracheva.
Like Neuner, Domracheva had missed a total of four shots, but she’d started even farther back than Makarainen. Such comebacks are not unusual for Olympic and World Championship medalist, but she admitted that she wished it wasn’t always necessary to rely on ski speed to make up for errors on the range.
“I think I like to make some problems for myself and find a solution,” she said in the press conference. “But that is not the best way [to race]. I have enough time before the World Championships to find some answers for my shooting.”
Makarainen has faced some of the same challenges this year, and battled shooting errors as she struggled to match last year’s performances, which landed her the overall World Cup crown. She’s been on the podium this season and picked up a win in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, but racing on home turf – she is from just 25 minutes away in the town of Joensuu – was clearly a boost.
“I was motivated and especially focused,” she said in the press conference. “It was a good day for me.”
Makarainen now sits third in the overall World Cup rankings, behind Neuner and Domracheva.
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Perpetually just out of the frame of the television cameras, Canada’s Zina Kocher was making a comeback of her own – not from shooting errors, but from several years of frustration.
“It has taken some patience this season as I have been close to breaking through the top ten, and the opportunity has been there for me numerous competitions this year,” Kocher told FasterSkier. “Last time was 2009, the year of the 2010 Olympics, in December – I was tenth and fourth in the sprint and pursuit that week.”
Kocher’s 12th-place finish in Saturday’s sprint represented her best result of the season, and she upped the ante with a ninth-place effort on Sunday. It was the first time she had finished in the top ten since December, 2009; after a podium earlier in her career, Kocher had missed a season with mononucleosis and struggled with back injuries. Last season was her worst in recent memory, and she failed to score World Cup points even once.
“Definitely a good confidence booster to be back in the top 10,” Kocher wrote in an e-mail shortly after the race. “FINALLY is how it feels!”
Kocher was on the right track almost immediately, cleaning the first prone stage and moving up into eighth position. She hit the trails again in a group that included Olga Vilukhina of Russia, Tina Bachmann of Germany, and Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia.
Kocher’s luck didn’t last; she eventually missed four shots, just like Neuner and Domracheva, and left the range for the final time back in her original 12th-place position. But the Canadian pushed hard over the final two kilometers, turning in the third-fastest closing loop and moving up to ninth by the finish.
“You never know what’s going to happen in a pursuit and a lot depends on those around you,” Kocher said. “When I missed my last shot, I noticed that others around me had also missed one shot, so we were all in the penalty loop together… then it just comes down to a fast last lap.”
Kocher was traveling separate from the rest of the Canadian team, and said that she appreciated having the flexibility to attend this weekend’s races, which wouldn’t have been possible if she had still been a member of the national team.
“There have been times like this week, when I have a bit more flexibility and can decide with my coach what is best for me,” Kocher said. “I think there comes a time in an athlete’s career when this is very important. If I was on their program I would have been at home, doing as they are doing.”
U.S. biathlete Sara Studebaker started the race with a chance just like Kocher’s: she was in 15th position after the sprint, and could have moved into the top ten with clean shooting. It didn’t seem out of the question, given that Studebaker had turned in her first perfect race on the range in the sprint.
But it wasn’t to be, and the American went from having her best shooting day of the season to one of the worst. She missed a total of six shots and her 44th-fastest ski time didn’t allow her any leeway. Studebaker dropped to 36th by the end of the 10 k race.
“Today’s race was tough for sure,” she wrote in an e-mail after the race.
Unlike many top competitors, Studebaker had raced Friday’s mixed relay, and she thought that three races in a row had finally gotten to her; at the finish she collapsed to the ground, looking even more exhausted than many of her peers.
“I was pretty tired skiing and I think that carried over to the range for me,” she said. “By the last lap my body couldn’t hold on to anyone who was around and I was happy just to finish. It was good to still get a few World Cup points with such a tough race, though. It was just a long last couple of weeks for me!”
Teammate Annelies Cook struggled on the range as well, starting off with four penalties in the initial prone stage. While her shooting improved in the subsequent bouts, she was unable to overcome the errors and was eventually lapped and pulled from the race.Top of FormBottom of Form