RUHPOLDING, Germany – With rain finally falling in this small Bavarian town this morning, it would have been easy to stay at home, watching a television broadcast of today’s mass start races from safe inside a dry living room.
But that thought never crossed the minds of the 30,000 fans who packed the Chiemgau arena today, just as they have for every other competition of the 2012 IBU World Championships.
And they weren’t disappointed. In the men’s race, six men left the range after the final shooting within six seconds of one another, guaranteeing a horse race to the finish.
It seemed that the women’s 12.5 k mass start couldn’t get much more exciting, but it, too, finished in a nailbiter: three women, all World Championship medalists in the last two seasons, raced the entire final 2.5 kilometers neck and neck, trading the lead back and forth until Tora Berger of Norway finally put in an insurmountable attack to claim her third gold medal of the week.
The early stages of the race were marked by two things: first, early errors by two of the favorites, Magdalena Neuner of Germany and Darya Domracheva of Belarus. The pair finished first and second in the sprint and then swapped places in the pursuit, but today, just as in the individual, they struggled on the range. Each missed a shot on the first prone stage, and were out of the picture for most of the rest of the race, finishing fifth and eleventh with five and six penalties.
The other major event was a crash coming down the final, twisting hill towards the shooting range. After Synnøve Solemdal – a young Norwegian who had cleaned the first prone and was leading the race along with Berger – crashed, several of the other top competitors were unable to avoid her, and the fall turned into a five-woman pileup that robbed the skiers of their momentum.
But because it had happened to the front of the field, if anything the crash allowed the pack to catch up; nobody was able to gap the field.
By the time the women had shot their first standing stage, Marie Laure Brunet of France and Kaisa Makarainen of Finland had cleaned all three stages, as had Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic, who trailed by ten seconds.
One loop later Brunet, who already had two silver medals from this Championship, and Makarainen, who won the overall World Cup and an individual title last year, were still together, and came into the range set for one more side-by-side psychological battle after a taxing week.
Instead of one besting the other, however, they both lost, missing a shot apiece and heading into the penalty loop together. While they were stuck there, Berger came in and cleaned, meaning that the three women hit the trails together.
“I almost wished that I had missed in the last stage,” Berger jokingly told broadcaster NRK. “I was hoping not to get into a duel.”
Berger and Makarainen fought one another fiercely, with each move documented by the many cameras around the course; the crowd cheered as first one, then the other, would pull to the side and sprint to the front.
Neither was completely confident in their ability to win, and they each said they were depleted from a long ten days of racing.
“I had probably used all my energy before the last loop,” Makarainen said in the post-race press conference. “I was the most tired in that last loop that I have ever been.”
Berger agreed, saying she didn’t even realize she was leading when she left the range.
“I wasn’t sure, and when I was going out in the last loop I was sure that I was second, but I understood really soon that I was first,” she said. “I had no plan today. I don’t have such a good feeling in the race today. I wasn’t sure on the last loop that I will take these two. But I think that something in my head said, ‘you are so close to the medal now, you have to fight.’”
Only Brunet avoided a turn at the front, instead sticking close behind the pair as they battled back and forth. It made sense: Brunet is incredibly successful at just 23 years of age, but she is known as a shooter.
On the first major hill of the loop, with just over a kilometer to go, Berger made a surge, which Makarainen initially matched. But the effort soon proved too much for the Finn, who slipped first behind Berger and then further back to follow Brunet.
“When I got several meters on the first uphill I just had to go as fast as possible,” Berger said. “I was really tired and I just tried to do my best.”
Her best was good enough, and over the next few climbs she extended her lead; as she entered the stadium, exhausted, she free-skated her way to the finish line, raising her arms in victory and looking over her shoulder to see if her chasers were approaching. They were not, and she took the gold medal by eight seconds.
“I think I have been in top shape [this week],” she said. “And now I think that I’m really tired.”
Behind her, Makarainen was fading fast, and Brunet entered the stadium with a lead of her own to claim her second individual silver medal of the week.
“From the beginning of the season, I tried to be in good shape for this event,” she said to explain her ski speed today. “Just before I came here I was at home and I tried to take a lot of pleasure, and I spent a lot of time behind my window to take in the sun and good energy!”
Makarainen finished four seconds behind.
“At the moment I am really happy for the bronze medal, and I definitely think I won a bronze today and not that I lost the first or second place, even if I was leading at one part in the last loop,” she said in the press conference.
The Finnish star has not had the best season this year; her skiing has almost always been spot-on, but many races have been marred by shooting errors. This medal, she said, gave her something to smile about.
“This Championships have been a very big disappointment for me, because I think that I still had a good season so far,” said last year’s overall World Cup champion. “I did good races in Kontiolahti, also a victory in Nove Mesto.
“But I was really sick for one week right after Kontiolahti, maybe because of racing in such cold weather,” she continued. “I lost one week where I was only sleeping and with a really high fever. So that’s why maybe the preparations for the World Champs were not the best.”
Far behind the winners, Tina Bachmann of Germany finished in fourth place, while Domracheva edged Marie Dorin Habert of France for fifth.