RUHPOLDING, Germany – In Saturday’s World Championships sprint, Darya Domracheva of Belarus tried her hardest to best Germany’s Magdalena, but it was to no avail.
On Sunday, their battle spilled over into the 10 k pursuit, with the two women at many times so close that they shared the shooting range with each other. Each was confident that they could be the first across the finish line.
“I am very strong at the moment,” Neuner said, referring to her turn in the mixed relay and her dominating victory in the sprint.
Domracheva had a different source of inspiration.
“In biathlon, nothing is impossible,” she said in a press conference. “[Whether] you are more seconds behind or less seconds behind, always you have a chance for the win.”
But despite two worthy adversaries, there was only room for one at the top of the podium. For most of the race, it looked like the title was Neuner’s to lose. Starting with a 15-second advantage, the German took off out of the start like a bullet. After the first stage, she and Domracheva were both clean, and Neuner had added a second to her lead. After another stage, they both had one miss, and the lead was 12 seconds. And then in the third stage, Neuner was in and out in a flawless 25 seconds, while Domracheva took 35 and missed one shot.
With a 33 second lead, Neuner appeared to be on her way to gold again, in a reprise of Martin Fourcade’s performance earlier in the afternoon. She cruised around the two-kilometer loop in perfect control, her trademark combination of power and tempo keeping her far enough in front of Domracheva to stay comfortable.
But then in the final stage, something went wrong for Neuner. She missed two shots and headed to the penalty loop. Meanwhile, Domracheva came into the range, cleaned, and left again. For the first time all day, she had a lead: 13 seconds.
Neuner is fast, but so is the Belorussian, and Neuner was no match for Domracheva on the trails. While Domracheva skied the quickest closing loop – just as she had done for every other loop all race – Neuner bogged down, only turning in the eighth-best loop time and finishing 25 seconds back for silver.
“I feel really good right now because this was one of my dreams and it has come true,” Domracheva told the television commentator. “I always say that you should dream big, and your dreams will come true.
“I dreamed about it from the first day I started training, when I started skiing at six years old,” she added in the press conference.
It was not only Domracheva’s first World Championships title but also the first for Belarus. She has won six World Cup races over the course of her career and many of those have come, like today’s title, at the very end; Domracheva’s never-give-up attitude and ski speed are well-known on the circuit.
On Sunday, it was also her shooting which earned her the win.
“I saw that Magdalena was really fast on the range today, but I was really concentrated on my shooting,” Domracheva said. “It was a fight only between me and my targets.”
The pressure on Neuner – like that on all of the Germans – has been intense this week, and the star admitted that on Sunday it had gotten to her.
“We have seen that it’s not easy,” she said. “Today I had a few seconds in the race where I was a little bit nervous, where it was a little bit too much for me.”
But over and over, she repeated that even though her thousands of fans might be disappointed with her performance – even though the German public demands nothing but gold, gold, gold – she was happy with all of her races so far at this Championships.
“My goal was to get six medals, and I already am World Champion, which is something that I wanted to achieve,” she said. “We still have three competitions ahead of us, and I am very happy with silver, I have to say. It’s a shame to have these two mistakes at the shooting range, but still, I am satisfied.”
Once Neuner made those errors and saw Domracheva skate past the penalty loop without stopping to visit, she knew the race for gold was over. Instead of trying to catch the Belorussian, she focused on soaking up the atmosphere at biathlon’s biggest venue.
“I really enjoyed winning my third medal, and I also tried to enjoy going into the finish zone with the atmosphere that was there,” she said.
As in the sprint, Neuner and Domrachava were untouchable to the rest of the field.
For most of the race, Marie Laure Brunet of France sat in third, and seemed to be headed for pursuit bronze again; she was third in this event at the 2010 Olympics. In the final stage, however, Brunet missed a shot, and Russia’s Olga Vilukhina slipped past.
Vilukhina, who accrued only a single penalty over the course of the race and almost immediately moved into fourth position after starting eighth, found motivation in thinking of another race here in Ruhpolding, where she had finished fourth.
“I remember in 2008 at the Junior World Championships, there was a pursuit competition and I was fighting with Brunet for bronze,” she said in a press conference. “At the last shooting [today] there were Brunet, Berger, and I, and I heard that they both had penalties, so I knew that the only thing I had to do was shoot clean. And then I went on to win bronze.”
This was the first podium of Vilukhina’s career, and she was overwhelmed when she crossed the finish line 1:15 behind Domracheva, burying her face in her hands.
That sentiment was still strong an hour later at the press conference.
“I really don’t know what to say,” she mused. “Sitting here with these athletes is just such an honor for me.”
Brunet’s penalty allowed not only Vilukhina to pass her, but also Tora Berger of Norway and Helena Ekholm of Sweden. Russia’s Olga Zaitseva of Russia finished seventh, while the sprint bronze medalist, Vita Semerenko of Ukraine, dropped to eight. Marie Dorin Habert of France and Anna Maria Nilsson of Sweden rounded out the top ten.