RUHPOLDING, Germany – Right from the start of the 4 x 6 k relay here at World Championships, the German women made it clear that they were going to give their fans a show – and, most likely, the gold medal that they so vocally craved.
Tina Bachmann, a lithe, six-foot-tall 25-year-old, put the field on notice when she turned in the fastest first-leg time, making up for the single spare round she used to clean her targets and hitting the exchange zone in a dead heat with Marie Laure Brunet of France. The two were so close – Brunet officially had a 0.6 second lead at the handoff – and the atmosphere to charged that it felt like they could be sprinting for the win, not just for their teammates’ shoulders.
“I gave everything I had,” Bachmann said after the race. “Unfortunately I couldn’t finish the shooting first or hand over first, but still this one second didn’t hurt us.”
It certainly didn’t: her effort set the tone for the rest of the relay, which Germany ended up winning by 28 seconds over France.
But before they got their gold medals, the team had to endure a bit of worrying. And their ultimate return to the front didn’t come from either of the squad’s usual heroes: not from retiring 25-year old Olympic and World Champion Magdalena Neuner, for whom this was the last relay of a stellar career, and not from 34-year-old fellow legend Andrea Henkel, who for now seems to have no plans to leave the sport.
As anchor, Henkel did turn in a literally perfect performance to extend Germany’s lead. But the hero of the day was Miriam Gössner, who at age 21 was on her second World Championships team and secured her second relay gold.
After Neuner encountered shooting problems in the second leg, Gössner inherited third place and a ten-second deficit. Using two spare rounds in prone, she remained in third at the two-kilmeter mark, 8.5 seconds behind Anais Bescond of France and five from Slovakia’s Martina Chrapanova. Then Gössner attacked, passing the Slovakian and closing in on Bescond. When she used one spare round to Bescond’s two, Gössner left with a ten second lead, and had extended it to 17 by the time she tagged to Henkel.
Gössner, who had been chosen for the relay over Franziska Hildebrand, the other German entry in these championships, said that she had been quite nervous and considered this “one of the most important races so far.”
But both she and Bescond, who is also in her second World Championships, used similar strategies to deal with the pressure of being the least experienced members of highly-regarded teams.
“I think I skied really well, and I believe I really managed to do my own competition and not think about the fact that this was a World Championship,” Gössner said. “I didn’t feel the pressure so much [during the race].”
Bescond agreed, saying she didn’t even know that the German was creeping up on her.
“I didn’t realize because when I am competing, I don’t think about other athletes except for France,” she explained. “I really focus on my own race.”
While the pair both used a total of three spare rounds, just at different times, Gössner was the better skier and handed Henkel something she could work with.
The veteran took off, and showed the crowd exactly why she is one of Germany’s most popular female athletes (besides Neuner, of course). Henkel cleaned both stages without using a single spare round, gaining momentum as she went and never having to dig too deep to maintain her comfortable lead.
When she skied into the stadium, she picked up a full-sized German flag and carried it, fluttering in the breeze, across the finish line. The stadium filled with a deafening roar.
“We all knew that we had a chance, and that we could do it, and we did,” Henkel said simply in a press conference.
Marie Dorin Habert anchored France to silver, which she said was a relief after missing bronze in the 15 k individual by just 3.6 seconds.
The most exciting aspect of the final leg turned out to be the battle for bronze. As the fourth skiers from each team left the exchange zone, Ukraine had a 20-second hold on third place, followed by Slovakia.
But second-ranked World Cup racer Darya Domracheva was anchoring for Belarus, third-ranked Tora Berger for Norway, and sixth-ranked Helena Ekholm for Sweden.. They started in eighth, fifth, and sixth, but Domracheva shot perfectly, and Berger and ekholm used a single spare round apiece, which was significantly better than either Ukraine or Slovakia.
By the time the trio, each of whom has already won at least a medal if not a title this week, left the standing stage, they were separated by eight seconds and the game was on.
“I tried to do my best, because I was sure that Domracheva would be really strong,” Berger said. “She has been strong at these Championships and really strong this season.”
It was a battle, and Domracheva had a slightly faster time on the last loop. But she couldn’t quite close the gap, finishing just under two seconds behind Berger and the bronze medal.
“In the last uphill I was a little bit before her, and had the chance to take the bronze medal,” Berger said.
The Norwegians – like the men’s team before them – hadn’t gotten a great start to the relay, with Fanny Welle-Strand Horn using four spare round and tagging off a minute behind the leaders in 12th. But Elise Ringen brought the team into fifth and Synnøve Solemdal kept them there, despite using four spares of her own.
“I gained a lot of experience this season, but I don’t think I showed this experience in the standing shooting, with my three mistakes,” she said in the press conference. “I think that Tora was the one who brought us back in line today.”
After attending the downtown medal ceremony on Wednesday night when Berger received her gold medal for the individual race, the team decided that they would join her on the stage in the relay.
“We said that we wanted to stand up there, and be pop stars for the night,” Welle-Strand Horn told Norwegian newspaper GD.
Ekholm brought Sweden home in fifth. Ukraine fell to sixth, Russia placed seventh, and Slovakia eighth, with Poland and the Czech Republic rounding out the top ten.