It’s not that Darya Domracheva hasn’t been fast before.
No, that’s not what makes her form in the last several weeks so impressive. She’s always been fast: the 25-year-old Belorussian biathlete has won eight races and picked up 27 more podiums, including Olympic bronze, in the past few seasons.
But in many of those victories, Domracheva has won by sheer force of will, digging in to the intense head-to-head competition offered up by the World Cup field. This year, her triumphs in the Hochfilzen pursuit and Antholz mass start came despite having one more penalty than the second-place finisher. She only has one sprint victory, and hasn’t won an individual-start race since the very first competition of this season in Östersund, Sweden.
Recently, Domracheva’s shooting under pressure has taken a step up to the next level, with great rewards. Today in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, Domracheva didn’t have to make up so much ground on her skis because even before the final stage, she had one fewer penalty than Magdalena Neuner of Germany, her most frequent adversary. As snow continued to fall at the Siberian venue, the two came into the range for their last bout together, with Vita Semerenko of Ukraine doggedly tucked in behind them.
Just as she had done in the pursuit at World Championships two weeks ago, Domracheva carefully cleaned her final stage. In this case, the others finished shooting before her but were forced to hit the penalty loop. It was a familiar scene: in Ruhpolding, Neuner had come into the range well before the Belorussian, but missed shots while Domracheva cleaned and sailed past her onto the trail.
“I was very happy with my last shooting stage,” Domracheva said in a press conference after today’s race. “I had good concentration; there were three girls together on the shooting line, and it was not so easy.”
Domracheva deliberately slowed her shooting to ensure hits.
“I saw that [Neuner] had two misses, and in my mind I knew that I should clean here.”
Domracheva left the range with a 22-second advantage over Semerenko, who had missed one shot, and had such a large cushion by the time she re-entered the stadium that she stopped to pick up a full-sized Belorussian flag. It fluttered above her in the final meters, and she waved the green and red colors in jubilation, bowing as she crossed the line.
The win secured Domracheva the crystal globe for leading the pursuit standings; it was her first discipline title of any sort, and she finished 20 points ahead of Neuner. Neuner, who holds the lead in the overall rankings, was relegated to fourth place thanks to her penalties in the final stage, and actually lost time to Domracheva on the final loop.
Semerenko left the range in second, but was only about twelve seconds ahead of Kaisa Makarainen of Finland, who had also cleaned that stage. After barely two minutes, the Finn was pulling even with the Ukrainian. Makarainen made the pass and jetted off down the trail, ending up second.
Last year’s overall World Cup winner and the 2011 World Champion in this event, Makarainen hasn’t had such good luck this year. She finished up the pre-World Champs period with a thrilling pursuit victory in Kontiolahti, Finland, but then fell ill and missed a crucial training block heading into Ruhpolding. Her only medal at the Championships was bronze in the pursuit.
“I was motivated to come here,” Makarainen said of her recent troubles. “I maybe skied better yesterday. I felt pretty tired in my legs today, but I like the course here. It fits me well and that helped in the race today.”
Semerenko, who started the day with bib two after placing second in yesterday’s sprint, was overwhelmed to see her second podium in as many days. Early in the race, she had cleaned her prone stages, but been passed on the trails by Neuner and Domracheva. By the time she hit the fourth loop, Semerenko dug in, refusing to be dropped by the two faster skiers. Even though it took a toll and she was unable to hang onto second in the end, she was still pleased.
“My task was to shoot clean,” the Ukrainian, who missed a shot in each standing stage, wondered aloud in the press conference. “I did not think it would be possible to stay in the top three… I cannot believe that I stayed in the top three.”
Tora Berger of Norway finished fifth and Helena Ekholm of Sweden sixth.
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Far enough from the front to be out of contention for the win, but not so far as to be out of the picture entirely, Canada’s Zina Kocher and American biathlete Susan Dunklee battled through the slow conditions.
Starting just a second apart in ninth and tenth, the two worked together for three loops, cleaning both prone stages and remaining in the top ten.
“It was a pretty darn exciting [race], and I my favorite part was working with Zina for the first three laps,” Dunklee told FasterSkier in an e-mail.
In the first standing stage, the two parted ways, with Dunklee cleaning and moving into seventh while Kocher had one penalty and stayed in tenth. But even after separating, the two were well-matched. They missed a shot apiece in the final stage, and their ski times were within three to seven seconds of each other on each loop.
Dunklee finished ninth on the day after losing a sprint finish to Marie Dorin Habert of France – which she said was one of the only negative things she could find about her race.
“I started the last loop right behind Marie and let her dictate the pace,” Dunklee explained. “I was confident that I could catch her in a finishing sprint, but I wasn’t very smart about making my move. I sprinted hard up the last uphill into the stadium, but I got stuck on the outside of the corner going over the top and she won the battle. I should have tried to pass her earlier.”
Despite ending on a slightly sour note, the result was still her best in World Cup racing (she placed fifth in the individual at World Championships) and tied the best four-stage shooting of her career.
Like Domracheva, Dunklee said her approach on the range was to be careful.
“My shooting felt very deliberate again today as it as been for the last few races, but I wasn’t entirely in the zone,” she said. “I was more aware than I should have been of what was going on around me. Tora [Berger] shoots fast in standing! Next year I plan to cut down my range times substantially, but right now I am happy to be hitting targets.”
Dunklee’s teammate Sara Studebaker had a less satisfying day on the range, missing two shots in the first stage and slipped ten places, from 37th to 47th, right off the bat.
“It’s always hard to miss in the first stage of a pursuit because you lose contact and it’s tough to come back,” she told FasterSkier. “But I felt that I skied a smart race and am happy with the outcome all things considered.”
After climbing her way back up to 42nd, Studebaker missed two more shots in the last stage. She wound up 44th.
It wasn’t the way she had hoped to end the season; after struggling to find last season’s form in the first half of the year, Studebaker had placed 15th in the sprint in Kontiolahti, and hoped that it was a sign of things to come for World Championships and these races in Russia. That’s not the way it turned out, however, and the Finnish sprint will end up as her only top-20 of the season.
“I’m definitely not satisfied with my season this year, but I am looking forward to making some changes and coming back stronger,” Studebaker said. “I had some moments of brilliance with Oslo and Kontiolahti and several other races in the top-40, so I know the potential is there!”
Canada’s Megan Imrie was lapped and did not finish the race.