Tora Berger couldn’t stand to relive the memory again. It didn’t matter when it happened, that feeling of missing just one target was something she vowed not to experience. Not Thursday, not this season if she could help it.
If there’s a motto for Berger, the 31-year-old Norwegian biathlete who could be her nation’s best shot at an overall World Cup title since Liv Grete Poirée in 2004, it’s dream big and go hard. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
Berger lived up to her own expectations Thursday in the women’s 15-kilometer individual race in Östersund, Sweden, shooting a perfect 20-for-20 to seal a 1:03.2-minute victory over Darya Domracheva of Belarus. Last season’s overall World Cup runner-up (just ahead of Berger in third), Domracheva won the same season opener in Östersund last year; Berger was 29th with three misses.
“I’ve had a few contests that I’ve missed the last shot; I’d never want to do again,” Berger told NRK after the race, according to a translation. “Therefore, I was very specific in the shooting, took my time and completed every shot. It worked.”
Patience turned out to be the guiding bullet for Berger, who started the race in a humble-yet-key fourth place after several top athletes shot clean on the first prone stage. She then repeated the feat in stages two, three and four, something only three others did out of 101 finishers.
Ekaterina Glazyrina of Russia was among the few, shooting clean for her first career World Cup podium in third (+2:10.2).
But it was Domracheva who gave Berger a run after initially ranking 38th when she missed a shot on the first prone. Domracheva then improved to second by lap two – that’s right – the fastest loop time and clean shooting in the second stage put Domracheva in prime position, and she held it until the last standing stage when she faltered with one costly miss.
With one-minute penalties dealt per missed shot, that was something she couldn’t make up, and Berger maintained her cool to stand atop the podium.
Given how fast Domracheva was skiing, Berger figured she wouldn’t have a chance if the Belarusian shot clean. Starting three bibs ahead of her, Berger focused on herself and goal to hit every target.
“I thrive in pressure situations,” Berger said. “Today I was very good at not feeling the pressure. I know I’ve done a lot right in training and it makes me feel safe.”
NRK Biathlon expert Ola Lunde believed Berger’s shooting was one of the best of her career. That’s a good thing when it’s the first race of the year.
She’s already stated her intention to win the World Cup outright so putting herself in the yellow jersey on Thursday was a superb start.
“I’ll do my best to keep [it] before the season is finished,” Berger said. “I hope I sent a warning shot to competitors.”
After the race, Domracheva had nothing but compliments for Berger and tried not to make excuses, except that her eyes were watering badly from the cold (around -9 degrees Celsius or 15 degrees F) on the last standing stage and final loop.
“Still, it was a good race for me and I have to thank the wax team for the fast skis,” she said at an International Biathlon Union (IBU) press conference. “Tora was a great shooter today and she deserved the win … I won here last here but was second in World Cup total score. This year, I hope the opposite is true! The most important thing for me this season is to be good in each start.”
Glazyrina hovered around third throughout the race, posting relatively fast ski times (between fifth and seventh for the first two and final loops) and efficient range times while shooting 20-for-20.
“I really expected to shoot clean and I am proud about that, but also proud that I made my first podium,” Glazyrina said at the press conference. “Third place was in my mind before I started today.”
Following in fourth, Selina Gasparin of Switzerland looked to be contending for a podium but two misses in both standing stages set her back to exactly 3 minutes behind Berger. Russians Olga Vilukhina and Ekaterina Yurlova were fifth and sixth, respectively, with one penalty apiece, and Krystyna Palka (POL) was seventh with one miss. Andrea Henkel (GER) took eighth with two penalties, Kaisa Makarainen (FIN) was ninth with four misses, and Gabriela Soukalova (CZE) placed 10th after missing three.
Kocher in the Running
The top North American, Canada’s Zina Kocher placed 23rd with three misses, two of which came in the last round to put her 4:21.7 behind Berger at the finish. The result didn’t exactly meet her expectations, but wasn’t far off, either. With one fewer miss, Kocher was confident she could place in the top 15 and even reach the podium.
“It was a good start to the WC, with great potential for better performance,” Kocher wrote in an email, adding that she felt some jetlag effects after arriving in Sweden early last week.
“I felt more tired today in the race than Sunday’s mixed relay, and I think that has to do with the recovery during the first week,” she wrote. “Being the first Individual of the year, it’s always tricky to find your right pace, not push too hard before the standing, and keeping energy for the final lap. But I think overall I managed this quite well.”
While Kocher didn’t know she ranked ninth going into the final standing stage, she understood its implications.
“I knew that I could have a good result if I cleaned … so I really had to focus on cue words to stay with the ‘act’ of shooting,” she wrote. “Missing 2 in the final shooting was definitely a disappointment, especially when you look at the ‘what if’!”
Someone else who felt similarly was Annelies Cook, the top American in 46th (+6:20) who had just one miss and was ranked 28th going into the final stage. Cook ended up missing two more, adding two minutes and putting her nearly 20 places back.
“Coming into the fourth stage, I was excited and trying to not be excited,” Cook wrote in an email. “A friend of mine yelled my name really loudly and I was just so happy to be in that moment, that I couldn’t help but smile. I knew that if I cleaned it would mean good things and I kept telling myself to stay focused and that the target was my friend. But I missed. Such a biathlon moment.”
One exciting part of her race was getting some TV time in bib 99 while skiing with several top skiers for all but the last lap.
“I think I am in a good spot to keep improving,” Cook added. “I think I am fit, but I don’t have the high-end race speed yet and that will come with a few more races under my belt. It was nice to get one out of the way and enjoy the feeling of racing again.”
The second Canadian, Rosanna Crawford placed 61st (+7:51.2) for one of her best individual World Cup results. She had four misses – one per stage – which wasn’t on par with her 90-percent shooting goal, but was better than last year when she missed seven at this opening race.
“So not a total disaster but not good enough,” Crawford wrote in an email.
Still, she was satisfied with her ski time and couldn’t get over how fast her skis felt.
“I have NEVER had skis that fast they were incredible!” she wrote. “I loved it, felt like I was on a roller coaster on the downhills! I made some big gains this summer, and I feel like I will be able to show that more in the shorter races. Individuals are just too long for my liking!”
American Sara Studebaker placed 76th (+9:25.3) with four misses – two on both the second and third stages. Teammate Susan Dunklee went from the top 20 early on to 81st when she missed three in the third stage (after missing one apiece in the first two). Dunklee couldn’t shake the penalties and missed two more on the final stage to end up with seven total. Lanny Barnes (USA) finished 84th with four misses – two in both the first and second prones.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.