After yesterday’s sprint race, where Synnøve Solemdal came so close to having her first World Cup podium but got bumped from third place by more famous Norwegian teammate Tora Berger, she made a prediction: that all she had to do was to ski a good pursuit race, and the podium would finally be hers.
Solemdal accomplished that and more in Hochfilzen, Austria, today, missing only a single shot out of twenty to stay in the running for the whole race before taking charge in the later stages and skiing to an easy 30-second victory.
“It’s crazy,” the 23-year-old told NRK, the Norwegian broadcaser. “Everyone was cheering ‘Synnøve’ all the way to the finish.”
In the first half of the race, it had been Kaisa Makarainen of Finland leading the way. Yesterday’s winner, Darya Domracheva of Belarus, missed two shots in the first prone stage and effectively took herself out of the race for the next several laps. Makarainen, the 2011 World Cup champion who placed second in the sprint, cleaned and left with a 13-second lead over Tora Berger. The fastest skier yesterday, Makarainen put time into the Norwegian, then cleaned her second stage to gain an even bigger advantage.
By the time Makarainen missed two shots in the first standing stage, nobody else was even shooting yet. But Solemdal was first to fire all her rounds, and she shot perfectly, smiling as she put her rifle on her back and left the range. She had a seven-second lead on Makarainen heading out onto the trails.
Makarainen quickly closed the gap, but was unable to pass Solemdal; they came into the final shooting stage together, turning the last five shots into a psychological battle. It was a fight that Solemdal won, cleaning yet another while Makarainen missed twice, shooting wide.
“My standing shooting was not so good,” Makarainen said in a press conference after the race. “My legs were shaking on the last stage. I never have this problem in training, but it was there today. I need to work on that.”
Meanwhile, a single miss, coming in the first stage, was Solemdal’s best ever in a World Cup.
“I have never hit more than 18 targets and today I hit 19,” she said. “The standing targets looked so big today! I don’t know what happened.”
As the next two racers, Domracheva and Marie Dorin Habert of France, each missed a shot, it seemed like Makarainen might have a chance to stay in second. But Berger, coming into the range late after collecting a penalty in each of the previous two stages, shot clean and left in second. Solemdal had a 45-second lead and would not be challenged on the final two-kilometer loop, but Berger, Domracheva, Makarainen, and Teja Gregorin of Slovenia all left within a few seconds of each other.
They formed a tight pack, and initially Domracheva moved to the front, trying to ski away from the rest. But Makarainen quickly hunted her down. The group came back together briefly before Berger put in an attack; only Makarainen was able to go with her. While the pair had initially only a small gap on the others, it widened as the meters ticked by. First one would push the pace, then the other.
Berger finally made an aggressive move on a sweeping downhill, 90-degree turn late in the course, passing Makarainen on the inside and carrying her momentum towards the finish line. Makarainen could almost regain contact, but as they skied through the final tunnel, Berger put in a furious burst with her trademark high tempo and left no doubt about whether the Finn could keep up. She couldn’t. Berger crossed the line in second, immediately congratulating Solemdal.
“This maybe was not the hardest competition of my life, but it was hard,” Berger said in the post-race press conference. “I tried to stay focused in the last loop and keep ahead of Kaisa.”
The sprint for fourth place ended with Gregorin charging to the line, past an exhausted, giving-up Domracheva who may have thought she had closed the door on the Slovenian.
Miriam Gossner of Germany passed Dorin Habert late in the loop to secure sixth, while Ekaterina Shumilova of Russia placed eighth for her first World Cup top-ten. Vita Semerenko of Ukraine placed ninth and Germany’s Nadine Horchler tenth.
But all attention was on Solemdal, who had raised her arms in victory as she coasted across the finish line, finally achieving not only her longstanding goal of a World Cup podium, but an even bigger goal – winning. She didn’t thank Berger after being knocked off the podium in the sprint, but today she gave credit to her mentor for helping her reach this level.
“Just watching Tora last week win three times was a great inspiration,” Solemdal said. “This summer, I trained very hard and watched Tora and tried to copy what she did.”
The other podium finishers congratulated the young racer as well; Berger must have been especially relieved, as it was the first time since 2005 that two Norwegian women finished in the top three. Finally, Berger has a teammate she can rely on.
“I am really happy for Synnøve,” Makarainen agreed. “I have known her for a long time and she deserves this win!”
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Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.