At only one point in Sunday’s 12.5 k mass start was Tora Berger ever not in control of the race.
The Norwegian, who had won three of season’s seven individual races coming into Sunday and started in the yellow overall leader’s bib, told broadcaster NRK that she was “on a roll and determined” to win another race after a crash kept her off the podium in the previous day’s pursuit.
And indeed the only thing to even momentarily stop Berger’s momentum was not the competition, but the fog in Pokljuka, Slovenia. After about half the field cleaned the first prone stage, they re-entered the range to find that the fog was obscuring their view of the targets. Three women – Selina Gasparin of Switzerland, Rosanna Crawford of Canada, and Ekaterina Yurlova of Russia – managed to knock down all five of the targets, but Berger accrued two penalties.
She wasn’t alone. Only a few women managed to get away with only a single penalty, and some big names like Kaisa Makarainen of Finland and Olena Pidhrushna of Ukraine, both of whom have already been on the podium this season, couldn’t even hit one target, and were stuck skiing five penalty loops.
“I saw very little on the second shooting, so it was difficult,” Berger said.
But she continued her roll and soon caught first teammate Tiril Ekhoff, who had escaped with one missed shot, and Yurlova. By the time Berger returned to the range she was right behind Gasparin. The Swiss racer missed two shots but Berger cleaned, and never looked back. Leaving with a three-second lead over Russia’s Olga Zaitseva, who had followed her up to the front, she expanded the gap.
On the final standing stage, Berger turned in what NRK called a “Tora-special” and knocked down all five targets in just eight seconds. Not even the men can shoot faster.
From there it was smooth sailing and Berger picked up her landmark 20th World Cup win by a margin of 35 seconds.
“I could not end 2012 any better than this,” Berger said. “Now I can take my Christmas break with a good conscience.”
As Berger was running away with the race, however, the battle for second place had just begun. Zaitseva seemed to be positioned well, after she also cleaned the third stage and left so close to the Norwegian. Andrea Henkel of Germany was close behind, then Yurlova.
Henkel passed Zaitseva to move into second, and was soon joined by teammate Miriam Gössner, a quick skier who had skated past Yurlova as well. As Berger set up on the first point and began knocking down targets, the Germans swung into the range. But they didn’t fare as well: Henkel missed three shots and dropped several places, while Gössner missed one and also hit the penalty loop.
Luckily for Gössner, the Russians also had a penalty apiece, so the German was able to hit the trails in second place. After cleaning the final stage, Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic – who had won Friday’s sprint – quietly snuck into fourth place behind Zaitseva. But the Russian veteran was flagging on the final loop, and Soukalova flew past her, making up the four second gap and adding another 18 seconds by the finish to secure third place.
Like Soukalova, Gössner had gotten the first win of her career this weekend, in the pursuit. The young Czech and German biathletes now sit second and third in the overall World Cup standings behind Berger, which certainly wasn’t predicted coming into this season.
“It was a really good weekend,” Gössner said in a press conference. “You never know what will happen in the future so I enjoyed this… I always have fun. That is why I do biathlon.”
Soukalova agreed, but also noted that the first period of racing has worn her down. In order to maintain this level of performance in January, she needs a break.
“Before the race, I just wanted it to be over – I was so tired!” she said in the press conference. “I am very satisfied with my week, but am looking forward to the rest and some training. It will be great to see my family.”
Zaitseva and Yurlova placed fourth and fifth for the Russian team, followed by Teja Gregorin of Slovenia and Krystyna Palka of Poland. Olga Vilukhina skied into eighth to put three Russians in the top ten; Marie Dorin Habert and Anais Bescond of France rounded things out.
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After a string of personal bests that put her in the World Cup points for the five times, including a sensational 12th-place finish in the Pokljuka sprint, Rosanna Crawford qualified for the 30-person mass start for the very first time this weekend.
“I was pretty nervous going into yesterday’s race, but knew there was nothing to lose and to just have some fun,” the 24-year-old Canmore native told FasterSkier in an e-mail.
So far, Crawford’s collection of top-30 results have been possible via much-improved shooting. Things didn’t start out auspiciously, though, when she collected two penalties in the very first stage of the mass start.
“The wind was fluttering a bit to the right but I didn’t think it merit a correction, sadly I should have gone two left,” she wrote. “I missed two with my whole group at three o’clock. Nothing like leaving the penalty loop in 30th!”
But the Canadian kept her cool and by the time she made it to the second stage – where all three of the podium finishers had struggled so mightily with the fog – she was focused and cleaned all her targets.
“Crazy fog had rolled into the range and made it really hard to see the target, but I was able to knock them all down,” Crawford wrote.
That moved her into 11th, and Crawford said that the rest of the race “was a blur.” In the first standing stage she missed two more targets, and then in the final stage hit the penalty loop one last time. Despite the imperfect shooting, she finished 22nd. And Crawford was good on her skis, too, skiing an aggressive last lap; after her first career-best performance she had told FasterSkier that the last lap was her Achilles heel, but on Sunday that was not the case.
“I managed to get an Italian on the last uphill, and almost got [World Champion] Darya [Domracheva] at the finish line,” Crawford explained. “Finishing in 22nd, not bad for my first mass start I’d say.”
While Crawford had begun to adjust her goals as training went better and better this summer, the performances she’s turned in in Hochfilzen, Austria, and in Pokljuka were still a bit hard for her to process.
“The start of the season has been great for me,” she wrote. “I knew I had made improvements, but to see a change this big from last year is amazing. It’s been a month in Europe, 11 races and the last five all being top 30’s.”
A typical perfectionist, Crawford isn’t content to let things rest. On Monday she made it home to Canmore, where she’s happy to see her family and friends, including sister Chandra Crawford, who made the sprint final on home turf during this weekend’s cross country World Cup. But after resting a bit and catching up, the biathlete will refocus so she can return to action on January 2nd in Oberhof, Germany.
“Hopefully the 2nd half of the season will also be filled with personal bests!” she wrote. “My main thing to work on over the break is shooting better in 20 shot races.”
Crawford now sits 28th in the overall World Cup standings; teammate Zina Kocher is 31st.
No other North American women qualified for the mass start.
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.