ÖSTERSUND, Sweden – It took perfect shooting for Canada’s Jean Philippe Le Guellec to ski to an 18-second win earlier this afternoon in the men’s 10 k sprint.
Tora Berger in the women’s 7.5 k edition? Not so much.
The Norwegian powerhouse missed a shot in standing, but still cruised to a 16.9-second victory over Olena Pidhrushna of Ukraine, with Olga Vilukhina of Russia placing third another two and a half seconds behind. In fact, the first four finishers all had a penalty in standing; Andrea Henkel of Germany shot clean, but was only able to secure fifth place.
It was the second win in a row for Berger, who used sensational 20-for-20 shooting to notch a big win in Thursday’s 15 k individual race. It was hard to say which race was better, she said, but shooting was one measure.
“I’m really happy for the shooting in the individual, and today I missed one,” Berger said in a press conference.
She said that she may have been “too eager” in standing shooting, and hoped to improve that in tomorrow’s pursuit race.
Berger also overcame a fall in the last corner of the course. It’s an icy downhill hairpin that in past years had felled legendary teammate Ole Einar Bjørndalen, costing him a win. This time, it didn’t stop a Norwegian from reaching the top of the podium.
“I took a chance on that last corner,” Berger said. “But I was skiing was so it was okay.”
Berger’s ski time improved from the individual, where she had used a very deliberate strategy to achieve her perfect range score. Today, she had the fifth-fastest ski time, which was enough to make up for mistakes on the range and on the trails.
“It was just poor execution by me,” Berger elaborated to Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. “It was icy, and maybe I risked a little bit too much. I went really hard into the corner on the first two laps, but not on the last one.”
Behind the Norwegian star, Pidhrushna had the race of her career. 25 years old and already an Olympian and several-time World Championships competitor, the Ukrainian had never been on the podium in a World Cup individual race. Instead, twin sisters Vita and Valj Semerenko have been the stars of the team. But she was due for a good result, Pidhrushna said in the postrace press conference.
“We all the time do our preparations all together, so any of the four of us could have the same result,” she explained through a translator. “But for me there hasn’t been so much luck, and now I feel like the stars have aligned for me and I had good luck.”
What one person could call luck, another could call preparation. The cold wind that blew through the Östersund stadium presented a challenge to all the competitors, yet Pidhrushna said she was ready for it.
“The weather conditions were very hard and I felt it through the whole race, all over my body,” she said. “But I did very good mental preparation, and had very good resolve to go through it with the weather. The competition was quite good today for my speed.”
Vilukhina continued a strong run here in Sweden; she participated in the winning mixed relay team on Sunday, then placed fifth in the individual race. Despite winning a bronze medal in the pursuit at 2012 World Championships, Vilukhina has never before strung together such a run of good results.
“I’m happy today,” she said in the press conference. “It was a really nice – my skis worked very well, and I was very happy. The skiing was much better than in the individual race.”
But it’s Berger who is clearly having the best run. After finishing third in the World Cup standings in 2012, she has said that winning the overall title is a big goal for this season. She certainly is off to a good start, and will retain the yellow bib for a while – Vilukhina was the only other racer to repeat a top-six finish, so the Norwegian has jumped to a big early win in the points. It’s more than even she was hoping for.
“I was not expecting that I should win the two first competitions, and I am very lucky for that,” she smiled when she was informed that she had tied the record number of wins – four – for a woman here in Östersund, and that she could stand alone if she won tomorrow’s pursuit. “I didn’t know that, but I will try to my best. I’ll try to just think about myself, and I think there will be some people around me tomorrow so I will try to stay focused.”
Vilukhina’s teammate Olga Zaitseva placed fourth (+23.9), followed by Henkel (+26.5) who sat in the lead for many minutes after starting with bib number two. Jana Gerekova of Slovakia tied the best result of her career in sixth (+35.2), while 2012 World Cup runner-up Darya Domracheva of Belarus struggled with three missed shots to place seventh (+37.7). Marie Laure Brunet of France (+43.3), Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic (+43.6), and Zina Kocher of Canada (+46.2) rounded out the top ten.
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.