Coming into this season, Jakov Fak was in the odd position of having won a World Championship, but never a regular-season World Cup race.
The Croatian-turned-Slovenian turned heads in Ruhpolding, Germany, in March, when his strong shooting gave him a seven-second win over Simon Fourcade of France. It wasn’t his first good race; he had won bronze in the sprint at the Vancouver Olympics, and had two other podiums to his name.
But after placing third in the sprint in Hochfilzen, Austria yesterday and then skiing a smart, clean race to move into the front in today’s pursuit, Fak has gone a long way towards proving that he can be a consistent competitor rather than just making the occasional appearance near the top of the results sheet.
“Most of my podiums before have been in big events and I said that I wanted to be on top of the podium in a World Cup next,” Fak said in a press conference after the race, which he won by 0.9 seconds. “Today, my dream came true…I have been waiting for this almost since I was born…Approaching the finish line was a very emotional experience for me.”
Despite his consistency and a lack of major errors, the 12.5 k pursuit was something of a rollercoaster for Fak. He started in third, and stayed there through the second shooting; there, he cleaned while the other leaders, Martin Fourcade of France and Andi Birnbacher of Germany, collected penalties. So he left on his third loop with the lead, which he extended over the 2.5 k loop. Birnbacher, who had been in second, got swallowed by a group of three Russians.
But in the first standing stage, Fak missed a shot, erasing the lead he had built. Birnbacher and Russians Anton Shipulin and Dimitriy Malyshko cleaned, and Fak was able to pull Malyshko the five seconds up to the leaders. By the final shooting stage, he was back at the front – but he had done some hard work.
So had everyone else. In that final stage, all five of the leaders missed at least one shot. While Fak’s stray bullet must have initially felt like a punch in the gut, something sure to keep him from his long-dreamed-of win, it quickly became apparent that it wouldn’t set him back that much. The first athlete to clean, Fredrik Lindström, was just able to hitch onto the back of the pack of Birnbacher, Fak, Malyshko, and Fourcade as they left the penalty loop.
Based on recent results and swagger, Fourcade was the one expected to make a move and smoke the rest of the men on their skis. But instead, it was Fak who moved to the front and put on a clinic, surging up the long, grinding hill on the far end of the race course.
“I followed my race plan and paced myself from the start,” Fak explained later. “I knew that I had enough power left for a sprint up that last hill if I needed it.”
Only Malyshko was able to do anything resembling following the Slovenian; Fourcade, susprisingly, struggled up the hill. By the time Fak entered the stadium, Malyshko was close behind, but it was clear that the Russian was not going to be able to muster the energy to catch or pass him. Victory belonged to Fak.
“I wanted to do all of the work on the shooting range, not the tracks,” Fak said of the strategy that brought him the win. “Being on position one for the last standing stage is a very different feeling, but I was confident and not nervous, since I am usually very good in standing shooting.”
For Malyshko, second place represented the best finish of his career, and just his second podium on the World Cup, although he was a frequent top-ten finisher during the 2012 season.
Fourcade, who looked completely spent and emotionally deflated after finishing third eight seconds back, said in the press conference that despite three misses he was going for the win, which he thought he could snag. But in the end, he wasn’t shocked that Fak and Malyshko were stronger.
“We all competed together as juniors and I know they are both good, so there is no surprise,” he said.
Lindström was able to pass Birnbacher on the final stretches of the course and secure fourth place, his best result so far this season. Shipulin placed sixth, while Ole Einar Bjørndalen led Norway in seventh.
One of the most exciting sprint finishes of the day was actually for eighth place, with Dominik Landertinger of Austria and Evgeny Ustyugov of Russia ratcheting up the pace again and again over the final kilometers until they appeared to be flying into the stadium. Landertinger managed to edge Ustyugov in the finishing straight, but it took an impressive display of speed. Lowell Bailey of the United States placed tenth.
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.