ÖSTERSUND, Sweden – To beat Tora Berger these days, you have to defeat her not only on the trails, but also on the range.
And that has proved more or less impossible here in Östersund. In three races, the Norwegian has taken 50 shots and missed just two of them. That feat was matched by only four women: Andrea Henkel of Germany, Marie Laure Brunet of France, Nadezhda Skardino of Belarus, and Eva Tofalvi of Romania.
None started particularly close to Berger in the pursuit – Henkel was 26 seconds back and Brunet 43 – so Berger took the 17-second lead she started with and ran with it. While Saturday’s second-place finisher, Olena Pidhrushna of Ukraine, missed three shots and the third-place finisher, Olga Vilukhina of Russia, missed two, Berger had a single penalty over four stages and was never threatened for the win.
Berger came into the final stage with a lead so big that she left the range before the next three competitors even hit their mats; she was finished skiing her penalty loop far before they finished shooting. It gave her a third win in as many races – what’s more perfect than that?
Hitting one more target, it turns out. For the perfectionist within, Berger’s performance was not good enough.
“It was not so great on the tracks today, and not so great also on the shooting range,” she said in a press conference. “It was very good until my last shooting, but there I had a penalty there. It was a not so good day, but it was okay to have [a bad day] now. I was still number one.”
Despite having just the 17th-fastest ski time, Berger finished with a 29.8 second lead. She said that rather than worrying about the women chasing her, she focused on her own race.
“That’s how you can do really well,” she explained.
Well, that and shooting well: only two competitors in the 60-woman field shot better than Berger and hit all their targets. She also, as usual, had the fastest shooting times in the standing stages, clocking in at 24.1 and 23.5 seconds. Still, despite her recent excellence on the range, Berger takes nothing for granted.
“I have to fight for all the targets,” she said. “It is not ever easy now.”
So far, a revolving cast of characters has popped up in the quest to follow Berger. For the first time this season, the favorite reared her head: Darya Domracheva of Belarus, last year’s runner-up in the overall World Cup. With the 2012 champion, Magdalena Neuner of Germany, having retired, Domracheva was expected to be a main contender. But this week she has struggles with the cold this week: “It was a problem for me,” she said. Berger had no such concerns, saying that she wore wool.
Today, she climbed from seventh up to second place while matching Berger’s shooting accuracy, if not speed. While her course time was 17 seconds faster than Berger’s, her shooting was 16 seconds slower. As long as she hits her shots, Domracheva is unconcerned about shooting times, saying that one penalty was just fine.
“It was quite a good race,” she said in the press conference. “I was hoping for a bit better, but I have to work in the coming weeks – on all things.”
En route to second place, Domracheva mainly had to overcome Henkel, who was one of the two women to shoot clean. But Henkel’s skiing is not exceptional at the moment, and despite heading out on the third loop thirteen seconds ahead of Domracheva, the two entered the range for the last time together.
Each hit all their targets, but Domracheva did so faster, and then put another ten seconds into the German on the last loop. Henkel finished 51.5 seconds behind Berger and more than 20 from Domracheva.
“I had trouble taking my standing position because my ski every time was slipping away,” Henkel said in the press conference. “So I took my time, and that was worth it.”
While she had “hoped quite hard” for a podium in the pursuit after finishing the sprint in fifth place, Henkel was realistic about her skiing ability.
“We didn’t prepare for being in perfect shape here,” she said. “We want to have good shape at the beginning of next year, January, February. So far so good… My coach says that I should not think I can be in good shape for the whole four months anymore, because I am too old. So I’m taking my focus on the World Championships and hoping again for an individual medal.”
As for the others, they are clearly aiming for both World Championships and the overall World Cup. Berger has stated that she hopes to win the World Cup this season after finishing third last year. First, she has to conquer Hochfilzen, Austria, next weekend, a venue that hasn’t historically been kind to her.
“I will try to do my best in the next races,” she said. “I’ll try to do it better this year.”
As for Domracheva, she has a new mark to match after spending so much of last season chasing Neuner around Europe.
“For sure, Tora is the strongest right now,” she said. “But there are also some other athletes who can be fast.”
A sampling of the possibilities: Vilukhina and Pidhrushna finished fourth (+1:10.0) and fifth (+1:15.2), followed by Brunet of France in sixth (+1:19.0). Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic moved from ninth up to seventh (+1:24.4), while Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia and Ekaterina Glazyrina of Russia broke into the top ten after disappointing sprint races, placing eighth (+1:40.9) and ninth (+1:42.4). Jana Gerekova of Slovakia rounded out the top ten (+1:47.7).
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.