Taking herself, her coaches and the biathlon world completely by surprise, 23-year-old Gabriella Soukalova (CZE) won the 7.5 k sprint in Pokljuka, Slovenia, on Friday. The win is her first ever on the World Cup; prior to this she had only one top-ten on her record. Second place went to Miriam Gössner (GER) and third to Nadezhda Skardino (BLR).
“This was the race of my dreams,” a smiling Soukalova said in the press conference. “This summer when I was ill, I never expected that this would happen.”
Her clean shooting in both stages ultimately gave her the edge over Gössner, whom she beat by only 2.1 seconds. Gössner skied the first lap 13.1 seconds faster than Soukalova and spent less time on the range, but two errors in the standing position put her at a deficit going into the final 2.5 k.
Gössner very nearly climbed out of it, too, as she posted the fastest final lap time, but Soukalova was able to hold her off, won, and has already been dubbed the Czech Republic’s new rising star.
“This joy keeps me warm and alive,” said Czech coach Jindřich Šikola to iDNES.cz. Two years ago, he says he could not have imagined a result like Friday’s, with two women in the top ten (another of his athletes,Veronika Vitkova, was eighth).
“Since the beginning of the season the team [is] in a great mood, the girls hold together. We are on the winning wave,” Šikola said.
Soukalova is not traditionally a strong shooter; she made two mistakes in the Oestersund sprint and two again in Hochfilzen last week. On Friday, however, she stopped over thinking things on the range and shot perfectly.
“I did not think about the shooting from the start as I normally do so maybe that was the key. I am very happy with what happened today,” Soukalova said.
“This is great promotion for our team and the World Championships in Nove Mesto…I do not know if my shape will be this good for those Championships, but I will do my best.”
Friday’s win propelled Soukalova from tenth to fourth in the overall World Cup rankings.
Gössner, despite barely missing the top of the podium, was pleased with her result. Her season thus far has been on the upswing relative to the previous one, and second place is the 22-year-old’s best 2012 finish yet.
“My running shape is quite good right now,” she said. “I am past my problems now. After a good summer of training I just started over and focused on this new season.”
In the slow, snowy conditions on Friday the top two women put distance between themselves and the next finisher; Skardino ended up 30.1 seconds back in third despite clean shooting. Her first lap was relatively slow, 18.6 seconds slower than Gössner’s. She later moved within 15 seconds of Soukalova, but lost another 15 seconds in the final few kilometers.
Skardino said she hadn’t really expected a podium finish on Friday, “but I know that if I run well and shot well, it is always a possibility…It was only on the final loop that my coach told me I was in second and I should run hard!”
Men and women’s biathlon action continues on Saturday with a 10/15 k pursuit.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.