BiathlonRacingAfter Early Leaders’ Blunders on Range, Strong and Steady Zaitseva Takes Reins in Oberhof

Avatar Chelsea LittleJanuary 6, 2013
A single penalty in the final stage would have allowed the chasers to catch Olga Zaitseva of Russia. But the veteran carefully hit her targets, and skied off for her first win of the season.

The weather gods of Oberhof, Germany, had one last laugh on Sunday, as wind factored heavily in the fate of biathletes in the World Cup pursuits.

After notching victory in Saturday’s sprint, Miriam Gössner set out in a quest to win again – and make progress toward cathing Norway’s Tora Berger at the top of the World Cup rankings. The fastest skier in the field, she extended her two-second lead from the start and was the first to hit the shooting range.

But in her first prone stage, things went far from as planned. Try as she might, Gössner couldn’t hit a single target, and quickly picked up five penalties. While she has had a reputation in the past for squandering her ski speed by missing shots, Gössner seemed to be shooting more consistently this season. Then this.

“To me, I thought that no longer happens, but I guess I misjudged the wind,” she told biathlon-online.de.

She dropped to eleventh and ceded the lead to Berger, who had started second and cleaned the first stage. But when Berger entered the range for the second prone stage, she had a nearly identical experience: she entered all alone, but then missed four shots.

“I can’t remember the last time I shot so badly,” Berger told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the race. “It was sad, but I guess I must have some bad days too. I don’t know what happened. The shots went to the right, so I guess the wind was somewhat different and I wasn’t able to read it properly.”

So Berger, too, dropped out of the lead.

That left the woman who had started third, Andrea Henkel. With clean shooting in the first stage and a single penalty in the second, the German veteran was able to take the lead, 17 seconds ahead of Russia’s Olga Zaitseva. Marie Dorin Habert of France moved into third, another ten seconds back.

Despite Gössner’s missteps – she had missed two more shots in the first standing stage – the Oberhof fans had something to cheer about. Henkel, who went to school there and is a hometown hero, skated into the stadium for her first standing stage hoping to turn things around for Germany.

Instead, she picked up two penalties. She didn’t drop out of contention, just into second behind Zaitseva, who had a penalty of her own. Henkel was down 14 seconds and hit the trail just ahead of Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic and Valj Semerenko of Ukraine, who had started 16th and 14th but each only missed one shot to gradually climb through the field.

On the last loop both caught Henkel, as did Ukraine’s Olena Pidhrushna; another chase pack loomed behind. With the top five women separated by less time than it takes to ski a penalty loop, the final stage was clearly going to determine the winner.

But Zaitseva did not cave under the pressure. The 34-year-old, who has twice won Olympic relay gold, carefully dropped all five targets and skied away as the others were taking their first shots.

“I think it was the final shooting stage both yesterday and today [that brought me success],” she said in a press conference. “I really concentrated on this both days; all during the loop before the last shooting, this was on my mind.”

As she skated off toward victory, Vitkova and Semerenko cleaned as well. Henkel had one penalty and Pidhrushna three, dropping them out of contention. The Czech left the range just under three seconds ahead of Semerenko thanks to her quick shooting, and held that margin to the end.

It was Vitkova’s first podium, and is helping the Czech’s assert themselves on the biathlon scene. Teammate Gabriela Soukalova had also never been on the podium before this year, but was in the top three in three separate races before the Christmas break, including when she won the sprint in Pokljuka, Slovenia. While Soukalova is sitting out this weekend of racing, she still helped Vitkova.

“The training that I did with Gabriela Soukalova” was why she could finish second, Vitkova said.

Meanwhile, Semerenko continued a string of success by her team this weekend after contributing to the winning relay effort on Thursday; the men’s team finished fourth on Friday.

“I am very happy for our team and all of the fans in the Ukraine,” she said. “Each good result is like a bit of sunlight for us each day.”

Berger managed to sneak into fourth despite missing a total of seven shots, while Darya Domracheva of Belarus was fifth with five penalties. Gössner finished tenth with ten missed shots.

She probably has the same feeling that Berger does.

“I think I’ll just forget this shooting as fast as possible,” Berger told NRK. “The positive thing is that I felt good physically.”

The lone U.S. racer to qualify for the pursuit, Sara Studebaker, did not start because she felt like she was getting sick.

For Canada, Zina Kocher had an impressive running, starting as the last woman in 60th place after a frustrating sprint but missing only four shots to move up to 34th. While four penalties isn’t usually impressive, given the blunders by almost every member of the field, it was a solid result. Megan Heinicke moved from 52nd up to 41st with just three penalties.

Results (pdf)

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Chelsea Little

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.

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