After climbing so high and winning her first World Cup in two years on Thursday, Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia probably felt that a weight was lifted off her shoulders – but another was squarely placed on them, as she started Saturday’s pursuit in Antholz-Anterselva, Italy, with the lead and tried to hold onto it.
After a penalty in the first stage she left the range with a few seconds on Kaisa Makarainen, and managed to hang on when the Finn caught her out on the two-kilometer loop. But from there, Kuzmina’s hopes of another podium – let alone a win – disintegrated, as she picked up three penalties in the next prone stage and then one and two in the standing stages.
Instead, it was Makarainen and Olena Pidhrushna of Ukraine who took their turns at the front of the field. With nobody shooting clean through four stages, Pidhrushna’s single penalty tied her for the best shooting in the field. Makarainen didn’t do so well, but skied the third-fastest time over the 10 k course and was consistently leading or near the front.
Pidhrushna left the third stage with a ten second lead over Makarainen and Teja Gregorin of Slovenia. But the pair worked together and gradually cut away second after second from the Ukrainian’s time and by the time they hit the range, Pidhrushna only had a slight advantage – she was maybe one or two shots ahead of the others as they all began shooting at their targets.
After Pidhrushna missed a target, it seemed like there was an opportunity for Makarainen or for Gregorin, who was ranked as high as sixth in the World Cup total score earlier this season but has never won a World Cup.
Instead, Makarainen accumulated two penalties, bringing her total to four for the competition, and Gregorin three.
“I was mentally ready to be first, but when my legs started shaking, there was nothing I could do,” Makarainen said after the race.
It was Tora Berger who shone, after starting in 14th position after an uncharacteristically bad sprint and had moved into sixth place on the previous loop despite two penalties already in the race. Cleaning her targets at her trademark quick place, Berger hit the trails just before Pidhrushna finished her penalty loop.
It was surprising to see so many misses from the top competitors while the wind flags were barely fluttering in the Antholz stadium, but indeed most of the field seemed to struggle with standing today.
“I was as surprised as everyone else when I first went out after the last shooting,” she told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
From there, it was game over, at least for the win. The Norwegian immediately put a sizeable gap on Pidhrushna, and attacked the final loop with a ferocity that was at times difficult to comprehend.
“I am more happy than disappointed with second place,” Pidhrushna said in a press conference. “It is still a good result. When I came out of the last shooting with Tora, I knew I was fighting for second place.”
Olga Vilukhina of Russia had left the range in third place, eight seconds behind Berger, and seemed like a lock for the podium. But she was being chased by Makarainen, who was another 15 seconds back but furious about her penalties, and Nadine Horchler of Germany, just three seconds behind the Russian.
Like Berger, Horchler attacked early in the loop and then passed and dropped Vilukhina. Makarainen, too, soon caught up as the Russian faltered on the trails.
Horchler seemed to be headed for the first podium of her career, but she had made a novice mistake of using her speed too far from the finish line. As the women swept through a large, open field, into the Antholz sunshine and towards the stadium, Makarainen – with Vilukhina in tow – swept past her, the German fading out the back.
It was Makarainen who emerged into the finish stretch in third place, after having mounted an improbably comeback from the last stage.
“I was surprised myself with my last loop; I was over 10 seconds back,” she said. “But on the last hill, I saw them, and found a small place very close to the coaches and got ahead…. I am really tired now.”
That was nothing compared to Berger, though. The sprint had brought up many ideas about the World Cup leader: maybe, as the season wore on, her lead in the standings would diminish. The results seemed like a break for Darya Domracheva, last year’s overall runner-up who finished third and finally scored some points against Berger. But Miriam Gossner of Germany, currently in second, hadn’t scored any points or qualified for the pursuit, a break for the current leader.
Today, Berger proved beyond a doubt that she should never be counted out, and that she was perfectly capable of following up a mediocre performance with a brilliant one.
“I really did not expect to win when I got up this morning,” she said in a press conference. “After a penalty in the second shooting, I thought there was no possibility to win… Then I saw the possibility to win I tried to go as fast as possible.”
In fact, her whole team reminded the world that it’s not just the Norwegian men who are so variably excellent: Ann-Kristin Flatland, in her second weekend back on the World Cup after having a baby last year, raced from 20th place up to sixth in the pursuit despite two penalties, and Synnøve Solemdal moved from 30th to ninth with the same tally.
Berger had been planning to sit out Sunday’s relay, but with the whole team doing so well, she might be called upon to anchor after all.
“We have a good chance to win, so now I may have to be in the relay,” she said.
After a strong sprint race, Annelies Cook was undone by seven penalties and dropped from 18th to 38th in the pursuit. Her American teammates Sara Studebaker and Susan Dunklee moved up slightly: Studebaker from 46th to 39th with four penalties and Dunklee from 49th to 45th with seven.
Zina Kocher and Audrey Vaillancourt of Canada placed 45th and 49th.
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.