When Miriam Gössner took to the trails in Ruhpolding, Germany, today, it was hard to believe that anyone could beat her.
The diminutive German biathlete flew around the course, trademark high tempo boosting her up the hills and over the sticky, freshly-fallen snow. In bib 6, she made quite an impression in the 7.5 k sprint. Missing just a single shot in standing, she was clearly the woman to beat; these days, she needs many more errors to remove herself from contention.
But Gössner didn’t inspire the same confidence in herself.
“I did not expect to win after the penalty in standing,” she said in a press conference. “In Ruhpolding, the top finishers are always quite close. I expected someone to shoot clean and win.”
While the Ruhpolding course often leads to strong shooting – the range approach is downhill and the range itself is built into a bit of a knoll – today the racers had an added challenge in tough skiing conditions. While it was icy and sugary in the women’s relay on Wednesday, and then snowed and dumped heavy slush on the trails during the men’s relay, Friday brought a new challenge: fresh, clumpy snow.
“It was quite dry and sticky,” U.S. racer Annelies Cook said of the snow that fell during the day. “It was probably the worst skiing conditions that we have experienced racing so far, even though the course wasn’t that difficult and it was hard packed. Right down the middle of the track was a glazed section where everyone would ski and that was quite slippery, but as soon as your skis hit any new snow, then they would immediately slow down. So your balance muscles got completely tight immediately.”
That may have added a bit of strain to racers legs because come standing, more and more were missing. It wasn’t just Gössner, but some of the others as well. Tora Berger of Norway, arguably the best standing shooter on the circuit, had two penalties. Olga Zaitseva of had one and Russian teammate Olga Vilukhina two.
There were those who shot clean – teammate Andrea Henkel, for instance, who sat in second for a large part of the race – and those who could conceivably beat Gössner with ski speed. But it was a losing battle. Kaisa Makarainen of Finland came close, but her penalty prevented her from taking the win; she finished with a time 17 seconds slower than Gössner’s, and slipped in between the two German teammates on the results sheet.
Darya Domracheva of Belarus was charging, too – with her long limbs and powerful skiing, the complete opposite of the German. The next fastest skier in the field behind Gössner, she actually had the lead coming into the standing stage. But after missing a shot, she had work to do. Domracheva was 9.3 seconds out after finishing her penalty loop and was only able to reel in two seconds on the final lap.
No other racers were able to make a significant push towards the top, and so at the end of the day, Gössner was left victorious.
“I was lucky and am quite happy about it,” she said of her third career win.
After Henkel, who held onto fourth place, the next three finishers also shot clean: Marie Dorin Habert of France, Jana Gerekova of Slovakia, and Weronika Nowakowska-Ziemniak of Poland. Valj Semerenko of Ukraine placed eighth, undone by a penalty in standing; Fanny Welle-Strand Horn of Norway tied her career-best finish with ninth, and Mari Laukkanen of Finland set a new personal best in tenth.
For Domracheva, who was the runner-up in the overall World Cup last year and also took a World Championship title, the 2012-13 season so far had been not quite what she was looking for. But with undeniably strong skiing today, she felt she was back on track.
“I had some difficulties in the start of the season, but I think challenges like this make you stronger,” said Domracheva, who consistently shares a message of positive thinking and empowerment with her fans. “I feel like my shape is quite good now and I am strong on the tracks. My shooting is getting better and better – I am quite optimistic about the rest of the season.”
For her part, Makarainen was boosted by well-wishers too. It was her 30th birthday and she said she had been receiving notes and messages since the morning.
“I knew that it was going to be a good day no matter what happened,” the 2011 overall World Cup champion said in a press conference.
It wasn’t a bad day for the Americans, either. Annelies Cook led the way with 26th place – a persona best and the first top-30 finish of her career.
“Today was a performance I have been hoping to finally have!” Cook wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “It was my personal best so far and that is always an awesome feeling. I have been a bit frustrated with shooting lately especially because I think there has been an improvement in skiing, so it felt wonderful to clean all my targets.”
Clean shooting has eluded her so far this season, and she has had some disastrous races as well: six penalties in the sprint in Ostersund, five in the sprint in Oberhof. Today, she changed her mental approach to shooting.
“Before the race, I told myself that I needed to hit all my targets to do well,” she explained. “Then I thought to myself, no that’s not right. I WANT to hit my targets and I am GOING to hit my targets.”
Close behind was Sara Studebaker, who also cleaned. She ended up 33rd, just ten seconds slower than Cook.
“This was one of the best races of the year,” Studebaker said. “I finally felt good on my skis and was happy with the outcome. Of course, I would have liked to stay in the top-30, but things were so tight right around me, and I did everything I could on the last loop, so I’m happy with the race.”
Susan Dunklee had one penalty in each stage and placed 53rd; as one of the earliest starters she may have had some of the worst luck with the snow. Leaving the stadium in particular, there appeared to be parts of the track that were not yet skied in; Studebaker said she thought it was benefit to start in the middle of the field.
It’s doubtful that any will qualify for the 30-woman mass start on Sunday, but if so, they will have to work on loosening up after a tense day on the skis.
“Our balance muscles got completely tight immediately and there was no where to ski powerfully and relaxed,” Cook wrote. “I almost ate it so many times. Totally herky jerky skiing. The best were those who could be as relaxed as possible. My legs were killing me! A huge element in today was the fact that we had good skis. If we hadn’t had good ones, then there would have been no chance at all.”
Though Lanny Barnes did not finish the race, the Americans are looking good.
“Strong shooting day for team USA today with only 3 penalties between the 4 of us,” Dunklee tweeted after the competition.
“I think our team is definitely on the up-swing and we’re all excited for Antholz and then World Champs,” Studebaker wrote. “This is the perfect time for us to be hitting our stride!”
Zina Kocher and Megan Heinike each had two penalties to pace Canada in 52nd and 63rd; Rosanna Crawford limited herself to one, but was a few seconds behind Heinike in 65th. In her individual World Cup debut, Audrey Vaillancourt placed 81st.
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.