After seeing conditions in Oberhof, Germany, it’s fair to spend a second wondering why the venue keeps getting World Cups.
It was the third day of racing for biathletes and the third day of fog and rain. The third day of slush turning into ice on the sections of the course that had been salted. The third day of bare dirt on the side of the trail, since there’s no natural snow in the woods. The third day of winds on the range that couldn’t quite decide whether to blow or not, and in what direction. The third day of fog making it tough to see the targets.
But while these things might be annoying – and to the athletes, it’s certainly no picnic to compete in Oberhof – the venue is still a classic. Case in point: the 20,000 fans who show up despite the rain and despite being prevented by the fog from seeing very much at all, and cheer like there’s no tomorrow. Russian biathlete Dmitri Malyshko described the stadium as “a wall of noise” after the men’s relay yesterday.
And nothing can delight the screamers more than when the Germans do well. They got their wish on Saturday, when their team placed two women on the podium in the 7.5 k sprint. 2013 was expected to be something of a rebuilding year for Germany after several retirements, but you’d never know it looking at the results.
“I have said often enough that you’re not allowed to talk about the performance of the girls as being bad [now],” German women’s head coach Gerald Hoening told German site Echo online. “It was always attached to anything people say, that [Magdalena Neuner] has stopped and this team is not good enough. But that is to wrong them, especially Miriam [Gössner] and Andrea [Henkel].”
The win came from 22-year-old Gössner, who hadn’t won a World Cup until earlier this season but now sits second in the overall standings.
Light and quick on her feet, Gössner flew around the course despite snow conditions that were distasteful to many of the other competitors. After 2.5 kilometers and one clean shooting stage, she already had a lead of 17 seconds. And she extended it so much that even after missing two shots in standing and doing the required penalty loops, she was still second, much to her surprise.
“I was not so confident after the two missed targets,” she said in a press conference. “I went to the penalty loop thinking maybe I could fight for a top five. But I tried to go fast on the last loop and it worked.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that Gössner outpaced her rivals; she has been skiing fast for years, despite her young age, and her shooting is usually what holds her back. As early as 2009, at just 19, she competed in FIS World Championships, where she qualified for the sprint in 17th place and turned in the fastest time on her leg of the 4 x 5 k relay, earning a silver medal for her efforts.
Because her misses on the range were holding her back in biathlon, she instead competed in the Olympics in skiing, where she was again part of a silver medal relay team. Then she returned to biathlon.
This season, it seems she has only gotten faster, but also better on the range. And winning her second career World Cup in Oberhof, she said, was something else.
“This is really an amazing feeling with this audience,” she told biathlon-online.de. “The race here was just plain fun, and I’m over the moon!”
As excited as the fans were to see Gössner take a two-second win over Tora Berger of Norway – despite the penalties while Berger shot clean – they were just as thrilled to see Germany’s veteran, Andrea Henkel, take third place. These are her stomping grounds, and where she went to high school, and she is one of the most successful German biathletes of all time, having won 21 World Cups. To Germans, that means a lot.
“I guess I shouldn’t expect so much from myself, and then I’ll do better,” Henkel told Echo online, a German site.
She discussed in the post-race press conference how she had not been as aggressive on the trails today, and it worked out. Coming back from an illness that kept her off the relay team on Thursday, she was taking things a little easy.
“To not race the relay was actually a good decision, because without the break I would not be here,” she said in the press conference. “It maybe helped that I could not train hard for a few days… maybe I should do that more often. It was actually nice to watch [the relay] from my couch at home.”
In between the two Germans was Berger, who seemed to execute everything perfectly and be on her way to a win. Like Henkel, she didn’t miss a single target, but she also skied faster than Henkel. But Gössner was so fast that it didn’t matter. And the German was two bibs behind Berger, so she knew exactly what she had to do on the last lap.
“I thought it would be easier if I shot clean,” Berger lamented in the press conference.
But she has the consolation of retaining the overall leaders bib for World Cup racing. That, Gössner will have to work very hard indeed to take away. The two are separated by about 100 points; Henkel has moved into third, 26 points behind her teammate.
Marie Dorin Habert of France was fourth, clean like Henkel and only four seconds behind her. Olga Zaitseva of Russia and Juliya Dzyhma of Ukraine were fifth and sixth.
The U.S. was led by Sara Studebaker, who shot clean to place 29th, her first top-30 finish of the season.
“I was very happy to clean; it’s nice in any race, but I got a little lucky with the fog and wind when I was in the range and didn’t have too much trouble,” Studebaker wrote in an e-mail. “I worked a lot on shooting speed and confidence over the break, so it was nice to see that pay off. I felt a little off skiing, and it definitely wasn’t my strongest day. This is a tough course for me.”
Despite the intensive travel of journeying all the way back to Alaska for the Christmas break, the rewards were worth the difficulties and she said there was “good snow and great training.”
In Sunday’s pursuit, Studebaker will start in a pack of twelve skiers within ten seconds. The goal, she said, was to “hook on to faster people, but also be smart and ski your own race.” With four shooting stages and short ski loops, repeating her shooting performance will go a long way towards getting a good result.
And then? She’ll be done with the fog.
“Being back on the World Cup is great, but we’re all hoping for some sun, or at least more “normal” skiing conditions the next couple weeks,” she concluded.
The other American in the race, Annelies Cook, struggled on the range, missing five shots to place 72nd and will not be in the pursuit. The two Canadians snuck in by slim margins: Megan Heinicke placed 52nd and Zina Kocher 60th, the last woman to make the cut.
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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.