– As we wrote above, Annelies Cook led the North American women with an 18th-place finish in the 7.5 k sprint on Thursday. She wrote on facebook that getting a top-20 World Cup finish was one of her “life goals;” congrats on checking that one off!
“It was for sure a great day for Annelies,” U.S. women’s coach Jonne Kahkonen wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “To me it did not come as a surprise though, because she has improved her physical fitness by a lot from last year – just the work towards the endurance shape basically is paying off now. She has committed to the hard work and philosophy all year like an A student and this is the reward now – or the beginning of it.”
The biggest difference in Cook’s performances now compared to the early season is that she is shooting much better – in the sprint she had a single penalty. However, Kahkonen didn’t attribute that to any specific work done over the break, but simply Cook’s talent shining through.
“With shooting there has not been any major changes, but the same factor as for the physical training, just the work that she has put in,” he wrote. “And sometimes it just takes some time to put all the biathlon pieces together and the longer it takes, the bigger mental block it can also be. But in Annelies’ case, she is a very good natural shooter and now has the training to utilize that on the top level as well.”
As for celebrating her performance, Cook had some instruction on that as well.
“Now I am going to drink a glass of wine,” she wrote in the conclusion of her e-mail to FasterSkier. “Jonne told me that I had to.”
– While Cook stole the show, two relative newbies took to the start line as well. One was Canada’s Audrey Vaillancourt, who competed in her first World Cup races last weekend in Ruhpolding, but feels like she’s already learning how to handle the circuit.
“This is my second world cup weekend,” she told FasterSkier. “At first of course I was really excited, but also very scared! Lots of firsts for me this year: first year as a senior, firsts IBU Cups, and now first World Cup in front of amazing crowds! It has been a big change for sure, but I kept reminding myself that a biathlon race is always the same, whether it is a World Cup or a provincial race… I think doing IBU Cups before Christmas was an excellent preparation for World Cup races. It was necessary to adjust myself to international senior caliber. I think going directly to World Cup level would have been a way too big step. And I had to prove I deserved my place here, of course.”
Vaillancourt came through for Canada today, leading the team with 55th place. (Teammate Zina Kocher was right behind in 56th.) Like Cook, her success came hinged on good shooting; Vaillancourt did one better and cleaned all her targets.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself today; I really wanted to make the pursuit,” she explained. “And I knew I had to shoot clean to make the top 60… which I did!”
Megan Heinicke and Rosanna Crawford weren’t so lucky. After finishing 90th Crawford tweeted, “Rough day at the office today. Worst shooting so far this year and bad skiing. Hoping to pull things around for the relay on Sunday.”
– Hannah Dreissigacker of the U.S. started her very first World Cup today, and impressed with a clean prone stage before succumbing to four penalties in standing. But five hit targets in prone actually wasn’t what impressed Kahkonen the most.
“Hannah’s debut was a promising one and was a good confirmation that it was the right moment to bring her up to the World Cup to get the experience,” he wrote. “Already on her first World Cup sprint she skied almost the same as Sara [Studebaker] and was the fifth fastest shooter everybody included. Sure, too many misses on standing, but a clean first stage. And the best thing for me to see was that through the numbers I don’t see her being nervous or intimidated by World Cup racers – the shooting was exactly like she shoots at training, so it can really be her strength in the future.”
It seems surprising, but Dreissigacker was the fifth-fastest shooter in the field and did especially well in prone, where she was in and out in just 27 seconds.
– Studebaker and Susan Dunklee are coming back from various lengths of illness earlier in January, and placed 46th and 49th. It wasn’t one of the best performances by either athlete, but both qualified for the pursuit.
“Missed 3 targets today but will have another chance in the Pursuit on Saturday,” Dunklee tweeted, before adding a congratulatory note for Cook.
Kahkonen said that Dunklee was “struggling to get back 100% with health” as is Studebaker and Tim Burke, but he wasn’t concerned. In general, he said, the depth of the U.S. women’s team is in a good place.
“All these three women are skiing fast enough right now to reach for the top 20 any given race – even top 10 on a good day with clean shooting like Annelies showed today,” he wrote. “So I am really happy and feel confident about my ladies right now. Overall I feel like the women’s team is on track – like a train headed towards the station.”
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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.