What does it feel like to have Tora Berger breathing down your neck? Ask Andrea Henkel of Germany, Ukraine’s Olena Pidhrushna or Italian Karin Oberhofer, who started the final leg of Friday’s 4 x 6-kilometer relay less than 40 seconds ahead of her.
Norway’s 31-year-old anchor, Berger had already racked up three world titles in the last week at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Republic. She was flawless in Wednesday’s 15 k individual, defending her 2012 victory without a single miss, and seemed to be no reason she couldn’t do it again on Friday.
Fourth at the exchange thanks to teammate Synnøve Solemdal, who skied the fastest third leg to elevate the team from 13th, Berger left the stadium 38.6 seconds behind Henkel in first. One kilometer later, Pidhrushna was about seven seconds down on Henkel, and Oberhofer was another 23 seconds back.
And then there was Berger, who shot clean on the prone to move within 21 seconds of Pidhrushna in the lead. Henkel had to use one spare round, but remained close to the Ukrainian, trailing by 1.4 seconds while Oberhofer cleaned to leave the stadium in third, 10.7 seconds behind.
As Henkel pushed to the front, Berger did the same from the fourth position, overtaking Oberhofer by 3.5 k and moving to third. Barbora Tomesova of the Czech Repubic followed close behind, stepping on Berger’s pole and ripping it out of her hand. The Norwegian remained calm, took a few no-pole strides and received another near the top of the long incline. She didn’t lose any ground, and if anything, set herself up for a solid last stage.
Despite using one spare on the standing stage, Berger ended up clocking the seventh-fastest range time in the range and left the stadium in third, just 2.3 seconds behind Oberhofer, who had cleaned again. Pidhrushna was just 1.3 seconds back in second after using one spare, and Henkel, who used two spare rounds, fell to fourth nearly 16 seconds back.
Berger didn’t waste any time and took the lead with a fast-and-furious V1 up the gradual 2-kilometer grind. A Norwegian coach put his hand over his mouth as he watched from the stadium. Could Berger hold it?
Then it became apparent; her contenders couldn’t keep up. With 1 k remaining, Pidhrushna trailed by 3.5 seconds. The deficit grew to seven seconds with half a kilometer to go. Oberhofer was five seconds down, then 10 seconds behind Berger before the final push to the finish.
There, Berger skied uncontested to the win in 1:08.11. For Norway, which included Hilde Fenne and Ann Kristin Flatland, it was the second women’s relay victory ever and first since 2004. For Berger, it was her fourth gold at a single World Championships, which put her on par with Norway’s retired great, Liv Grete Skjelbreid Poirée. Back in 2004, Poirée also won four gold medals at Biathlon World Championships. And Berger has one more race remaining: Sunday’s 12.5 k mass start.
“I was just trying to do my best,” Berger said in a press conference about her simple-yet-effective game plan. “I never dreamed of this as I was driving to Nove Mesto. Whatever happens Sunday will only be a bonus.”
Seven seconds behind, Pidhrushna brought home silver for Ukraine (which included Juliya Dzhyma, Vita Semerenko and Valj Semerenko). Valj Semerenko put the team into contention on the third leg after cleaning her standing stage and boosting the team to first. She and Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier switched leads over the next two kilometers and were the first through the exchange with Italy’s Michela Ponza.
After bringing Italy (with Dorothea Wierer and Nicole Gonteier) from fourth to first earlier in the leg, Ponza helped her team notch bronze for its first World Championships relay medal. It was her first medal at worlds as well.
“I am the oldest one up here … it is a dream come true,” Ponza said at the press conference. “All of my colleagues made a great race. … I want to thank everyone who believed in us. This is a good moment for Italian biathlon.”
Overall, the Norwegians made fewer than 80 percent of their shots (compared to Ukraine’s 88.9 percent and Italy’s 90.9 percent), using nine spare rounds and skiing a penalty loop on the first leg. Ukraine had no penalties and used five spare rounds, and Italy used just four spares.
“I was sure today that the last shooting and the last loop would be important,” Pidhrushna said. “I had a spare round but the others did too, so I told myself that this was a chance. That last loop was quite crazy.”
Russia placed fourth (+29.0) after being an early contender. Three of their seven used spares came on the third leg with Ekaterina Shumilova after she cleaned the prone. Germany finished 30.9 seconds behind in fifth after using 11 spare rounds, three of which came from Henkel.
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Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.