NOVÉ MĚSTO NA MORAVĚ, Czech Republic – On her best days, Tora Berger is perfect.
Today was not one of those days. The Norwegian, who leads the World Cup standings, missed three targets in the 10 k, four-stage pursuit, and had to ski three corresponding penalty loops. When she started, in bib two and just 6.4 seconds behind sprint winner Olena Pidhrushna of Ukraine, she was a favorite to take gold; by the time she left the third shooting stage that seemed unlikely, as she sat in third 23 seconds behind Olga Zaitseva of Russia.
“Before the fourth shooting, I was thinking that if I shoot clean in the last shooting, then maybe I would have a chance for a medal,” Berger said in a press conference. “I didn’t expect that I would take the gold.”
But the two women ahead of her, Zaitseva and Krystyna Palka of Poland, each missed a shot. And that gave the Norwegian, who is arguably the best standing shooter in the world, male or female, the opening that she needed.
“I saw that the first two had each had misses, and I knew that it was all on myself,” she said. “I hit all the targets, and then I went as hard as possible on the last loop.”
She left the range with a five-second lead on Palka, then skied the fastest last loop of anyone in the field to extend that to 18 seconds by the finish line. The usually reserved superstar could not contain her feelings, and was grinning from ear to ear with genuine happiness as she celebrated her gold medal – the second of this World Championships after she and her teammates won the opening mixed relay.
It was another success for the Norwegian team, which has rarely misstepped so far this weekend. Besides the mixed relay, Emil Hegle Svendsen has taken both men’s golds and Berger was silver in the sprint. After taking a day away from the stadium to do an easy classic ski tomorrow, Berger plans to be back in contention again in Wednesday’s 15 k individual.
“For me it’s most important that I try to do the best in all of the competitions,” Berger said. “And we’ll see after the Championships what that brings me.”
In Disastrous Crash, Medals Lost for Norway and Russia
It was nearly an even better day for Norway – with a kilometer to go, Ann Kristin Flatland was locked in a battle for second place with Zaitseva. Both had passed Palka earlier on the loop. It would have been a storybook comeback for 30-year-old Flatland, who took last season off to have a baby and had just one penalty in the pursuit to move up from eighth position at the start.
But going around a corner, she and Zaitseva tangled. Flatland fell, taking out the Russian with her; Palka was able to fly past. Then Pidhrushna did, too.
“It was really shit – I don’t know what happened,” Flatland told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the race (and after hiding from the press for a long time while she stopped crying and regained her composure). “It was a course that suited me well. On that last lap I felt so fit, like I was stronger than those around me.”
Indeed, Flatland’s skiing style is much like Svendsen’s – as her competitors skied up the hills in V1, she used her strength and power to V2 easily up the climbs. But she had even worse luck than Zaitseva, because when she crashed, Flatland’s binding ripped off her ski.
“I felt that time passed very slowly as I lay there,” Flatland said.
The team’s press coordinator, who watched Berger ski past and then wondered why Flatland wasn’t right behind, eventually found her on the trail and handed her a new ski. Flatland ended up seventh, over a minute behind Berger.
Zaitseva was able to get up more quickly, but the damage was done for her medal hopes as well. Although she was not hurt, she was unable to catch Palka and Pidhrushna, and finished fourth.
“Ann Kristin fell, and there was no room for me to maneuver in, so I fell too,” Zaitseva explained to the press. “She came up to me after the race and said she was sorry, and I understand that – it happens.”
Both the Norwegian and Russian teams filed protests about the accident – it’s hard to tell exactly what they hoped to accomplish – but withdrew them later, and the results stood as originally listed.
“Maybe we can play SingStar tonight,” Berger told NRK. “That’s at least one thing [Flatland] likes.”
Palka Capitalizes for Poland’s First Medal
As Zaitseva and Flatland were trying to pick themselves up, Palka and Pidhrushna were carrying on their own battles – and wound up in the medals even though they weren’t necessarily expecting it when the left the range. Pidhrushna almost closed the gap to Palka, but the Pole was able to hold her off.
“Now we have medal from the World Championships for the women’s team!” Palka told FasterSkier as she waited for the press conference to start. “We have never had this.”
While Poland has had a World Champion before – Tomas Sikora won gold in the sprint back in 1995 – Palka indicated that there hadn’t been a medal for the women before. But the women’s team, which has seen several racers in the top ten on the World Cup this season, knew that it was possible one of these days. Starting with bib seven, Palka had her shot here in Nove Mesto.
“I know that we can really have some medals, and we were ready for this,” she told FasterSkier. “We have a lot of good competitions, but all the time we miss some shots or there’s something with the skiing. But we have a lot of chance for really good competitions, and finally I did this.”
She was helped along the course by the cheering fans, not only the rowdy Czechs, but also a large contingent from Poland; she said that it’s not so far to travel, so many came to see her and the other women race.
The World Championships medal adds another layer to Poland’s success in the nordic sports, and the biathlon team may be trying to emulate skier Justyna Kowalczyk. They aren’t so dominant just yet – but they certainly have more depth than the Polish ski team.
“We train alone as the biathlon group,” Palka explained. “But when I was a child I often had competitions with Justyna, and in school we were in one class together. We are friends.”
In the press conference, she struggled to describe what it meant to win a medal for her country.
“Today is a really special day for me,” she said. “It’s my first podium, and it’s at World Championships. That’s hard to say what I feel – I feel everything at once, all the time, I’m happy and I want to cry. I don’t know how to describe today.”
Pidhrushna also had conflicting emotions – she had been on track for gold at the race’s halfway point, but then missed two shots in the first standing stage.
“I think that was some internal pressure because I was leading,” she said through a translator in the press conference. “I was thinking about the second gold being possible, but I couldn’t cope with this pressure – I don’t have as much experience as some others. So I think that’s why I missed those two targets.”
She knew that her bronze medal today came at a cost to the other racers, too.
“After the last shooting I was skiing, and suddenly I saw two girls fall down on the track,” she said. “I went around them and was fine, so I was lucky today to get a medal.”
Despite the blown standing stage and the fact that her medal didn’t come exactly the way she would have hoped, Pidhrushna – who had never won a race before yesterday’s sprint, said she was still “happy” to be back on the podium.
Ekaterina Glazyrina of Russia and Andrea Henkel of Germany placed fifth and sixth after Zaitseva, capping off impressive runs through the field. Both hit a perfect 20 of 20 targets; Glazyrina moved up from bib 27 and Henkel from bib 33.
After Flatland crossed the finish line, Veronika Vitkova used the home crowd’s roaring cheers to propel herself past Vita Semerenko of Ukraine in a sprint finish for eighth, and Kaisa Makarainen of Finland rounded out the top ten.
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.