Tarjei Bø had every intention to come back stronger than ever. The 2010/2011 Biathlon World Cup winner remained positive through his bout with Chlamydia pneumoniae, an infection that can lead to pneumonia and affect the heart, last summer.
Rid of the virus in October, the 24-year-old spent the next few months recovering and frequently reassuring Norwegian media he’d be back. He wouldn’t start racing until January, but he still had his sights set on World Championships in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Republic.
That goal became a reality early in this year’s International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships last week, when Bø helped the Norwegians capture gold in the opening mixed relay. On Saturday, he repeated the feat in the men’s relay with Ole Einar Bjørndalen, Henrik L’Abée-Lund and Emil Hegle Svendsen, yet it was Sunday’s 15-kilometer mass-start victory that brought Bø to tears.
“After everything that’s happened, it’s amazing that I can do it,” he told NRK after shooting clean and finishing first for his second individual World Championships title in 36:15.8.
“I deserve it more than others, in terms of what I’ve been through,” he said, according to a translation. “The cry of joy summed up a troublesome year .. This is insane. It means everything.”
After making all 20 targets for the first time in a World Cup race, Bø said he was nearly brought to tears his last time in the range.
“I thought it was going to be a sh*t bad season, but suddenly it’s become the best I’ve had, almost,” he said with a laugh.
Bø outlasted a competitive and closely bunched field of 13 men heading into the final standing. There, he cleaned at rapid speed and shot out of the stadium. Svendsen, Sweden’s Bjørn Ferry, Erik Lesser of Germany, Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic and Russia’s Anton Shipulin followed him out, while France’s World Cup lead Martin Fourcade fell out of contention with a penalty and into 10th.
Meanwhile, Bø continued to attack, pulling away from Svendsen and Shipulin and sealing the deal on the final hill. Svendsen and Shipulin duked it out for second, where the Russian clocked the fastest last lap of the 30-person field for the silver. For Shipulin, it redeemed his third-place finish in last Sunday’s pursuit, after he lost time on the last lap. A medalist in every race he started, Svendsen simply had nothing left.
“I chased what I had today, but I had so little energy that I had no chance to win,” Svendsen told NRK. “It’s amazing that [Bø] can do it. Absolutely fantastic.”
“The pursuit was a lesson,” Shipulin said in a press conference. “This week, I thought a lot about the mistake in the pursuit. I tried not to make that again today.”
Shipulin missed just one shot on the second prone for his second medal in Nové Město. Svendsen racked up a grand total of four gold and Sunday’s bronze.
Early in the mass start, L’Abée-Lund led the after the first prone. Fourteen men shot clean and left the stadium within 11 seconds of one another. Slovenia’s Jakov Fak trailed L’Abée-Lund and Shipulin hovered in the top three.
Through the first standing, Bø and a handful of others cleaned again, including Moravec, Austria’s Dominick Landertinger, Ferry and Andreas Birnbacher. Bø led out of the stadium with Birnbacher, and Fourcade tagged on close behind.
American Lowell Bailey remained in podium hunt after making all his targets through three stages. Only Bø and Ferry had cleaned every stage as well, and were two men who finished with perfect shooting.
Heading into the final stage, Fourcade in first had a 1.6-second lead on Bailey in second. Bailey missed two targets and dropped to 14th, improving to 13th by the finish, 1:09.4 behind Bø.
“More than ever, I realize that at this level, a podium result requires perfection,” Bailey told U.S. Biathlon. “That’s what I’ve strived for in training and that’s what I will continue to strive for looking forward to the final three World Cups and beyond.
“I felt great today. My skis were great, I felt good physically, and I was relaxed and confident in the range,” he added. “Of course I would like to have cleaned that last stage, but other than that, I had the race I wanted to have.”
Canadian Jean-Philippe LeGuellec cleaned the first two stages, missed one on the third and two on the final standing to finish 22nd, a career-best in the event at World Championships.
“The race went decently well. I managed some good shooting, but then, so did the entire field,” said LeGuellec after the race. “Skiing was not as great. I had enough juice to ski the whole race pretty much. All in all, it was a great effort.”
The third North American in the selective mass start, Tim Burke of the U.S. placed 30th after crashing on the first loop.
According to the U.S. Biathlon press release, two athletes fell in front of him on a fast downhill corner. Burke skied into one of them, then off the course and into a ditch. He struggled with snow-stuffed rifle in the first two stages, picking up a total of five penalties before cleaning the last two.
“I was really motivated for this race today and I thought I definitely had a chance to fight for another podium,” Burke said. “Unfortunately, I was involved in a bad crash on the first loop where I ended up off of the course. During the crash I rolled on my rifle and it ended up totally jamming with snow. From that point, my race was essentially over as it took me a few minutes to get the rifle functioning once I got in the range. I was pretty disappointed to end World Champs like this but that’s the way biathlon goes sometimes.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.