There aren’t many people in the world who can waltz into FIS World Championships, having decided to do so only a week or two earlier, and casually ski into the top 15 – or come within less than a second of a medal.
But after facing heavy disappointment at IBU World Championships in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, earlier this month, three biathletes decided to make the trip to Val di Fiemme and try their luck in ski racing.
Despite being ranked as high as second in biathlon’s World Cup standings earlier this season, German racer Miriam Gössner had missed all the medals and could only muster a pair of sixth-place finishes in Nove Mesto. In her quest to earn her rightful medal in cross country, the diminutive star – already an Olympic silver medalist in the women’s cross country relay in Vancouver before turning back to biathlon – got the most attention.
In her first ski race since last March, Gössner was an early leader in Tuesday’s 10 k freestyle and ended up fourth, just a half-second from bronze. She is lined up to compete in the women’s relay in Italy, but in her comments to reporters she indicated that her allegiance lay not just with Germany, but with biathlon.
“We came here as a team, a biathlon team,” she said.
And while the other two biathletes did not shine quite as bright, they certainly acquitted themselves honorably. 2011 World Cup champion Kaisa Makarainen of Finland finished 14th, a few seconds from the top ten, and Selina Gasparin of Switzerland placed 31st, just behind Kikkan Randall.
They also brought a unique perspective to skiing’s biggest event. It’s not every day that a new competitor shows up at World Championships, and seems sort of unimpressed.
“There aren’t so many spectators here,” Makarainen laughed in a post-race interview. “I think that in biathlon it’s a better atmosphere, because we have more spectators and the stadium feels very different.”
Despite being ranked fifth in the World Cup total score – Gössner is currently sixth – Makarainen also missed out on the medals, achieving a top finish of eighth in the individual race.
Early in the season, Makarainen had considered racing in Val di Fiemme. But leading up to her own World Championships, she decided against it; this coming weekend will feature World Cup racing in Oslo, with a sprint, pursuit, and mass start. Skipping the sprint would necessarily mean no start in the pursuit, and losing the opportunity for at least two races worth of World Cup points. Being tired wouldn’t be ideal, either.
After the Czech Republic, though, she changed her mind again.
“I was a little bit disappointed with the results,” Makarainen told FasterSkier. “I couldn’t get any medals there. I thought that it was good to do something else, something new, and get some new thoughts in my head and have a little time without shooting.”
It was a similar story for Gasparin, who had three top-10 finishes this season including a career-best fourth place. But at World Championships her top finish was 20th, and she was twice in the 40’s. On a whim, she entered the cross country World Cup on home turf in Davos. She placed 21st, and was nominated to the World Championships team – a complete surprise, she told Swiss press.
But her country undoubtedly needed her. She was the only Swiss woman entered in the 10 k; despite a strong sprint team, the small nation is at a loss for female skiers.
“It was great fun to start with the specialists,” Gasparin wrote on her facebook wall. “I will return to the biathlon circus richer for this experience.”
It’s safe to say that’s the goal for all three women, who had been hampered by poor shooting in Nove Mesto. Gössner and Makarainen, typically two of the fastest women on the circuit, also appeared to be missing some of their usual snap; their course times weren’t as impressive as they sometimes are. So it was a big question whether they would perform well in a different discipline two weeks later.
But no worries – they rose to the occasion. The Finn was pleased with how well her German competitor raced.
“It’s awesome – she’s a very good friend of mine and I’m very happy for her. Sad that she didn’t get the medal, but I think it’s a good sign for all of us… on the biathlon World Cup when she is skiing fast, if we are close to her we know that it’s really a world class level.”
As for her own race, Makarainen admitted that she was a bit green at racing continuously for a whole ten kilometers.
“I think that my first seven kilometers were pretty good, but after that I got tired in the end,” she said. “And it’s different skiing cross country – I’m not so used to it. This is my second cross country race this season. So I think that I should do a little bit more races like these if I want to have better results. But I think it was not any kind of catastrophe.”
Like Gössner, Makarainen had hoped to race the women’s relay. But on Tuesday she was the third Finn across the line, meaning that she was not chosen for one of the skate legs. Instead, she’ll return to biathlon.
Will she go back happier, and ready to be a biathlete again?
“Definitely,” she said. “It’s my sport.”
-Alex Matthews and Audrey Mangan contributed reporting.
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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.