NOVÉ MĚSTO NA MORAVĚ, Czech Republic – After a men’s sprint that saw three former World Champions pack the podium, the women’s 7.5 k competition threw something different down the pipes: a 26-year-old Ukrainian who had never won so much as a World Cup.
“Of course it’s a surprise for me to be in first place today,” Olena Pidhrushna said through a translator in the post-race press conference. “I dreamed of being a World Champion and winning a World Cup, but I didn’t think it would happen today – neither I nor my trainers and coaches thought it would be today. So I’m really happy to be first.”
Pidhrushna is certainly not an unknown, having earned second-place honors at two different World Cup venues so far this season. But to see her atop the podium was something of a surprise nonetheless; so far, most of the best performances have come from teams like Norway and France, whose racers are used to dealing with the intense pressure that comes at World Championships.
But Pidhrushna, who is a veteran despite her winless status, proved that you don’t have to be a superstar to keep your cool. She was flawless on the range, taking her time to nail all ten targets and avoid the penalty loop. Paired with the sixth-fastest ski time, she safely maneuvered to a 6.4-second win over World Cup overall leader Tora Berger of Norway.
“I tried to fight as hard as possible, but Olena was too strong,” Berger, who started just one bib behind the Ukrainian, said after the race.
She explained that she had held back a little bit on her first two loops in order to “save some energy” for the last round of big uphills. And Berger did have the fastest split time on the last 2.5 k loop, cutting five seconds out of Pidhrushna’s lead. But Pidhrushna was also going for the win, and her determination kept her just far enough ahead of Berger to secure gold.
“After my second shooting I was first, but it was hard – I knew that it would be to die or to win,” Pidhrushna said. “So it depended only on me, how I raced today, and I did the best that I could.”
When she and Berger crossed the finish line, they bumped another Ukrainian out of the lead: Vita Semerenko, who as the owner of two previous World Championships bronze was far more of a favorite to be on the podium than her lesser-known teammate. Like Pidhrushna, she shot clean. But starting in the first group with bib 19, she knew that her perfect score wasn’t necessarily enough to guarantee her first gold.
“When I first crossed the finish line, I was confident that I would have a medal, but I didn’t think that it would be a gold medal because a lot of good rivals were behind me and I thought they could pass me,” she explained.
Then she added, laughing: “And unfortunately they did!”
So instead, she settled for her third bronze. But Semerenko still seemed pleased, smiling her way through the press conference as she celebrated a great day for her team: twin sister Valj had two penalties to place 22nd, and will also be a factor in the pursuit race tomorrow.
“Of course I would not tell the secret [of our success], but I think the secret is with our trainers,” Semerenko said, laughing again. “They did a really good job of preparing us for the World Championships. And also our servicemen did a good job today, to give us fast skis, and we did a good job too.”
Pidhrushna agreed, still in a daze at her good fortunes. Although she had placed second in the pursuit in Antholz, Italy, the last World Cup before the pre-Championships break, being on the podium today was still the last thing she expected.
“I wouldn’t say that I was confident after Antholz, because after the end of the World Cups I was ill, and I didn’t train for several days,” she said. “It was only last week that I trained, so I would like to thank my trainers because they did everything for me.”
The Russian women raced well, but were ultimately locked out of the podium as Olga Zaitseva and Olga Vilukhina finished fourth and fifth. An early starter, Zaitseva had one penalty and looked to be in good shape to stay on the podium; she ended up just two seconds behind Semerenko. Vilukhina shot clean, but didn’t have quite the ski speed needed to earn a medal.
Miriam Gossner of Germany, currently third in the World Cup standings, was undone by two penalties in prone and finished sixth; it was still an improvement from the mixed relay, where she used four spare rounds and was forced to ski a penalty loop, which coupled with slow skis and skiing was a disaster for Germany. Sitting just 33 seconds out of the lead, the World Cup’s fastest skier is definitely a threat for the pursuit.
Krystyna Palka of Poland finished seventh, followed by a clean-shooting Ann Kristin Flatland of Norway; Kaisa Makarainen of Finland and Veronikia Vitkova of the Czech Republic 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.