Forgive Gabriela Soukalova for not being completely psyched about racing on Thursday in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. She was still on Czech-Republic time, five hours earlier than where she was in Siberia, and temperatures weren’t expected to rise above -15 degrees Celsius (5 Fahrenheit) for the IBU World Cup women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint that night.
She didn’t sleep well, and on a short walk to breakfast that morning, the 23-year-old started rethinking this whole racing-at-night-in-the-winter thing.
“I told one of my teammates that it was so cold that I did not want to race,” Soukalova told reporters. “She said, ‘You are going to win,’ and I told her she was crazy!”
Fast-forward to that evening, when Soukalova braved the frigid temperatures with more than 80 others. Starting 25th, the Czech cleaned both the prone and standing stages and rolled to a 17.2-second victory over Germany’s Andrea Henkel.
It was her second World Cup win of the season – and her career – and couldn’t have been awarded a more suitable ending. Soukalova, Henkel and Germany’s Miriam Gössner in third (+23.6) hopped into separate sleighs while reindeer carted them around the stadium for a victory lap.
“I did not expect it; this is wonderful,” Soukalova said.
Her previous win came in December at a sprint in Pokljuka, Slovenia. A week ago, she was a solid eighth in the individual 15-kilometer World Cup in Sochi, Russia, and said her shooting’s been coming along ever since.
“My shooting was not so good after Christmas,” she said. “I felt much stronger after relay in Sochi and had good training this week, so I had a feeling that would be more successful here.”
Just how successful? She really had no idea until she finished. Clean shooting is always a good thing in biathlon, but when someone like Henkel (who started 22nd) does it first, it makes for one tight race.
Soukalova relied on skiing fast, with the fourth-fastest course time just ahead of Henkel in fifth, to bump Henkel to second and Gössner to third. Gössner started 20th and briefly had the lead after missing one standing and skiing the third fastest ski time.
Sixth-place finisher Kaisa Mäkäräinen of Finland was the fastest of the lot, but suffered two penalties on the second stage to finish 34.6 seconds out of first. Slovakia’s Anastasiya Kuzmina placed fifth (1+1) with the second-fastest course time, and Russian Olga Vilukhina, who started fourth and initially led despite one prone miss, ended up fourth (+30.4).
With one miss apiece, Vita Semerenko of Ukraine was seventh (+42.5), and the first starter, Norway’s Tora Berger took eighth (+43.5).
Two races remain for the women in Khanty-Mansiysk, the last World Cup stop of the season: Saturday’s 10 k pursuit and Sunday’s 12.5 k mass start. The top 60 in Thursday’s race qualified for the pursuit, which included two out of three Americans.
U.S. Biathlon’s Susan Dunklee placed 29th on Thursday with two prone penalties. She was 1:52.3 behind Soukalova, but time back didn’t make so much of a difference. Dunklee was pleased with her top 30.
“Missing two prone shots in my first stage was disappointing, but I knew it was important to refocus,” she wrote in an email, as she kept the pursuit in mind. “Then I got lucky – I left the penalty loop right behind Tora Berger, and was able to catch a ride with her for most of my second loop.”
Racing in the cold was tough, Dunklee added.
“Siberia is living up to its reputation with some cold weather, the likes of which we haven’t seen at all this season,” she wrote. “The snow was very slow.”
Annelies Cook, who placed 36th for the U.S. with two standing penalties, described the conditions as “squeaky styrofoam.” Last week in Sochi, where she notched career bests, Cook wrote that it was considerably different, with “rock-hard skiing” on a much harder course.
“Sochi was one of those courses that made itself hard and you had to be tough,” Cook explained in an email. “This course is relatively much easier, so you have to be able to push yourself to get to that level. Even though I felt good, the race kind of snuck up on me and I think I had more gas in the tank than I realized while I was in the moment. But it was a decent day and I am happy to make some points.”
The third U.S. skier, Sara Studebaker placed 66th (1+1) in her last World Cup race of the season. Compared to Sochi, where temperatures soared around 10 Celsius (50 Fahrenheit), adjusting the cold wasn’t easy, she wrote.
“I had pretty cold hands in prone, which was a little tough since you then have to be really careful with your shots,” Studebaker explained. “And it was especially hard since I haven’t had to deal with cold hands and cold races much this year at all!”
The skis were great, she added, “definitely one of the best out there.” At the same time, she couldn’t help but be a little disappointed.
“I feel like I did all I could with what I have right now, and am just in a bit of a slump, as happens to many athletes,” Studebaker wrote. “It’s hard to end on an off-note, but I hope it will serve as motivation for me to figure out what went wrong this season, and fix it so I can come back stronger next year for the Olympics. I know the potential is there for me to be a lot higher up on the results, we just need to find the right formula to get there!”
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.