HOCHFILZEN, Austria – Selina Gasparin has been close to the World Cup podium before – heartbreakingly close. At last season’s opener in Östersund, Sweden, the 29-year-old Swiss biathlete was just eight seconds out of third place in the 15 k individual.
Today, she finally took the step, this time going all the way to the top. Gasparin won the 7.5 k sprint here by 1.2 seconds over Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic, and in the process became the very first Swiss biathlete to ever win a World Cup competition.
“I had been thinking for so long about getting on the podium, but I was never thinking about the win,” Gasparin said.
It took a huge effort for her to make it to the top. She had a strong start but then collected a penalty in standing, which knocked her back as she headed out on the final loop. At that point she was 13 seconds out of the lead, although since she was in bib 54 about half the field was still to come. Later racers would have even faster split times, and when all had finished the last shooting, Gasparin’s time was 22 seconds back, leaving her in fifth place.
Yet she pushed and pushed over the final 2.5 k loop and made up all that time. When she crossed the finish line, Gasparin sensed a victory: she raised both fists in the air before crumpling, exhausted. But it was just a victory over that missed shot.
“I was just happy to have had a good race,” she said. “With so many starters still to finish, I did not think at all that I could stay in the lead.”
But Gasparin has consistently skied fast over the last few seasons. She even competed for Switzerland in the 15 k freestyle at cross country skiing World Championships last season, placing 31st against the best skiers in the world. Today she had the seventh-fastest course time and the fourth-fastest final loop.
Fresh snow slowed down the course today, which might be why Gasparin didn’t feel like she had been going fast enough to win.
She later she said that it seemed “not possible” that she ended up with the win: “After all, I did have one mistake.” That’s how surprised Gasparin was to make history today.
“I was missing the last shot, so then I thought, well, one more time it’s the standing shooting where I miss the last shot,” she said, referring to previous frustrating races. “I wasn’t really in a good position. I just skied the last loop as fast as I could. There were a lot of athletes coming behind me so I didn’t think about the podium or win at all.”
Considering that the first Swiss biathlete didn’t even get a World Cup podium until December 2006 – that was Matthias Simmen – and a Swiss woman has never been on the podium, the win was especially huge for the team from a tiny country of eight million people.
“In Switzerland we had not so many podiums before and no victories,” Gasparin said. “I thought that it would be cool if a woman had the first victory since the men had some second and third place finishes before. So it is cool that women and men have now both been on the podium. For me it is a big honor to be the first winner. I think it is a big day for Switzerland today.”
The Swiss biathlon team hasn’t been able to capitalize much on the exploits of skier Dario Cologna, and remains a small squad, especially on the ladies’ side. There are just ten women listed in the national team roster, seven of which are on the “C” team. Three of those are juniors.
But this summer the Swiss created a new women’s team, which Gasparin is very optimistic about. Some of the younger athletes have podiums in international competitions like World Junior Championships and European Championships, which Gasparin pointed out was much better than she had done at a similar point in her own career.
“I think the hardest thing is for them to keep the motivation and keep doing the work,” she said of her country where women’s nordic sports are rarely celebrated. “But I will try to give them some of my knowledge and experience, and it’s also good for them to be able to train with me and see what kind of speed you have to have, to see how fast it is at this level on the World Cup.”
Teammate Irene Cadurisch, competing in just her third World Cup race ever (she finished 69th), was ecstatic about Gasparin’s result.
“It’s awesome!” she said. “It’s so exciting for her, because she’s trained a lot. And it’s really great for us, because we can train with her. Selina, she was great before, but I hope this will help us to have a win.”
* * *
It was a remarkable day across the board in Hochfilzen, in part because both of the other podium finishers also had career-best performances. Vitkova, whose win slipped away at the very last second, tied her second-place result from Oberhof, Germany last year. Irina Starykh, who only raced one weekend of World Cups last year, placed third, less than a second behind the Czech.
“Basically I had never ever had good results in Hochfilzen, so this was a very good birthday present,” Vitkova said through a translator. On Monday she will turn 26.
For her part, Starykh was identified by Russian coaches this fall as the athlete who had improved the most in the off season. In Östersund last week, she came out of the gate strong with a fifth-place finish.
“I am very happy about my third place today. In Östersund there was a lack of just a few seconds, and so maybe it gave me a little more reason to push hard today,” she said through a translator. “The most important thing for me was my trust in my coaches and by my coaches, and also after I had an injury in June that it would be okay and I would be ready for the season.”
Tora Berger of Norway, last year’s runaway World Cup champion, placed fourth, hampered by two penalties. She is yet to collect a win this season. Juliya Dhzyma of Ukraine finished fifth and Synnøve Solemdal of Norway rounded out the flower ceremony in sixth.
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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.