Note: The following has been updated to include quotes from Megan Heinicke.
About halfway through the IBU World Cup women’s 4 x 6-kilometre relay on Thursday in Annency, France, it was pretty evident Germany had the race in the bag.
Anything can certainly happen, but Andrea Henkel had opened a 10.5-second lead for the Germans by the end of the second leg, and after teammate Franziska Hildebrand’s third leg, they were up by 35 seconds on Norway. Laura Dahlmeier essentially had to go through the paces, shoot as clean as possible and ski strong to hold off Norway and Ukraine, both contending for the podium with somewhat of a surprise charging from behind – the Canadians.
It wasn’t a surprise for Canada. Chris Lindsay, high-performance director for Biathlon Canada, has known for some time what his quartet of Rosanna Crawford, Megan Imrie, Megan Heinicke, and Zina Kocher were capable of. And on Thursday it was Canada’s best-ever relay result – in a female, male or mixed event. The nation’s previous best was sixth in a mixed relay in 2011 in Hochfilzen, Austria.
The Canadian women placed fourth on Thursday behind Germany, Ukraine and Norway, respectively, with Germans Franziska Preuss, Henkel, Hildebrand, and Dahlmeier winning in 1:06:27.8, and using just three spare rounds in the process.
Ukraine’s Juliya Dzhyma, Vita Semerenko, Valj Semerenko, and Olena Pidhrushna, placed second 23.3 seconds back with four spare rounds, edging Norway in third by 0.5 seconds with Tinril Eckhoff, Fanny Welle-Strand Horn, Synnøve Solemdal, and Tora Berger, who used a total of 10 spare rounds.
The Canadians were 1:35.8 back in fourth after using nine spares.
“Certainly holding the shooting together with the great skiing was the difference,” Lindsay wrote in an email. “Having a big result that is completely owned by the women helps to build an even stronger foundation upon which podiums will follow.”
Heading out first with 22 other teams, Crawford cleaned her prone and used one spare on her standing to bring the team to fourth by the exchange.
“I’ve learned from the past couple relays that being aggressive off the start and getting with the lead group will save you a lot of energy and make sure you don’t get tripped up most of the time!” Crawford wrote in an email. “I’ve got a strong double pole so I can usually be right behind the person in front of me and then it’s just a matter of [maneuvering] my way to the front group.”
A fan of the range at Le Grand Bornand, Crawford explained she took advantage of the calm conditions and focused on one shot at a time. She left her first stage in second behind Switzerland’s Selina Gasparin, who cleaned both stages to tag off in first – but Gasparin wasn’t always in front (and her sisters Elisa and Aita, and teammate Patricia Josh ultimately dropped the lead on the second, fourth and third legs, respectively, so that Switzerland finished 13th).
Italy’s scramble skier, Dorothea Wierer cleaned her prone and used one spare on her standing to put the team in third behind Germany’s Preuss, who used one spare on each stage to tag off in second.
“Selina Gaspirin really didn’t want to lead, so we were able to catch up to her and then I passed her right before the range,” Crawford explained. “Standing was good, my hands were pretty cold so I had some trouble with my spares, dropping two, before I got one in and hit the target.”
For the last loop, Crawford stuck with Preuss and Norway’s Eckhoff just behind the leaders, tagging off in fourth, 11.6 seconds after Gasparin in first and 3.2 behind Preuss in second. Italy tagged in third, Belarus was fifth, and Eckhoff came through in sixth for Norway, 15 seconds behind Gasparin and 3.4 behind Canada.
With Susan Dunklee scrambling for the second-straight relay, the Americans started the second leg in eighth, 33.3 seconds behind Germany.
From there, Imrie brought the Canadians to third with a clean prone and one spare in standing. Henkel took the lead for Germany with 10-for-10 shooting, and Imrie tagged just Heinicke 17.3 seconds behind Germany and 6.8 seconds behind Norway.
Heinicke used three spare rounds – one in prone and two in standing – for the eighth-fastest third leg, but she managed to hold tight in fourth, a minute behind Germany, but just 10 seconds behind Ukraine.
“I was disappointed about the prone miss because it really shouldn’t have happened, but in the moment I was just focused on doing my job which was loading that spare bullet calmly and efficiently,” Heinicke explained.
In the second bout, she didn’t realize that her first spare didn’t hit and was partly out of position. “That was too bad, but I didn’t let it get in my head, didn’t hesitate and my second spare hit,” she wrote.
As for her last lap: “I was feeling exhausted skiing and was just thinking to fight as hard as possible and not to give anything away,” Heinicke wrote. “I was already thinking about Zina and thinking that I just needed to keep that Ukranian within striking distance for her.”
When Kocher received the final handoff, she tried to relax, focusing on her key words for shooting and most importantly, breathing.
“I knew it was up to me to complete the task of the day and I felt that pressure,” Kocher wrote in an email. “I’ve been struggling with that a lot before today but I’ve been working all week on my shooting and staying with the process, not on the result and not on anyone else around me.”
After using three spares in prone, Kocher found her team’s chance at a historic best slipping. France’s Marie-Laure Brunet cleaned both rounds, shooting especially fast on the standing and putting Kocher under pressure.
“I was over cautious,” Kocher wrote of her first time in the range.
Fighting for every shot the second time around, Kocher ended up using one spare round in standing and raced away on her final lap to catch Brunet from 20 seconds behind. Kocher passed her and finished 8 seconds ahead in fourth.
Dahlmeier shot clean to hold off both Ukraine’s Pidhrushna, who also cleaned, and Berger, who used two spares on her standing but closed hard on the last lap to finish third, just a half second behind Pidhrushna.
Knowing she’s a strong closer, Kocher explained she gave everything she had, but wasn’t sure it would be enough.
“I did not know if I had enough to hold off the Russian or catch the French,” she wrote. “I just put my head down and focused on gliding.”
While “a podium would have been incredible,” Kocher explained the team was thrilled to break through in fourth.
“We are absolutely ecstatic and proud of each other that we all pulled it together what we knew was always possible,” she wrote. “I don’t think this is the last of us. Now we have this confidence and belief in ourselves and each other for the future.”
In Hochfilzen last Saturday, Dec. 7, the Canadian women placed 11th and the men notched ninth, with JP Le Guellec, Scott Perras, Brendan Green, and Nathan Smith, in the World Cup relay.
Two years ago in Hochfilzen, Imrie, Kocher, Le Guellec, and Green combined for Canada’s previous best of sixth in a mixed relay, according to Lindsay.
“We’ve known for a long time that we are capable of a top 6 in a relay,” Crawford wrote.
“The numbers have shown that we can be up playing with the best – but staying in the game is a skill in itself,” Lindsay explained. “Developing comfort at being in the ‘game’ takes some time.
“Last weekend the women were mix for most of the race,” he added. “This week they were in it the entire race. There might be weaker races in the future but I have no doubt that we will continue to rack up time in the game and this will lead to medals.”
U.S. Repeats Feat
The U.S. women placed eighth in the Hochfilzen relay with Lanny Barnes subbing for one of their core national-team members, Annelies Cook. For all four skiers, it was a career best.
On Thursday, they repeated the result with Dunklee, Sara Studebaker, Hannah Dreissigacker, and Cook, respectively. They placed eighth with six spare rounds, finishing 2:44.1 behind Germany.
“Last week when we finished 8th, we were jumping up and down at the finish,” wrote Dunklee, who used just one spare on the second stage. “This week was also very exciting but more contained. We know we can dream bigger now. It was inspiring to see the Canadians do so well – if they can do that, we can do it.”
In her first year on US Biathlon’s A-team, Dreissigacker was the highlight, cleaning both her stages in the third leg to bring the team from 12th to 10th.
Dunklee got them off to a strong start, jetting out toward the front early to avoid getting stuck behind the pack on the course with several corners and short, steep hills.
“In the past being so high up may have scared me, but today I felt relaxed and could still transition to the range with a calm focus,” she explained. “My last loop wasn’t great, no gas left in the tank, but I will be smarter pacing for the sprint.”
Tagged in eighth, Studebaker started alone, nearly 10 seconds ahead of Ukraine in ninth but 22 seconds behind France in seventh. She used one spare in prone, then three in standing.
“It was tough to ski that first loop mostly alone, and it definitely helped in the second loop to have people to ski with,” Studebaker wrote. “I had a little trouble in standing, missing one from the clip and then taking all three extras to get it. It was certainly nerve-wracking!”
Dreissigacker could see Sweden’s Asa Lif about 10 seconds ahead of her when she was tagged in 12th . She caught her and picked off one more place, bringing the team to 10th with fast-and-flawless shooting.
“Fast shooting is a strength of mine, and when you don’t have to load spare bullets that also makes it a lot easier to pass people there!” Dreissigacker wrote. “I’m hoping that I can continue to shoot well in non-relay races too … and that it’s just that my last two races have gone well and they’ve happened to be relays. … I think that I do well when I’m relaxed and having fun, and relays are good for that. And I like to shoot well for my teammates!”
Just two seconds behind Finland in ninth, Cook wasn’t sure where her team stood when Dreissigacker tagged her. After a close-call in the exchange, Cook was relieved to make it out unscathed, and didn’t see their place until she entered the range for the first time.
She cleaned the prone and used one spare standing, putting her in prime position for the final lap.
“I thought that maybe I could catch [Italy’s Karin Oberhofer] and bring us into 7th, but she skied well in her last lap and I couldn’t get her,” Cook wrote. “I didn’t do anything special, I just tried to ski well and be relaxed when I got into the range – and luckily I hit my targets and the girls around me struggled.”
Sensing Slovakia’s Anastasiya Kuzmina coming up from behind on that last lap, Cook focused on holding onto eighth.
“Once I got to the last uphill, I knew I would be fine,” she wrote.
“Sunday was our best relay in a while and we always try to beat our bib number,” Cook added, referring to their eighth seed. “It was fun to see Susan leading everyone and it’s really cool that Hannah cleaned. Sara also kept us right in the game and fought super hard. Everyone gave it. I was really glad that I could be part of a good result – because I only got to cheer last week!”
“My lower legs have been feeling better,” she wrote of her bothersome shins, which kept her from last weekend’s competition. “But they usually don’t bother me until I go hard so I was definitely a bit nervous about how they would feel and they were the best they have been so far.”
“We’re really in a good place right now and I think after two top-8s we’re getting hungry for more!” Studebaker explained. “It’s definitely an exciting place to be in this Olympic season.”
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- Andrea Henkel
- Annelies Cook
- Chris Lindsay
- Fanny Welle-Strand Horn
- Franziska Hildebrand
- Franziska Preuss
- Hannah Dreissigacker
- Juliya Dzhyma
- Laura Dahlmeier
- Megan Heinicke
- Megan Imrie
- Olena Pidhrushna
- Rosanna Crawford
- Sara Studebaker
- Susan Dunklee
- Synnøve Solemdal
- Tinril Eckhoff
- Tora Berger
- Valj Semerenko
- Vita Semerenko
- Zina Kocher
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.