About halfway through the IBU World Cup women’s 10-kilometer pursuit on Sunday, Valj Semerenko’s luck started to change.
A penalty on her first prone had put her in 11th with four loops to go at Le Grand Bornand in Annecy, France. The Ukrainian had started third behind Switzerland’s Selina Gasparin and Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen, respectively; backwards wasn’t the direction Semerenko was hoping for.
Most of the eventual top 16 cleaned the first stage, except Gasparin, Semerenko and Germany’s Franziska Preuss. Meanwhile, Mäkäräinen, Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic, and Russia’s Olga Vilukhina moved to the front of the pack, all cleaning their second prone.
The first standing, however, threw a stick in their tracks. Mäkäräinen entered the range first and came out with three penalties, and Vilukhina missed one. Soukalova cleaned again for a 10-second lead over Semerenko and another Ukrainian, Olena Pidhrushna, who cleaned the first three stages.
Ukraine was quickly moving up in the standings, along with Russia’s Irina Starykh and Vilukhina, another 10 seconds behind heading into the final standing.
With the pressure on, Semerenko entered the range third behind Soukalova and Starykh, respectively. The Czech World Cup leader missed one, Starykh cleaned once more and Semerenko did the same to put 20 seconds into Soukalova and Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff, who came back from a penalty in the third stage.
With a kilometer remaining and the top two women accelerating toward the finish, Semerenko attacked on the final climb to drop Starykh and win her first World Cup in 28:05.4. Starykh was 4.2 seconds behind, and Eckhoff overtook Soukalova for third and her first World Cup podium, another 11.3 seconds back. Soukalova finished fourth (+21.9) about seven seconds ahead of Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, who cleaned for fifth. Gasparin finished sixth (+37.1).
“I did not expect such success here in France,” the 27-year-old Semerenko, who turns 28 on Jan. 28, told IBU. “It is a nice New Year present to myself. I am happy to win, especially after such a battle with a great competitor like Irina on the last lap … It is just starting to sink in.”
After 20-for-20 shooting, Starykh dismissed suggestions that she was Russia’s top woman. “I do not think I am the top woman. This is the result of my summer training. I am only concerned about results,” she told IBU.
Despite her first World Cup podium, Eckhoff was similarly straightforward. “It was just my day,” she said. “I shot well and did my work.”
Crawford Cracks Top 20
Out of four Canadian women in the pursuit, Rosanna Crawford had the best position from the beginning, starting 26th and a minute behind Gasparin. Her first prone didn’t go so well and she racked it up to the range’s quick entry from a downhill, which was especially tough in lanes 25 through 30.
“My first prone don’t think I switched over soon enough. The shots were everywhere,” Crawford wrote in an email. “From there I made sure to start my range entry sooner.”
The 25 year old then cleaned her second prone and missed one more on her first standing. She rose from 37th on the second loop to 29th on the third (with the ninth-fastest loop time), and finally 20th before her final loop. With Norway’s Fanny Well-Strand Horn about eight seconds ahead of her on the last loop, Crawford worked hard to catch her and credited her fast skis for helping her do so.
She finished 19th for her best pursuit result, 1:47.5 behind Semerenko and 1.1 seconds ahead of Horn.
“Anything is always possible in a pursuit,” Crawford explained. “It’s been a good 4 weeks in Europe but I am ready to go home and recover and see my family! The next trip will be a long one.”
The IBU World Cup resumes Jan. 3 in Oberhof, Germany.
Crawford’s teammate Megan Heinicke rose from 50th to 33rd with two penalties – one in the first and third stages – for her second-best pursuit result at the World Cup. Starting 1:41 behind, Heinicke figured a top 30 was possible given how tightly packed everyone was from the start.
Despite missing her first shot in the first prone, Heinicke, 25, clocked the third-fastest range time. The second time around, she was second fastest on both the range and the loop.
“The fast shooting times were part of my plan … I wanted to go into the shooting confident, focused, fast and aggressive,” Heinicke explained in an email. “While I did make a conscious decision to shoot aggressively on the whole I was more focused on the shooting process today which was a good thing.”
She ended up with the fastest overall shooting time, which surprised her.
“The ski times came about more naturally,” Heinicke wrote. “I was feeling a bit tired today and the loop times partially reflect my own feeling as well as the speed of the different groups I was skiing with.”
She finished 2:25.2 behind the winner and was pleased to end the day and trimester with 90-percent shooting.
“I feel a mixture of frustration and determination,” she said of the last five days in Annecy, which started with the Canadian women notching an unprecedented fourth in Thursday’s relay. “I have seen fast enough skiing, fast enough shooting and good enough shooting from myself to know that the top 30 and top 16 are realistic goals. Of course, to reach these goals I will need to do a better job of bringing everything together on the same day which makes me very determined to train smart and focused over Christmas.”
Heinicke’s headed home to her husband and son Predo Emil, who turned 3 in November and was at the races last week in Hochfilzen, Austria.
Rounding out the Canadian performances on Sunday, Megan Imrie placed 41st – one place behind where she started – with four standing penalties. Three came on the first standing and she missed one more on the last stage.
Zina Kocher had seven penalties to drop from 45th to 52nd (2+1+2+2) and American Susan Dunklee finished 53rd of 58 with 15-for-20 shooting (1+1+1+2).
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.