Looking at the finish pen of the women’s 10 k biathlon pursuit in Antholz, Italy, today, you could be forgiven for thinking that a battle might have occurred.
World Cup athletes staggered across the finish line, some nearly falling before their final time was clocked. Their ski technique, usually the best in the world, looked shortened and powerless; sprint finishes happened in slow motion. Exhausted athletes lay in the snow for minutes trying to recover some energy.
“Every loop was pretty hard, and not just the last one,” winner Andrea Henkel of Germany said in the post-race press conference.
At 2,000 meters of elevation – about 6.500 feet – Antholz is the first time most the World Cup field has encountered significant elevation in weeks. Coming in the third week of intensive racing in a row, that was particularly punishing.
“I think the elevation got to everyone, and it was harder than usual,” American biathlete Susan Dunklee said in a phone interview. “Coming into standing, everyone’s legs were shaking a little bit. It was tough.”
Henkel, a 15-year veteran of the German national team, did exactly what she needed to do to win after starting the pursuit in bib two, 6.7 seconds behind Anais Bescond of France.
Calm and collected, Henkel cleaned each of her four stages, always taking a few seconds longer than her closest competitors to ensure accuracy. Darya Domracheva of Belarus, who had a sizeable lead coming into the first standing stage, missed two shots in each of the last two stages.
“I took my time in shooting and I got lucky that the others did not hit as many targets as I did,” Henkel said. “It all just worked out for me.”
She was clean again and again, as the group of skiers around her gradually shrank down. By the time she left the last stage, she had a ten-second lead on Nadezhda Skardino, also of Belarus.
It was a nailbiter of a final two kilometers, with Skardino edging closer and closer to Henkel. The 36-year-old German grimaced in pain as she pushed with everything she had. With 900 meters to go, Skardino had closed the gap to five seconds.
“I knew Skardino might come closer,” Henkel said. “I thought if I still had the lead at the Huberalm, then I had a chance.”
She did: Skardino made contact coming into the stadium, but was unable to do any more than shadow Henkel to the finish line. Completely exhausted, Henkel managed to raise her fists in victory as she crossed with a 1.6-second advantage.
“Of course I wanted to win, but Andrea was strong and I am happy to be second,” Skardino said in the press conference. “It was a hard competition today but my skis were good and I felt really good so this race was easier than some other times.”
Tiril Eckhoff of Norway seemed to be headed to the second podium of her career when she left the final stage in third place, with 11 seconds of time on Domracheva, who was in fourth. But Norwegian teammate Tora Berger had no mercy and charged after the leaders, passing Domracheva immediately and overtaking Eckhoff in a finishing lane sprint. In her push for the yellow overall leader’s bib, she was uninterested in allowing her younger teammate to have any part of the glory.
“I didn’t realize that it was Tiril that I was fighting against,” Berger told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “I just did what I had to do, because I wanted the podium.”
But the NRK commentators were having no part of it, calling her “relentless” and saying she doesn’t treat her teammates well on the trails.
For her part, Eckhoff was gracious
“I heard that she was coming, so it was very painful to get the seconds taken away from my lead,” she told NRK. “I tried my hardest, but the older athletes are still the best…. it was close. One day I will get there.”
Domracheva finished fifth and Teja Gregorin of Slovenia sixth. The breakout performance of the day came from Chaoqing Song of China, who finished tenth; it was just the second top-ten of her career and her best result since 2010.
Dunklee, who started the pursuit in fourth position just behind Domracheva and Henkel, finished 23rd. She cleaned the first stage but collected one penalty in the second prone, three in the first standing, and one more in the final standing.
“One poor standing stage cost me a lot of places and suddenly felt very tired on the skis on loop four and lost a lot of places there,” she said.
Early on, Dunklee had been skiing with Henkel in a top-five position.
“It was comfortable, and things were going according to plan,” she said of her first-ever pursuit start in such a strong position.
And it was a comfort to be skiing with Henkel, the girlfriend of Dunklee’s teammate Tim Burke.
“Andrea comes and trains with us in the U.S. sometimes, so I know that my ski speed can be right up there with hers,” she said. “I consciously choose to catch a ride with her at the start of the race. We have very different ski styles but it is still relaxing to let someone else lead and I trusted she would choose a smart pace.”
Even if the pair separated after Dunklee’s shooting woes began – they were compounded by a broken pole and losing some ammunition clips, which she estimated cost her about eight seconds on the range when an official had to bring her replacements – Dunklee found the German veteran’s win very motivating.
“I know how hard she works, and for how long, so I was so happy to see her on top today,” Dunklee said. “And because I know I can ski her pace on a good day, that’s a good feeling too.”
Next time, Dunklee hopes to be more “calm and in control” throughout the whole race, just like she said Henkel was today.
“I have some of the parts, but the whole thing didn’t come together,” Dunklee said. “Each time you do this it gets easier, so I think when I’m in this position next time it will be even better.”
Megan Heinicke, the lone Canadian to qualify for the 60-woman pursuit, did not start the race. Sara Studebaker, the other American who made the cut, finished 48th with four penalties, one in each shooting bout.
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.