RUHPOLDING, Germany – In the press conference after winning Friday’s 15 k individual competition, Gabriela Soukalova of the Czech Republic said that every time she puts on the yellow World Cup leader’s bib, it’s a surprise. She just doesn’t picture herself as the best biathlete in the whole world.
“I didn’t expect anything before this race because I thought to be in the top five would be impossible for me, from the first position, because it was so stressful,” she said after today’s 10 k pursuit.
But if she didn’t know how to handle the pressure, that sure didn’t show today, when she took her win from the individual and turned it into a nine-second victory in the pursuit. Soukalova shot a perfect 20-for-20 in the four-stage race, an impressive show of nerve. As she entered the stadium with a lead even larger than that, she had time to stop and grab a Czech flag to carry across the finish line. Tora Berger of Norway was charging after her, but she didn’t care.
As easy as it looked, it sure didn’t feel easy, she said.
“After the third loop, I started to feel that I was very, very tired,” Soukalova explained. “I had just one chance, which was to have clean shooting. So I tried to do that, and it was great.”
Soukalova had some of the slowest range times of the entire field, losing more than ten seconds on the range in each of the last three stages. But that didn’t matter, because as she carefully cleaned each stage, she avoided the penalty loop, which would have doubled her amount of time lost.
“It was the only tactic,” she said.
She executed perfectly, which allowed her to win on the range and not on the trails. Unlike in the individual, when she had the third-fastest ski time of the day, today she was 14th – well over a minute behind third-place Kaisa Makarainen, who turned in the best course split to move up from tenth place, 38.9 seconds behind Soukalova.
Sandwiched in between them was Norwegian star Tora Berger, who won last season’s overall World Cup but has had a slow start to the season. She had a little advice for Soukalova about how to handle the yellow jersey.
“You can’t think about the yellow bib,” she said in the press conference. “You just have to do the same every time.”
Not that that’s a worry for Berger now – it’s her third podium of the season. Soukalova already has that many wins. Perhaps Berger is focusing on the Olympics, but she admitted that it’s difficult for her to get excited about every start these days.
“Yes, it’s harder every year,” she laughed. “I’m starting to get really old.”
But Berger’s struggles earlier this season were tied to disastrous shooting, which she has begun to improve. Today she had just one penalty, coming in the first stage, and shot flawlessly to move up through the ranks from her fifth-place start position.
“For me, there has been problems with the shooting before Christmas,” she said. “I was thinking too much when I was standing in the shooting. And now I’m starting to get back to the old way, so it’s getting better.”
Perhaps soon, she’ll be challenging Soukalova more consistently. By then, the Czech might be used to wearing it enough that a stronger Berger wouldn’t intimidate her.
“I’m trying to race with the yellow bib like it was the normal number now, not to think about it very much,” Soukalova said. “I think that’s easier.”
Darya Domracheva of Belarus, starting in second position after the individual, missed five shots and dropped to 12th place.
After a somewhat lackluster World Cup weekend that saw both relay teams get beaten at the end and no Germans on the podium in the 15 / 20 k individual races, Germany had its hopes pinned on two young athletes: Franziska Hildebrand and Franziska Preuss.
Hildebrand had a remarkable race in the individual, missing a single shot to place fourth, the best result of her career. Through three stages today, she was perfect again and had moved into second place, much to the delight of the German crowd. But she missed three shots in the final stage, and was unable to do any better than 13th place.
Preuss, meanwhile, started in 16th and immediately began to move up with clean shooting. She missed a shot in the final stage and left in fifth place. When she passed Julya Dzhyma of Ukraine on the trails, and then Veronika Vitkova of the Czech Republic, the crowd let out a deafening roar to see another young German in third place. But Makarainen charged past her onto the podium, dashing the crowd’s hopes.
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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.