Despite Crisis At Home, A Golden Moment for Ukraine in Sochi

Chelsea LittleFebruary 21, 2014
Olena Pidrushna of Ukraine pushes through the last leg of the women's biathlon relay, earning Ukraine their first winter Olympic gold medal since 1992.
Olena Pidrushna of Ukraine pushes through the last leg of the women’s biathlon relay, earning Ukraine their first winter Olympic gold medal since 1992.

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – It’s not often that a press conference at a sporting event starts with a moment of silence.

But that’s what happened today after Ukraine won gold in the women’s 4 x 6 k biathlon relay. Before she would answer any questions, Olena Pidrhrushna, the sprint World Champion from last season who anchored the team, stood up.

“Because of the events that happened in Ukraine, I would ask you for a minute of silence for those who died there in the last few days,” she said through a translator.

Everyone in the room obeyed, honoring the more than 70 people who have been killed in violent uprisings against the current president. Hundreds more have been wounded and hospitalized; 67 policemen are also reportedly being held hostage.

After the moment of silence, though, the Ukrainian women wanted to move on. But the press did not, asking questions like, who are you dedicating this win to?

“We will dedicate this victory to Ukraine first and foremost,” Pidhrushna said. “This is our first gold in biathlon in the history of Ukraine.”

In fact, it was the country’s first gold medal at all since 1992, when Oksana Baiul won in figure skating.

After a few more questions, Pidhrushna, who seemed to have been elected to speak for her teammates, answered with a more succinct explanation.

Vita Semerenko kicking things off for Ukraine.

“There is not a single question without politics today,” she said. “Actually every journalist asks the same. As for the concentration, we are professionals. We have been training over 15 years for this event. Despite all that is happening at home, we only thought about what we could do, what we should do, and how to do it. Correspondingly it bore fruit.”

Make no mistake: the biathletes care deeply about what is going on in their country. But they had decided that the best thing they could do is win a gold medal.

They were not about to pull a Bogdana Matsoska and leave the Olympics to go support their country. They were going to support it by succeeding in thrilling fashion, as they had done on the World Cup several times before but never in a championship event. Team handlers had been careful not to let them know the full extent of what was happening in Ukraine.

“We only know the minimum about what is happening there, and that is a great thing,” Pidhrushna explained.

So when Vita Semerenko, already a bronze medalist in the sprint, took the starting line, she just did her thing. That happened to be shooting well – just one spare round in two stages – and skiing the fourth-fastest course time. She tagged off in second place, 4.7 seconds behind Russia.

Juliya Dzhyma, up next, shot perfectly and took the lead by ten seconds.

Valj Semerenko, Vita’s twin, took over and built her lead to 45 seconds, but then used all three spare rounds in standing. No matter: she still tagged off with a 23-second margin over Russia.

Then it was down to Pidhrushna, who has not been having a good Olympics so far. This time, she delivered, using a spare in prone and then cleaning standing with no problem. She had just 11 seconds on Olga Vilukhina of Russia.

“As soon as I left the shooting range, it felt very difficult,” Pidhrushna said. “I felt that Olga was right behind me. She shot very fast and I knew she was very strong. I didn’t know where Tora [Berger] was, how far she was behind me. All along the leg the coaches advised me that I could win, and honestly I really felt my legs and hands shake. But I told myself, for everyone. I wanted very much to win.”

Luckily, she could. To be sure, it wasn’t the toughest competition Ukraine has ever faced: it wasn’t like their World Cup win in Hochfilzen, Austria, over strong German and French teams.

Today, German scramble-leg skier Franziska Preuss fell, which resulted in a broken pole and snow crammed into her rifle. She also looked unfocused, likely in part because of the news of a positive doping test by her teammate Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle. After Preuss’s leg, the Germans were in 16th place, almost three minutes back. While the rest of her teammates shot well, using only two spare rounds between the three of them, none skied impressively.

Germany eventually finished 11th.

“We’re talking about very young athletes, especially Preuss and [Laura] Dahlmeier, and they’re under pressure after the Games hasn’t gone as planned,” said U.S. High Performance Director Bernd Eisenbichler, German himself, referring to the single Olympic medal so far by the sport’s usual powerhouse. “If that’s linked to the [doping] case I’m not sure, but a lot of news came out during the day and for sure the girls were probably not unaffected by it… I’m too far away from the team to say how much. But this was probably one of the worst relay performances ever that Germany had at the Olympic Games.”

At least they finished: the French team withdrew after a single loop of skiing, when scramble skier Marie Laure Brunet suffered a vasovagal reaction, with her blood pressure dropping; she collapsed on course and had to be carried out on a stretcher, although she recovered afterwards.

Up-and-coming relay teams of Belarus and Poland took themselves out of competition with crashes and then poor shooting in the first stage; Krystyna Palka of Poland had to ski four penalty loops, while Liudmila Kalinchik of Belarus had one. Poland finished 10th, while Belarus was saved only by the incredible anchor-leg skiing of Darya Domracheva to finish fifth.

Of the other favorites, that left just Russia and Norway in medal contention. And by the final lap, neither was a threat to Pidhrushna.

Vilukhina had sat out a race earlier this week because she was sick. Although she said she was “alive and kicking”, she was in no shape to fight Pidhrushna.

“I can’t remember the last leg,” Vilukhina said. “I could not perceive what I was doing. I gave all of my strength and I really fell as soon as I crossed the finish line. Certainly I wanted to struggle for the gold, but I used one extra round [so I couldn’t]. But the struggle was very interesting. We are happy because silver is like gold for us.”

Norway started the final loop only 25 seconds behind Ukraine and 14 seconds behind Russia. Their anchor leg, Tora Berger, is accustomed to making up huge deficits on her skis. But today she faltered, and also lost time on Pidhrushna.

“I tried to fight as hard as I could today, but it was too long,” said Berger. “They were too far away from me. I had no chance to take Russian and Ukraine. I wasn’t so strong. It was too much seconds behind.”

Nevertheless, Norway claimed bronze over the Czech Republic, which finished almost another minute back.

—Nat Herz contributed reporting


Pidhrushna celebrating at the finish line.

Chelsea Little

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.

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